2017-05-18 / Business News

Weak winter

In Southwest Florida, only Collier County showed gains in tourism numbers.

The beaches of Naples reported more visitors this year over last.The beaches of Naples reported more visitors this year over last.
SO TOURIST SEASON IS OVER? WELL, NOT quite. And besides, it’s not just “tourist season” around here in winter and early spring, notes JoNell Modys, citing the popular two-word conclusion about why big crowds seem to haunt every intersection, restaurant, park and beach from December through April.

“It really should be called, ‘tourist and seasonal residents season,’ but that’s not as sexy,” adds Ms. Modys, the communications manager of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That’s what causes all the traffic slowdowns, which is what everybody notices — but the hotels are also full!”

If prosperity is the goal, suggests Ms. Modys, bigger crowds are better for everybody.

But the winter of 2017 brought increased numbers only to Collier County on the southwest coast, as it turns out. In Lee and Charlotte counties, numbers were down, as officials had predicted they might be at the beginning of the year.

An electronic billboard in New York City promoted Naples in January. But it wasn’t too cold in the Big Apple that day — 53 degrees and no snow. 
COURTESY PHOTO An electronic billboard in New York City promoted Naples in January. But it wasn’t too cold in the Big Apple that day — 53 degrees and no snow. COURTESY PHOTO “To put it in perspective, we’re coming off of six years of almost vertical trajectories in tourism,” says Lorah Steiner, director of Tourism Development in Charlotte County.

“We saw a dip in retail. In our mom and pop restaurants and attractions people were spending less — so our small-business owners weren’t having the same retail experience they’ve had during season in recent years.

“The dip really came early in the year, but March was up, so right now, there’s no big canary in the coal mine that gives me pause.”

STEINER STEINER As for the summer and fall, Ms. Steiner says: “We’re watching what happens with Brexit, and with the dollar.

“As long as the dollar is strong it has two effects: one, people who might not consider going somewhere internationally changing their minds. But conversely, Europeans who might think about coming to U.S. are thinking, ‘Maybe I won’t go,’ or ‘If I go, I might spend less.’”

That affects not just the service industry but all residents who benefit from bed taxes — which dropped a startling 10.8 percent year-over-year in January in Lee County, before regaining ground in February and March. (Figures were not available for April at press time.)

The factors are many, says Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee Visitor & Convention Bureau: unusually warm weather in the north this year combined with a rain-soaked January in 2016 that probably discouraged return visits this year; a down Canadian dollar; and international visitors who may perceive they are less welcome than in the past.

But she is cautiously optimistic about the market coming fully back.

“If I have any hesitation about late summer and early fall (being relatively robust) it’s in our international market,” she says — primarily British and German visitors.

“We know that the (Trump administration) travel ban does not apply to our key markets, but the message it sends to some people is, less of a welcome to international guests. We know that’s not what the ban said, but everything is interpretation. So I’m a tiny bit anxious about how our international markets will perform.”

In the fiscal year to date with numbers through March, bed taxes in Lee County are down a total 2.8 percent below the 2016 figures, coming in at just under $21.31 million. And the passenger report from Southwest Florida International Airport tallied almost 1.27 million in March 2016, while dropping a bit to about 1.252 million in March this year.

“Technically we didn’t see a drop in visitors staying in paid accommodations. But we did see a decline in hotel rates. In some cases, hotels had a decline in occupancy; in others, they had increases. But to entice visitors to come this year, hoteliers dropped their rates about 5 percent.

“So the 2.8 percent drop in total bed tax collection — that was driven primarily by rate drop.”

In Collier, things were not necessarily rosier from the get-go this year, although they became that way eventually: total visitation was down 1.7 percent in January, notes Ns. Modys.

“One problem was that up north it was warm, on some days almost as warm as here.”

In a photo she shared with Florida Weekly, pedestrians outside the Port Authority on a January day in New York City strolled beneath an electronic billboard advertising Naples for both “The joy of discovery” (a seashell on a sunny, sugar-sand beach) and “The perfect blend of paradise” (a poured drink in a glittering bar). The current temperature that day in Naples was 73 degrees. Unfortunately for the marketers, the temperature in New York City that day, according to the billboard, was 53 degrees and the streets and sidewalks beneath it were clear of any cold or dirty white stuff.

And then the cold, wet, snowy weather kicked in, and so did the marketing and the money.

“Our visitors are spending more this year: the total economic impact is up 3 percent for January to March,” Ms. Modys says.

And March itself has been a bright spot for Canadian visitation, not to mention Floridians, who often wait until summer when prices drop, but chose not to this year: Canadian visitors were up 12.7 percent and Floridians 9.6 percent in March alone.

The American west coast started to come through, too. “Visitation from our western market was up 11.3 percent in March” — and not just from the digital marketing campaign but also from public relations; Ms. Modys and her team have inspired journalists from Texas to California, not to mention overseas, who write about Naples, Collier County and the region.

The same is true of Tamara Pigott’s team in Lee, and Lorah Steiner’s team in Charlotte County Ms. Steiner is director of Tourism Development in Charlotte County.

“Sometimes people who live on the west coast of the U.S. have been to Mexico and Hawaii so many times, they want something new. And they discover our area and fall in love with it,” Ms. Modys says.

So far, RSW includes no non-stop routes to California, but there are manageable one-stop routes and the non-stops are probably coming, she surmises, which will mean a jump in visitors and business.

“Good marketing plays a critical role in all of this,” she insists. “Between 40 and 50 percent of visitors (in the last year) were in Collier for the first time, so those new people are reacting to our message in the marketplace. If you do not have a message, you are going to lose market share.”

Part of the marketing plan in summer and fall for Collier results from a growing awareness that it can offer an enviable appeal in facilities and accommodations to sports aficionados of all kinds, especially those in summer or fall tournament play, says Ed Caum, the new deputy director of Tourism & Sports.

“The tournaments were looking to bring in focus on the months that our hoteliers are slower — in June, July, August and September — and there’s some bread and butter stuff year-around,” he explains, describing summer action in baseball, soccer, lacrosse and water sports.

Meanwhile, although Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties are sometimes in competition to lure visitors, they also work together and support each other. Case in point: a new three-county arrangement with Allegiant Airlines, which flies out of the Punta Gorda Airport to the northeastern and Midwestern U.S.

“This is one of the proactive things we’re doing,” Ms. Pigott explains.

“Allegiant flies into Belleville, Ill., serving St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus. So this is a multi-county partnership.” ¦

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