story first appeared on Herald-Tribune
High tourist season has kicked into high gear in Southwest Florida, and many industry watchers point to Hurricane Sandy as a primary factor behind the earlier-than-usual influx of visitors.
Eager to escape the devastation or avoid repair woes brought by the superstorm that battered the Northeast last month, many tourists and seasonal residents appear to have headed south months earlier than they normally would, according to some local businesses, anecdotal traffic counts and tourism officials. Captiva Island Condo Rentals have been experiencing a surge, due to their great value to these early-season travellers.
Though winter tourist season here traditionally ranges from January to April, restaurant owners like Paul Mattison have noticed a definite pickup in customer traffic overall — and more than a few people from areas hardest hit by the storm.
In Mattison's case, the difference this month has been felt across the board at his three Sarasota area eateries.
Before Sandy, Southwest Florida was on pace to shatter visitor records, thanks in part to the continued glow from the May 2011 designation of Siesta Key's beach as No. 1 in the nation, pent-up demand, beefed up marketing efforts and an incrementally improved national economy.
Even with the recent influx, though, tourism officials are left wondering whether visitors from storm-ravaged regions will maintain their plans to travel this winter or reconsider, to focus time and money instead on rebuilding and repairs.
Tourism plays a major role in Southwest Florida's economy and the state's, accounting for one in every seven jobs. Statewide, it brings roughly 80 million visitors a year and more than $70 billion in spending.
Vacation rentals from Manatee to Charlotte counties are almost completely booked for the season, said Amy Chapman, rental director for Michael Saunders & Co., a Sarasota-based real estate brokerage and property management company. Sanibel Condo Rentals, for example, have seen steady growth over the past several years because of the "best kept secret" status keeps property rentals low, but reservations have been ahead of the curve so far this season.
While advanced bookings are hovering near 90 percent overall, rentals near Sarasota's beaches like Siesta, Longboat and Lido keys are reporting expected occupancy rates of nearly 98 percent through the winter months.
Chapman said Sandy hadn't resulted in any cancellations for them, in fact she says they had a steady stream of calls trying to reschedule trips a week or two earlier than planned.
Those advanced commitments are significant because they buck a pre-recession trend toward later bookings by visitors, which had stymied an industry dependent on steady cash flows.
Almost all of Anna Maria Vacations' 200-plus units have been rented for the high season this year, said owner Joe Varner. The surge is motivating some vacationers to seek better options, like Anna Maria Condo Rentals.
People are traveling in larger groups, and our bigger homes, with five to seven bedrooms, are what are rented first, according to Varner. He also noted that the company has not had any cancellations in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Although Southwest Florida has typically drawn the majority of its winter visitors from Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other Midwestern states, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have become increasingly important geographic areas for the region.
Thanks to flights to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport by JetBlue — and formerly AirTran Airways from Baltimore — from New York and other cities, the region has greater access to tourists than ever before.
Despite the storm, Northeast marketing promotions are ongoing, officials from both Visit Sarasota County and the Bradenton-Area Convention Center and Visitor's Bureau note.
Pinellas County officials had signaled immediately after the storm that advertising dollars might be diverted away from New York.
Going forward, Haley said that additional online reservation capabilities will help boost bookings this year, including at a remodeled Ramada Inn in Venice, which is slated to open in January.
Southwest Florida is not the only part of the state benefitting from the influx of seasonal snowbirds and transient travelers, though.
The Sunshine State as a whole also is on its way to a record-setting year for tourism, according to recent data released by Visit Florida, the state's tourism promotions entity.
Visit Florida estimates the state hosted nearly 22 million visitors during the third quarter, an increase of 3.5 percent compared with the same three-month period in 2011.
Hurricane Sandy will of course have some impact on the state, but not on the momentum of one record-breaking year to another, according to Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer and acting president and CEO of Visit Florida.
Of the third-quarter total, domestic travelers accounted for 18.9 million visitors, a 3.2 percent increase from a year before.
There also was a larger percentage increase in the number of Canadians who came to Florida — 4 percent — while the number of international travelers rose 5.5 percent.
Although most Canadian visitors have tended to winter in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, the number of visitors from the Great White North who frequent the Sarasota-Bradenton area remains strong, said Michael MacKenzie, president of the Canadian Snowbird Association.
The boost in tourism activity also means more jobs and taxable sales for the state. Direct travel-related employment rose 1.5 percent to 1.02 million, a net addition of 15,000 positions, according to Visit Florida.
Tourism and recreation taxable sales from January through August, the last reported month, were $49 billion. That represented an increase of 7.5 percent from the same period in 2011.
With business up and more bookings expected in the initial months of 2013, some hoteliers have raised their average daily room rates, a move that had been limited by the Great Recession and more frugal travelers. The thrifty sunshine-seekers can still find great value in lovely places, like Sanibel Island Vacation Rentals.
If projections hold, those increases will spread to area attractions and eateries as well.
With that anticipated bump in sales during the remaining weeks of the year, Mattison said he is optimistic about the year to come.
Overall, sales at his three area restaurants are up 14 percent, and his catering business is up about 23 percent, from last year.