The news in late November sent a shiver through the Sunshine State’s hospitality industry: almost 1 percent fewer tourists visited Florida in the first nine months of 2006 than in 2005—hurtling Florida toward the first annual decline in visitors since 2001. Only a last-minute surge in December saved the day; the year ended with a modest 1.2 percent increase. It wasn’t enough, Visit Florida president Bud Nocera said in an official statement: “The state depends on a visitation increase of four or five percent each year to strengthen Florida’s economic future.”
A sea change is rolling over the state’s tourism industry, say officials like Virginia Haley, executive director of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re nervous,” says Haley. “To see a decline during relatively good economic times is disconcerting.”
Tourists are taking shorter, more frequent vacations instead of setting down roots for the entire winter, as snowbirds used to do. The competition for their travel dollars from destinations around the world is intensifying. And headlines about hurricanes, red tide and even skin cancer, are creating a climate of concern.
“The reality is, Florida is at a crossroads,” says Elaine McLaughlin of Bokeelia-based McLaughlin Tourism Management, whom the SCBV has hired to help strategize a three-year marketing plan. McLaughlin, the retired director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, has worked in and around tourism in Florida for more than 20 years. “I’m not sure anybody right now is bragging about their success, from Visit Florida on down,” she says.
It’s not like everybody’s staying home. Internationally, tourism had its best year ever in 2006, reports the World Tourism Organization, with 842 million travelers, an increase of 4.5 percent. Africa had the highest jump over 2005, 8.1 percent, while the Americas, with a 2 percent increase, had the lowest.
“You have so many leisure vacation choices in front of you now, and so many people out there competing for the domestic and international visitors, people who weren’t on the scene five years ago,” says Haley. “Dubai, for example. I’ll never understand Dubai.”
Anyone who’s flown in to St. Martin’s big, bustling new international airport recently can attest to the enormous increase in time shares and vacation homes in that Caribbean tourist mecca. A hotel and time-share boom is taking place in the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and other Caribbean islands, as well.
Continued concerns about the Southwest Florida environment play a big part, too.
“With the hurricanes of ’04 and ’05 and 14 straight months of red tide presence somewhere between Naples and St. Pete, we’ve been on a terrible run,” says White of the Bradenton Area CVB, where hotel occupancy was down 4 percent in 2006. Even our abundant marine life is getting a bad rap. “The Crocodile Hunter gets a barb through the heart,” White says, “and I have somebody in Holland ask me about stingrays.”
And politics plays a role, too, as representatives from the Sarasota, Bradenton and Kissimmee/St. Cloud visitors bureaus found when they traveled to Germany and the UK last fall to conduct focus groups. (While UK tourists account for only 2 percent of our total visitors, they’re important because they tend to visit in the slow months of August and September and stay for two or three weeks at a time.)
“Up until this year,” says Haley, “the conversation has always been ‘Love you, hate your president or your Homeland Security.’ This year was particularly disconcerting because they told us over and over, ‘We always thought you were great, but there’s something wrong with you because you re-elected this guy.’ In the UK, the midterm election helped a bit, but in Germany it was incredibly negative.” Europeans are less likely to visit America, too, because of their anger over the longer wait for visas and the hostility and hassles they say they face at U.S. airports.
Then there’s what some people are calling Florida fatigue, a widespread perception that a trip to Florida is old-hat. “People want to do something new,” says Haley. “Some call it water cooler bragging rights; when you come back to work and you say you’ve been to Vegas, people say ‘oooh.’”
McLaughlin agrees. “So many of the markets we’ve come to depend on have already come and experienced our product,” she says. “What we call the experiential generation—both young, affluent people and the aging boomers like me—want new experiences. Florida has to learn how to package what is less known. We have to strike the strategic niche markets that may not have come to explore us.” McLaughlin cites the SCVB’s successful “Savor Sarasota” Restaurant Week promotion last May, which reached out to affluent foodies, and praises its outreach to the nature-based tourism market. (This year it will take place June 1-10.) “There’s a lot of money in going after people looking for a beautiful outdoor experience,” she says. “Bird watchers spend considerably more money than the average visitor.”
The national trend toward shorter, more frequent vacations doesn’t help either. “The lack of snowbirds is particularly worrisome for Sarasota County because so many tourism holdings are condominiums,” says McLaughlin. “The marketplace no longer wants to stay long-term, and the investors who are investing in those condos are going to have a rude awakening.”
Contributing to the problem was a loss of 274 hotel rooms in 2005, as the Longboat Key Holiday Inn and some beachfront mom-and-pop motels were demolished to make way for multimillion-dollar condos. But a flurry of new hotel projects, albeit off the beaches, is starting to offset those losses. McLaughlin says the fact that they’re not being built on the beachfront is actually good news. “I call it almost the best of both worlds,” she says, “because they are downtown, and as long as there is good shuttle service to the beach, then the visitor has the opportunity to participate in a wonderful downtown experience. Your downtown is a real asset, and not every community has that.”
So what are our local convention and visitors’ bureaus doing to stem the tide?
“The communities that have the strongest research will be best positioned to address changes in the marketplace most easily,” says McLaughlin. Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Lee and Pinellas counties have invested heavily in research for many, many years, she says, and it’s time that Sarasota does the same.
In Sarasota, hoteliers, attractions, the Tourism Development Council and government officials, the Downtown Merchants Association, chambers of commerce, and state and county park officials are all being invited to help shape the SCVB’s three-year strategic plan.
“The best defense is a strong offense,” she says, “and that offense has to be very strategic, because none of us has enough resources—money, staff.”
Both the Sarasota and Bradenton bureaus say they’re exploring non-traditional ways to develop relationships with potential visitors. The SCVB, for example, started a MySpace page—“MySpace-SarasotaFl”—that features photos of the area.
“We do a lot of monitoring of travel Web site chat rooms like Fodors.com,” says Haley. “We’re talking with hoteliers about how you can incentivize your guest to write positive things about you on Trip Advisor, for example. Consumer communication is key.”
Because of its relatively limited marketing dollars—$2 million in 2006-2007 compared to $10 million for Lee County and over $14 million for Pinellas County—the SCVB has traditionally been “very narrow” in its focus, going after proven markets by buying advertising in-state in the summer and in key domestic feeder markets the rest of the year—places that have direct flights here or that have traditionally been strong markets for Sarasota: Chicago, Ohio, New York and Boston.
“Sarasota’s getting clobbered in the marketplace,” says Haley. “We haven’t had money to be on television for six years.” But in 2007-2008 the SCVB will get an infusion of $1 million more because the county commission last May raised the tourist bed tax from 3 percent to 4 percent and earmarked 50 percent of the additional funds for marketing. (The other 50 percent is earmarked for helping to fund the proposed new baseball stadium.)
The SCVB will spread that money among print and Internet ads, with a “big emphasis” on public relations, says Haley, especially in the UK. Five familiarization (fam) trips have been organized for 2006-2007, some of them jointly with the Bradenton CVB. They’re themed: A “Sip and Savor Sarasota” culinary trip in December included dinners at Euphemia Haye and The Ritz-Carlton’s Vernona restaurant in addition to a boat tour of Sarasota Bay and a tour of the Historic Asolo Theater. It drew six journalists, including one from a national restaurant industry magazine and one from France’s leading travel guide. Another fam tour in January during Arts Day weekend focused on art and architecture, and one this spring will focus on outdoor adventure and nature. Local hoteliers pony up with free rooms for the writers, who are ferried to various restaurants, cultural attractions, golf courses and parks.
In addition, the SCVB hosts one travel writer of some kind every week. A visit last December by a staff photographer from AirTran’s in-flight magazine resulted in a five-page photo essay on our circus heritage in its January issue. The PAL Sailor Circus, Ringling Museum of Art and Circus Sarasota were highlighted. “We’ve never been able to afford an ad in that magazine,” says Haley.
One national tourism trend that’s particularly worrisome for an area that stakes its reputation on its artistic treasures is a decline in visitation to cultural and heritage sites. “Historic houses are having a terrible time, for example,” Haley says. (Because of declining attendance, Colonial Williamsburg recently placed on the market its 400-acre Carter’s Grove, which is, according to The New York Times, one of the most renowned plantations in Virginia. And Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home in Alexandria, Va., “once a ‘must see’ in AAA guidebooks,” wrote the Times, is also now back in private hands.)
The Ringling Museum of Art, the largest tourist attraction in the two-county region with some 260,000 annual visitors, reported a disappointing decrease of 8 percent in attendance in 2005/2006, even though the Tibbals Learning Center with its miniature circus opened to great fanfare last January. “We didn’t see the bump,” says Chrissy Kruger-Gruendyke, Ringling marketing director.
In response, Kruger-Gruendyke says the museum is spending more marketing dollars to reach its local audience, and has leveraged community outreach by doing things like bringing back its speaker’s bureau.
One successful example was the Sarasota Museum Month promotion the Ringling launched last September with Mote, Selby Botanical Gardens, Historic Spanish Point and the Crowley Nature Center. The museum offered 2-for-1 admission for Florida residents and saw a 53 percent rise in attendance from September 2005. Fifteen thousand visitors passed through the museum doors in what is typically the slowest month of the year. “It trickled into museum and food sales, too,” says Kruger-Gruendyke. “We’ll do it again this year.”
McLaughlin says the challenge for historical sites is to figure out new ways to package and reposition themselves, adding new educational components, for example. “The masters of gaining repeat market, the Disneys of this world, are constantly looking at ways to refresh their market,” she says. “If it’s living, exciting and changing then there’s always a reason to go back.”
The Bradenton CVB, too, is trying something new this August: a month-long Jazz on the Islands promotion. “We’re encouraging every restaurant, bar, venue, joint to feature jazz music of one kind of another,” says White. Why jazz? “Because jazz listeners have the highest personal household income, a higher level of education, they travel more frequently and spend more money on travel than any other music form,” he says. “It’s target marketing at its peak.”
The CVB started marketing Jazz on the Islands on Berlin’s largest 24-hour radio station in February, both with paid spots and by sponsoring a bilingual, six-hour nightly jazz program called “Good Evening, America.” Listeners around the world can hear it online at www.jazzradio.net. “If this is successful, and we measure that by room nights booked, we will expand our marketing to Great Britain in ’08,” says White.
It would be sweet music, indeed, for an industry that’s in a state of flux.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
IT’S A NATIONAL TREND: Tourists are taking shorter, more frequent vacations.
Travelers face more choices and competition from worldwide destinations. Loss of local hotel rooms, especially on the beaches discouraged visitors.
FLORIDA FATIGUE: Lots of tourists have already been here. Two bad Florida hurricane seasons have blown summer visitors away. So did a bad year of red tide in 2005. Unhappiness with the Iraq war and the White House has deterred European visitors. So have the long waits and visa hassles to get into the U.S.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
Targeting niche markets such as foodies, and culture and nature lovers.
Construction of new hotels downtown.
Better use of CVB Web sites with interactive features, such as MySpace pages.
Pumping $1 million (from the 2006 increase in the bed tax) more into advertising, public relations and market research.
Wining and dining travel journalists.
Two-for-one promotions at local attractions.
Jazz on the Islands promotion to bring upscale fans of this music genre to the region in August.