Overseas Dreams

By Lori Johnston January 31, 2010

As a native of England, Bill Burnley may have an innate insight into the minds of international travelers.

He says the first time that Europeans—the most promising overseas market—visit Florida, they can’t resist the Orlando theme parks. On their second trip, they still spend time at Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and the water parks, but venture out on day trips to St. Petersburg, Clearwater Beach or Daytona Beach.

On their third trip, Burnley sees a huge opportunity for businesses like his Manatee County property management company, because that’s when visitors finally free themselves from the clutches of central Florida.

“They realize there’s more to Florida than Orlando and Disney,” says Burnley, who has owned Anna Maria Gulf Coast Rentals for 12 years. Burnley would like to see more European tourists fill his properties.

He’s not the only one. European visitors are coveted by tourism officials here and around the state. Because they travel greater distances to get here, “They stay longer and spend more,” says Walter Klages, founder of Tampa-based Research Data Services, which assists the visitor and convention bureaus in Manatee and Sarasota.

European travel has gone up and down through the decades. Europeans began visiting the area in great numbers in the 1980s, peaking in 1984-85. Visitor volume, which dropped off after flights became more limited, was followed by an increase again in the mid ’90s, only to be hammered again by tight Homeland Security restrictions after 9/11. Last year, however, because of the global recession, international traffic in 2009 was down.

It represented 10 percent of Manatee visitors (June-August 2009) and 16.1 percent of Sarasota visitors (July-September 2009), compared to 16.2 percent of Manatee visitors and 19.8 percent of Sarasota visitors for the same periods in 2008.

The drop convinced the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to increase its presence in Europe, arranging face-to-face meetings with about a dozen tour operators who are used by European travelers in planning package deals that include airfare, car rental and accommodations.

The Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau has intensified its international focus as well. Late last year, it hired former Ringling Museum public relations director Lynn Hobeck Bates as its international sales and cultural tourism manager. It’s also forging closer relationships with European tour operators and travel agents who work directly with visitors in planning long-haul trips to our Gulf Coast destination.

While our beaches are the initial attraction, they’re just one criterion. Overseas visitors often seek upscale accommodations and destinations with strong cultural attractions and shopping and one-of-a-kind restaurants, Klages says. They’re ready to shop and buy once they arrive on the Gulf Coast, targeting brand names such as Tommy Bahama and Ralph Lauren that are a deal because of the state of the euro and pound compared to the dollar.

“It’s what you can do beyond the beaches that keeps people here longer and helps them return,” says Erin M. Duggan, the public relations director of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau.

True, says Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota bureau. “There’s just a whole lot more exploration, period [compared to domestic visitors]. They’re here longer, so they have a lot more time to go to Myakka, rent kayaks, go to the museums. And let us not dare forget shopping.”

German travelers, in particular, are drawn to eco-tourism. “The land out east [and] the Florida cowboy history are very interesting to them,” Haley says.

Europeans often come during our slower late summer and early fall season, occupying hotel rooms, condos and rental homes, as well as museums, restaurants and shopping centers. Germans are getting away from their dark, miserable and cold climate; and they welcome summer sunshine and heat with no complaints, says Axel Kaus, managing director of Hannover-based Kaus Media Services, hired by the Bradenton bureau to represent it in Germany.

“It happens during the time of the year that’s the slowest for us,” says Jessica Grace, marketing and public relations director for the Bradenton Visitors and Convention Bureau, who oversees its international efforts. “It’s a nice fit when we really need the business.”

European travelers also like the “self-catering”experience—the ability to cook meals in their accommodations—and therefore seek out condos, villas and private homes. For Southwest Florida, that preference is an advantage, since we have few high-rise oceanfront hotels.

These tourists seek stylish accommodations that don’t fall into the cliché of white wicker and pink flowers, but are high-end, upscale properties worth the price of upward of $7,000 a week for a four- to five-bedroom home, Grace says. Opulent heated pools, gourmet kitchens, Internet access, and of course, a tea kettle are frequently requested.

But while Southwest Florida may have what overseas visitors want, capturing them is different from marketing to domestic travelers.

Unlike Americans, who turn to the Internet when they plan a trip and then book flights and accommodations online, Europeans use travel agents and tour operators. Prepackaged deals account for the highest piece—40 percent of the total European travel market prefers packages due to factors including European Union regulations that provide financial protection in case anything goes wrong on a package trip.

“Europeans, because of their consumer protection laws, in part still book a lot of their travel through wholesalers,” Haley says. “You need to build relationships [with these wholesalers] so they know you, they know the destination, they’re very sure of the product. They [need to] know that when their clients come here, that they’re pleased with

the trip.”

While 60 percent to 70 percent of all German travelers obtain information about destinations through the Internet, 81 percent of all German consumers still book trips through travel agents and tour operators, says Kaus. For a travel agent or a tour operator to want to work with a Florida property, the property owners need to be paying commissionable rates, typically 10 percent, because “they’re not going to do it for free,” Duggan says.

One of Bates’ duties will be to assist local mom-and-pop hotels, property management companies and others to set up contracts with tour operators and agents to book overseas guests.

Hotels such as the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel and Longboat Key Club & Resort have been successfully doing this for years, Duggan says, but the smaller hotels and property management companies still need to be educated about the European system and must be willing to offer commissions for booking travelers.

Creating awareness of our region is so important that Manatee and Sarasota convention and visitors bureaus are pooling their financial resources to hire London-based Gosh PR to connect them with travel journalists, tour operators and travel agents in the U.K., which represents 70 percent of the area’s international visitors.

“Tourists don’t see county lines; they don’t care. We work together because we know our destinations complement one another so well,” Duggan says. “We’re singing the praises of Anna Maria Island and [Manatee County’s] old world charm. They’re singing the praises of Siesta and Mote and Ringling. It’s a nice partnership we can share financially.”

The bureaus see the impact not just from visits with European tour operators, but also from pitching stories to European travel journalists in major daily newspapers, on TV stations and in niche print and online publications resulting from face-to-face meetings or while attending international trade shows.

“We’ve definitely seen an incremental increase in European travelers from that,” Grace says.

Manatee tourism officials who attended the world’s largest trade show, ITB Berlin, in March 2009 also had meetings coinciding with the event that resulted in TV coverage and increased its German Web traffic two-fold, she says.

Duggan adds that Sarasota and Manatee must be in front of international visitors constantly and consistently. By having an approach that includes media exposure, individual meetings with tour operators and travel agents, and Web sites for vacationers doing their research and even booking their own trips, local tourism officials can have a presence that lasts when the large trade shows are over. Manatee tourism officials are planning to launch a German-language site by the spring, and they will have a site in the Queen’s English for U.K. residents.

“If you’re not constantly in front of them with an ad or news coverage talking about what a welcoming and inviting place you are, they’ll see someone else doing that,” Duggan says.

Although having a presence at trade shows is important, both bureaus recognize the need to include a more personal approach. The Sarasota bureau plans to eschew this year’s World Travel Market in London (and save $10,000-$20,000 for a booth to promote the area) for a more personal sales trip at another time with travel agents and tour operators. Those one-on-one appointments could bring a greater return on investment. “This business, and this is the hardest thing to convey to people outside of the industry, is 100 percent relationship building,” Duggan says.

Klages predicts that European tourism will increase in Sarasota and Manatee in 2010, although percentage projections were not available. Condor Airlines, which planned to resume service to Fort Lauderdale in May (after ceasing operations after the 9/11 attacks), is in discussions to bring year-round direct service from Frankfurt to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport as early as next year. “Sarasota is beautifully positioned, obviously, right in the middle of the west coast, so it could service clients in Fort Myers, Naples, Sarasota, Manatee or those going up to St. Pete,” Haley says. “There are a lot of people flying here indirectly, particularly on Delta. That direct flight would be a huge boon for us.”

As far as Burnley, the Anna Maria property manager, is concerned, the additional focus on meeting European tour operators has paid off. After he traveled with the bureau to Europe, he introduced tour operators to his properties and saw immediate results. He quickly received reservations from U.K. visitors and had four other tour operators visiting him this past January to look at his properties and discuss marketing his condos, which range from $800 to $4,500 a week, depending on the size and location. His goal is to grow his international business from 10 percent to 15 percent this year. This business is “a bonus to the area,” he says.  ■

Top Overseas Countries to Florida

1st to 3rd Quarter 2009 (Number of Visitors)


United Kingdom


15.2% down from 2008




21.2% down from 2008




0.3% down from 2008




19.7% down from 2008




8.3% down from 2008




8.5% down from 2008




12.9% down from 2008




27.3% down from 2008




4.2% down from 2008


Top—Spending Countries IN Florida

1st to 3rd Quarter 2009 (Number of Millions)


United Kingdom


down 33.7%




down 19.6 %




down 37.8%




down 21.2%




down 28.9%




down 20.7%




down 24.2%




down 0.9%




down 1.4%


Sarasota Visitor Origin Estimates*


50,228 (FY 07-08)

39,923 (FY 08-09)


(% Change)


167,310 (FY 07-08)

162,095 (FY 08-09)


(% Change)


93,282 (FY 07-08)

87,787 (FY 08-09)


(% Change)


169,441 (FY 07-08)

173,367 (FY 08-09)


(% Change)

U.S. Markets of Opportunity

58,018 (FY 07-08)

53,101 (FY 08-09)


(% Change)


74,346  (FY 07-08)

75,760  (FY 07-08)


(% Change)


793,900 (07-08 FY)

763,400 (08-09 FY)


*Fiscal Years 1st to 3rd quarter 2007-2009


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