by Cooper Levey-Baker
Summer tourism continues to sizzle.
EVERY YEAR, SHORTLY AFTER EASTER, things slow down in Southwest Florida. Arts organizations offer less and lighter fare. Traffic eases up. Beaches grow less crowded.
But that doesn’t mean the tourist season dries up. Far from it. The number of summer visitors to Sarasota and Manatee counties is continuing to climb, outpacing even some of our popular winter months. In July 2014, for example, Sarasota County collected $1.35 million in tourist development tax money, $133,000 more than it collected the previous December. Manatee County, meanwhile, saw 16.7 percent growth in its June tax collections between 2013 and 2014, higher than the growth it saw over that same time period in January (13.5 percent), February (10.8 percent) and March (14 percent). August 2014 outstripped November 2013 by 14.8 percent in Sarasota County and by 20.2 percent in Manatee.
That’s partly just because our traditional tourist season is already so jam-packed.
“This February, our hotel occupancy was 94.7 percent,” says Visit Sarasota County president Virginia Haley. “There’s not a lot of room to grow.”
The summer months also attract a different demographic, largely Florida families with working parents who want to spend a long weekend at the beach. Those families, who typically have a lower household income than winter and spring visitors, are taking advantage of condos that drop their prices and let summer visitors rent by the week instead of by the month. Sarasota County’s average daily rate for a hotel or condo was $161 a night last July. This March, that number was $213.
Local attractions are seeing evidence of this summer growth firsthand. At Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, roughly 80 percent of visitors still come between January and May and October through December. But summer attendance has climbed steadily in recent years. Combining visitor numbers for June, July, August and September, the number of summer visitors increased by 7,300 guests between 2013 and 2014, a spike of 44 percent.
In Sarasota and Manatee, the summer months attract Florida families who want to spend a long weekend at the beach.
That increase didn’t happen by accident. Selby opened its Children’s Rainforest Garden in November 2013, hoping to appeal to young families both local and not, and has stepped up its summer activities. This year, for example, Selby is hosting Splashin’ Selby Saturdays, eight consecutive water-play days for kids. And while Selby has always welcomed visitors for fireworks on the Fourth of July, it is inviting several barbecue caterers to the event this year, hoping to increase ticket sales from around 1,600 to 2,000.
Selby director of events Roger Capote says summer family traffic at the Gardens is a mix of locals and tourists visiting from places like Tampa, Miami and Tallahassee. Whether local or not, parents are always looking for places to take their kids in the summer. “You let them run around for a couple of hours and then they fall asleep in the car ride home,” Capote says. “That’s how I’m designing these events here.”
Event planner Jenny Townsend is also trying to capitalize on summer tourism. She recently founded a new company, Suncoast Connections, that has booked a number of summer tours and charity events. The Tour De SRQ, for example, took place at the end of May, ferrying revelers between Siesta Key, downtown and St. Armands Circle for five hours of eating and drinking.
While not targeting young families like Selby Gardens, Townsend is trying to appeal to young professionals in town and from outside the area. She specifically booked the Tour De SRQ for the weekend after Memorial Day in an effort to attract tourists who stuck around after the long vacation weekend.
Townsend’s culinary focus fits in well with Visit Sarasota County’s work, which pushes Sarasota as a summer foodie destination through digital, print, radio and TV ads throughout Florida. Visit Sarasota County’s Savor Sarasota, a two-week event in early June, involves 18 local chefs and restaurants who offer special deals to draw traffic during a typically slower period.
The summer tourism numbers may not stay entirely rosy. Sarasota and Manatee typically see an influx of European tourists in late summer, August in particular. But the value of the euro has fallen in recent years, from $1.48 in April 2011 to $1.08 this April, making an American vacation significantly more expensive for European visitors. If the trend continues, Europeans may choose to visit beaches in the Eurozone rather than venture abroad. The flip side is that American vacationers may in turn be more likely to head to Europe and less likely to come to the beach.
Haley calls the exchange rate a “concern,” not an immediate threat. But for tourism businesses looking to grow summer traffic, it’s something to monitor. Tourism patterns can change dramatically. The past few years are proof of that. ■