The season.

For 941 business owners, it conjures up chiming cash registers, packed hotel rooms and numbers in the black. For locals, it means thrombosis-inducing traffic, interminable waits at the hostess stand and an arts calendar that’s suddenly stuffed.

But what if season, as this area has known it for decades, is a thing of the past?

As recently as five or six years ago, according to Resort Vacation Accommodations president Larry Starr, everyone defined the area’s prime tourist season as January through Easter. “That may still be true,” Starr says, “but there are two distinct seasons now. One is the one I just described, and the other is the summer season, and it’s beginning to be difficult to tell when one ends and the other begins.”

Recent tourism numbers back up his claim. In July, Sarasota County collected more than $1 million in Tourist Development Tax money, generated by a 5 percent charge on rental agreements that last six months or less. That total is $330,000 less than the county earned in April, and $200,000 above December 2011. The July number was also a 20 percent jump from 2010 when adjusted for rate increases; the July collection has increased 42 percent since 2003.

In Manatee County, the story is the same. In July, the county collected $650,000, a 69 percent jump from its 2003 number when adjusted for rate increases.

LARRY STARR, President, Resort Vacation Accommodations

Hotel occupancy data also supports the trend. In July and September 2011, Sarasota County hotels were busier than those same months in 2005, even as season numbers were down over that same period.

Starr’s company—which manages rentals for some 500 homes, condos and small resorts—used to earn 70 percent of its annual revenue in season and 30 percent out of season. Those earnings are now 50-50.

The summer months have gotten so busy he’s had to turn away customers. “This summer, in any property that’s available for weekly or daily rental, we were 100 percent occupied every single Thursday, Friday, Saturday—every single weekend,” Starr says. “We had zero availability.”

So what the heck is going on?

Starr credits the upsurge to tourists who are driving to Sarasota rather than flying elsewhere. It’s not just the high airfares that are helping boost drive traffic, Starr says. Summer visitors work hard to maximize limited vacation hours; at his company, the average length of stay is down from 14 days to four. Renters don’t want to waste time enduring Transportation Security Administration searches and delays on the tarmac.

“Airline travel is no longer fun,” he says. “When people have time off, they want to start enjoying themselves right away.” According to data compiled by Visit Sarasota County, the percentage of tourists who arrive by car increased by 2 percent in the last year, while the percentage who travel by air declined 2 percent.

VIRGINIA HALEY, President, Visit Sarasota County

Visit Sarasota president Virginia Haley says the desire to maximize one’s time and money extends to the accommodations summer tourists are looking for. “What we were seeing for a while is everyone was demanding super-luxury,” she says. Those days are long gone. “Now even people who have significant money for traveling want to make sure they have a really good value,” she says.

That means staying in the kinds of properties Starr rents, which come with kitchens and multiple bedrooms that help cut down on costs. “It’s more like a home away from home,” Starr says.

Up in Manatee County, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau executive manager Debbie Meihls says changing demographics are driving tourism trends. The average age of visitors hovered around 54 for years, but the county has seen that number dip down as low as 48. Those younger visitors aren’t replicating the vacation habits of generations past. “We still get the snowbirds, but we find that after they depart, after Easter, it’s hard to really see that drop-off,” Meihls says. “Our shoulder seasons and our peak seasons have bled into a rounded, full-year market.”

What’s drawing the younger boomer in? The beaches, certainly, but today’s tourists aren’t simply content to spend all day lounging in the sun. They want a wide range of outdoor options. Meihls says Manatee County visitors are kayaking, biking and even visiting local farms and wineries.

Visit Sarasota County’s Haley concurs. In years past, she says, “You could count on one hand” the number of people at the visitors information center asking where to find a bike. Today, she says, “That happens almost every hour.”

“Boomers in general are much more active than the generation before,” Haley says, “and there is more concern about exposure to the sun, so they’re less willing to spend the day sitting in the sun.”

“Just sitting on the beach is not the answer,” Starr agrees. “Our visitors are on the go all the time.” His summer renters are kayaking, biking, fishing. “They definitely want to pack a lot of activities into the lower amount of days. Vacation almost starts at a gallop.”

DEBBIE MEIHLS, Executive Manager, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau

Trends in the long-term rental market support the notion that the area’s on/off season pattern is no more. No one in the area specifically tracks snowbird data, which makes a full accounting of the market difficult. But according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers compiled by Sarasota County senior planner Tamara Schells, the percentage of housing units set aside for “seasonal, recreational, or occasional use” declined from 17 percent to 14 percent between 2009 and 2010 after years of steady increases, which seems to point to more year-round rentals.

Michael Saunders & Company president Drayton Saunders says his real estate firm is seeing a big uptick in customers looking for year-round rentals as opposed to seasonal deals.

Saunders says that’s driven by real estate crash survivors who are leery of three-decade mortgages, as well as a slow broadening of the area’s business profile. The recession decimated the construction industry, but new tech ventures have begun showing signs of life.

“If you look at the types of businesses, the ones that have really grown, there’s some surprising depth to Sarasota-Manatee we didn’t see 10 years ago,” Saunders says.

With that growth comes increased demand for year-round housing. So while the percentage of Sarasota County properties with a homestead exemption has declined steadily since 2005, that doesn’t necessarily mean people aren’t living here through the summer.

Even among seasonal renters, Saunders sees a willingness to stick around past the traditional season cutoff.

“People are taking advantage of better pricing,” he says, particularly European visitors, who have long driven August tourism.

In fact, the share of tourists from Europe increased 1 percent over the past year, according to Visit Sarasota numbers.

People considering retiring here are also staying longer, Saunders says. “I think the longer-term seasonal renter, the person coming for four or five months, is that eventual second home owner who isn’t ready to make that purchase, but wants to spend more time here.” Those folks aren’t just sticking around until Easter. “They are spending more and more time in our community,” he says.

DRAYTON SAUNDERS, President, Michael Saunders & Company

So overall, the summer numbers look good. But is it possible the last two years have been a short-term blip? Consider a couple of scenarios: The national economic picture improves, leaving more Americans with the spare cash and time to travel further afield. Or the euro implodes, forcing Europeans to pull back on ambitious overseas vacations. Would our newfound “second season” (Starr’s phrase) simply vanish?

According to Starr, no way. He says unpleasant and expensive air travel has slowly “trained” the public to dread long trips. To return tourists to an older mindset would take years. “Even if the airlines were to lower their fares, and if you could breeze right through the airport, people have realized if it costs you a tank of gas or a couple of tanks of gas, it’s still $150 of travel expense,” Starr says. “Put four people on a plane, it’s $1,000.”

Meihls is also optimistic. She says Manatee County’s brew of beaches, outdoor activities, agriculture and sports—the Tampa Bay Rays play right over the Skyway, after all—offers a powerful incentive for the new tourist demographics.

“No one’s got a crystal ball,” Saunders says, but he believes growth in non-tourist industries will lead the way. “As the market picks up again we’re going to see a real crunch for lack of inventory,” he says.

What excites Haley is the way local entrepreneurs have stepped up to meet the new off-season demand. While a tourist would have had to search high and low for a canoe or kayak outfitter a decade ago, they have dozens of options today, she says.

Miniature post-recession bubble? Long-term realignment of our region’s economy? Only time will tell, of course. But in the short run, season doesn’t mean what it used to, and that’s good news for local businesses that once struggled to survive through the slow months.

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