Snowbirds are back, and the region’s tourism industry is slowly rebounding from the recession. But things have changed in the two years since the economy tanked. Travelers are now focused less on glitz and more on spending quality time with family and friends. Luxury travel is no longer a dirty word, but the uncertainty over finances lingers, and the guilt many felt about self-indulgent vacations has created a demand for what travel pros are now calling commonsense luxury.
On a macro level, this equates to trips that are affordable but rich with memorable experiences—culturally meaningful, customized and sometimes philanthropic. Tourists expect these attributes in their vacations globally, and if Sarasota and Manatee are to compete for a share of their travel dollars, local businesses must market as aggressively as the most sophisticated international destinations, develop and promote experiences that showcase our arts and culture, and appeal to the ever-increasing numbers of English, German and Canadian visitors who have many warmer alternatives (think Mexico or the Caribbean) if we are viewed simply as an antidote to cold winter weather.
Travel industry data suggests that affluent consumers are suffering from what pros have termed “frugal fatigue,” and they’re ready to spend big on vacations that meet their wants and needs.
Here’s how several local experts are translating international and national trends into opportunities for growing tourism in Sarasota and Manatee.
The hottest buzzword in the travel industry today, experiential travel is “huge,” according to Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People want more than just a vacation: They are trying to learn something,” she says. “Tourists want to learn about our local culture at Cortez Fishing Village, for example. We’ve listed agri-tours and eco tours on our website because they are very important for families now.”
“The ecotourism experience is all about giving back and learning to reduce your carbon footprint,” says Rosenda Calloway, district travel manager for AAA Auto Club South in Sarasota. She sees local opportunities with programs for beach restoration, spending a week building homes with Habitat for Humanity and also with Mote Marine.
Sarasota travel agent Malaka Hilton of Admiral Travel is a trendsetter in the field of international experiential travel and a spokesperson on the subject at national travel industry meetings. She launched Authentescapes, a wholesale tour company, in May 2009, to market her custom tours for resale by other travel agents. “We wanted our concept out in the marketplace, because if people were going to travel in the down economy it was going to be based on an experience,” she says. The website authentescapes.com is brimming with ideas that can be modified for local experiential travel to Sarasota.
Inspired by the success of cultural tourism abroad, the region’s visitors’ bureaus and organizations are creating new programs and customized tours that capitalize on our status as the arts capital of the Suncoast. Meihls of Bradenton Area CVB points to the success of the Ringling International Arts Festival in October, which was headlined by Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Festival sARTeé, a program showcasing the arts and culture of both Sarasota and Manatee. “We’ve attracted huge stars, both to the Sarasota Film Festival and the Ringling Festival—they’re definitely establishing the region as an arts and culture destination,” she says. In addition, local businesses are closely following the progress of the upcoming Sarasota Arts Discovery Tour, a package tour designed by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County with VIP access to Sarasota’s top arts events and venues.
Travelers today are asking for all-inclusive cruises and hotels. “People do not want to be surprised by the final bill; they want it all laid out before they leave home,” says district travel manager Calloway. Her findings were echoed in a report by Luxury Travel 360, which asked industry professionals about changes they’ve noticed in luxury travel since the recession. Toni Hinterstoisser, general manager of Andaz Wall Street (Andaz is Hyatt’s luxury boutique hotel group), says, “Travelers want their experiences to feel more like being at home. They no longer want to be nickel-and-dimed during their stay.” While Mexico and the Caribbean (especially the Dominican Republic) boast a number of the Sandals Resorts-style all-inclusive properties now popular with AAA Travel clients, only four such hotels exist in Florida: Amelia Island Plantation, Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Resort, Little Palm Island in the Keys and Club Med Sandpiper north of Palm Beach. “Sarasota can do this; it’s a real opportunity,” Calloway says.
Family and Friends Travel
Hilton of Admiral Travel says family vacations blossomed during the economic downturn and will be picking up steam in 2011. “People were still traveling, but they were doing it differently; we noticed a lot more family vacations,” she says. According to AAA’s Calloway, family travelers favor cruises and fully inclusive resorts because they offer something for everyone—children, teens and multiple generations—who can do what they wish during the day, meet for dinner to share their experiences or opt for open dining if they choose. Luxury Travel 360 cites easy family vacations as one of the biggest trends of 2010, reporting that consumers are willing to pay more for memorable family experiences. Meihls of the Bradenton Area CVB also notes that parents are more hands-on; they’re seeking experiences with their kids.
Villas, Home Exchange and Rentals
While Admiral Travel is booking villas for groups of friends (Hilton says “girlfriend trips” are becoming popular) and families who want to travel abroad, here in Sarasota and Manatee the trend skews toward house and condo rentals. “Fractional beachfront property ownership is now available through Hyatt Siesta Key, and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce has been helping Sarasota visitors for short and long-term rental properties for years,” explains AAA’s Calloway. “It’s a strong, continuing trend because vacation rentals are especially convenient for families,” says Meihls. “Money is short, and though people still want to travel, it is really important to be able to cut back in some way. A rental with a kitchen helps do that, even if they just cook breakfast and lunch.”
Travel for a worthy cause is showing up in two ways, according to Malaka Hilton. “One is travel with a group of donors to raise money for a select charity, which we are doing in May with the Sarasota Ballet—a seven-night Silverseas cruise to London, Spain and Portugal with the ballet’s artistic director, Iain Webb, as host,” she says. “A newer way is to book your own private travel and ask for a portion of the travel agency commission to come back as a donation to charity.” The Sarasota Orchestra has Admiral Travel as a partner, and anyone who identifies as a supporter of the orchestra will get five percent back to go to the organization on any trip they book.
AAA is seeing a comeback in group tours and cruises, and a lot of the cruise lines are offering matching fund-raising in creative ways, Calloway reports, such as, for every 15 people booked on a fund-raising cruise, the 16th is free. “That free ticket can be taken as a donation to the charity,” she says. Sometimes a $50 donation is built into the price of a trip, or a cruise line may offer amenity points to a group, which the group could use to hold a cocktail party or provide in-cabin gifts for travelers. But they can also use these points to donate $25 to $100 a person to a charity.
Side Trips/Last Minute Bookings
“We are seeing a lot of international tourists—and tons from Toronto—who use Sarasota as a jumping-off point for other destinations,” reports Calloway of AAA. “Think about how close we are to the ports of Tampa, Canaveral, Port Everglades and Miami. They can see the sights of Sarasota from Sunday to Thursday, and then board a weekend cruise on Friday. I tell clients to always have their passports with them, even if they are coming from the States. You can’t imagine how many tourists come to Florida not expecting 42-degree weather in the winter. We book them on cruises to Mexico and the Caribbean.”
Local chambers of commerce from Siesta Key to Anna Maria Island have noticed an uptick in international tourists popping in without room reservations after visiting other Florida cities, Fort Myers and Orlando among them. Walk-ins from England and Germany are a growing trend. “We’re floored at how many didn’t plan ahead and come in asking us to get them a room,” Calloway says. For Admiral Travel, where clients travel to Europe, Asia and Africa, the trend is parallel. “They’re booking close in but spending big—three times as much as a year ago when clients were booking close in and spending small,” Hilton reports.
Traveling for Events
Sarasota travel and hospitality industry execs are capitalizing on the trend of short trips focused around events with programs important enough to garner national attention, and if marketed effectively, to draw tourists to the region. One such event, says AAA’s Calloway, is the Siesta Key Sand Sculpture Competition. “Dr. Beach put us on the map, and now the competition is becoming a national event; people are asking us to get them hotels specifically for this event,” she says. Named a “three-day gastronomic Olympics” by the Washington Post, the Sarasota-Manatee Originals Food & Wine Festival in January celebrates local, independent restaurants, and attracts tourists with tastings and the opportunity to meet visiting winery owners, winemakers and brew masters.
Members-Only Flash Sales
The hottest trend in online retailing, members-only flash sale sites, recently moved into travel. These sites, like Rue La La, which sell a limited number of upscale products at deep discounts for a short period of time, have been very successful in fashion and home furnishings. At first, flash sale retailers ventured into travel with distressed high-end inventory on luxury properties, but Malaka Hilton confirms that her wholesale travel division, Authentescapes, was the source for Rue La La’s recent sale of its first experiential tour, a seven-day escorted trip to Tuscany, including Siena’s historic Il Palio horse race with host Salvatore Ferragamo.
“We sold three rooms, one of them the master suite, at the Ferragamo estate, though we were expecting to sell only one—maybe two,” says Hilton. “It was the easiest sale we’ve ever made. The customer calls in to give their credit card number, and as soon as Rue La La gets the payment, they put you in touch with a Virtuoso travel agent who then makes the booking. We act as a wholesaler for the package to Virtuoso agents. What’s great about flash sales is the online retailers have 2.5 million e-mail addresses, and their customers really do buy.”
Hilton is already considering new experiences to present to online retailers that might involve packages to Sarasota. Imagine putting Sarasota’s arts and culture in front of 2.5 million people. “The PR alone is worth it,” she says.
A New Value Proposition
Diane McDavitt of Luxury Link (named top travel auction website by Travel & Leisure) writes that traveling is again about value—but the emotional dividends one enjoys from a meaningful trip are now as important as dollars saved. “Clients are following the deals where the value is strong, whether it means asking to be on our e-mail list for weekly announcements of distressed inventory on cruises or coming to our office for coupons from local restaurants,” Calloway says.
Local rewards programs like the Connoisseur Club for customers of restaurants owned by Sarasota’s Klauber family now include points for travel beyond the club’s own annual food-and-wine related tours. A partnership between the Connoisseur Club and Admiral Travel helps showcase the club to travel clients who don’t live in Sarasota. “Clearly, they can use their points for travel,” says Hilton. “But hopefully this puts the city of Sarasota in their minds as a destination. And when they come here they have the opportunity to dine in one of the restaurants—we know it’s working with snowbirds who call us every month wanting to know the number of points they’ve accrued for their travel.”