Last year at this time, the hundreds of local businesses that rely on tourism were still coping with the aftershocks of 9/11 and a pending war in Iraq. The mood was pessimistic as they looked at dismally empty hotel rooms and restaurants for the second year in a row.
What a difference a year can make. The number of visitors started climbing in April 2003, and by October revenues had increased six percent over the previous year, making hoteliers, restaurateurs and managers at area attractions very happy. "October and November were our best in three years," says Colony Beach & Tennis Resort president Katie Moulton. "We're confident that by the end of 2004, we'll meet or even exceed our 1999 numbers."
That's not to say that local businesses were passively waiting for tourists to appear. Three of the articles in this issue-a profile of ResortQuest Southwest Florida president Larry Starr (page xx), a feature on how hotels use the Internet (page xx) and the push to attract athletic events during our off season (page xx)-show that innovators continued to find ways to attract new visitors.
That's why many of them are behind the latest attempt to fund a conference center in Sarasota County. "We found out how precarious tourism is," says Starr, who sits on the board of the Sarasota Convention and Business Bureau. Travel patterns are changing, as well, as visitors, who used to stay here for months at a time, are coming for shorter stays, and they're booking their trips more last-minute. It's time, many Sarasota tourism professionals say, to attract business travelers to Southwest Florida. They'll bring money in during our soft summer and early fall months; more than that, some of them will eventually relocate here, bringing their companies with them and making our area less reliant on tourism to fuel economic development.
Sarasotans have heard this argument before, but this time there's a sophisticated campaign being waged by the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. Is this finally the year for a conference center? I think-and I hope-it is.