Siesta Key Public Beach.

Sarasota County’s tourism business dropped off the cliff starting in mid-March, with a 61 percent loss in hotel occupancy, says Visit Sarasota president Virginia Haley. She explains why, despite all the bad news, there are glimmers of hope.

How bad a hit has Sarasota County’s tourism industry taken from the coronavirus epidemic?

“Up until mid-March, the 2020 tourist season was fabulous. It was the best February we ever had, in the high 80th percentile occupancy and really high [room] rates; and the first two weeks of March it looked as though occupancy was in the mid-80 percent. In the last two weeks of March, occupancy dropped to the low teens. We lost 61 percent of our business.

“It hit us particularly hard because March is our busiest month of the year, easily a third of business.”

What are your hotel partners telling you?

“There is some occupancy, we still have some essential business, people coming to check on relatives, for example. I talked to a woman from upstate New York who has a second home here, and she came down to deal with roofing crews, and that’s allowed. Some hotels are getting a bump on the weekends with medical personnel who just need a place to sleep. I never thought we’d be excited to see 20 percent occupancy.

“Art Ovation is the only Sarasota County hotel that completely closed, and the good news is they’re targeting reopening in mid-May.”

How big a blow is losing the Powerboat Grand Prix?

“It was actually going to be the week and weekend before the Fourth of July, so it was like we were going to have two Fourth of Julys. We lost the U.S. youth national rowing tournament, too; we lost a lot of events. But in many cases, they’re still trying to rebook for the fall. And a lot [of tournaments] that were booked somewhere else that can’t rebook there are seeing if they can book here.

“We’re really busy, both with moving meetings around and the weddings that have to be rebooked. There’s not a weekend date for weddings in this area in the fall.”

What is Visit Sarasota County doing to plan for the eventual return of tourism?

“The most important thing is to understand what’s going on in the consumer’s mind, how confident they are, what are they going to want to seek to feel safe.

“We’re partnering with Lee County’s CVB on a series of consumer sentiment surveys, geared in-state and in our key feeder markets—Tampa, Orlando, the Chicago region, New York—to get a sense of when they’ll be ready to vacation again and what kind of vacation they’ll be willing to spend. Beach is at the top of that list, which is good for us. They’re looking for a quieter vacation with outdoor opportunities. [The surveys show that] people will be willing to drive as much as 15 hours, but they clearly are not ready to fly. We’re a lower-key part of Florida, every month except for March; they didn’t see pictures of crazy spring breakers here, for example. About half the respondents say they might be interested in traveling in mid-July; the other half are saying not this summer, [but rather] later in the fall.

What else do your surveys reveal?

“We got interesting insights into what people want to hear about when they’re ready to listen to advertising. They want to hear about destinations where people are helping people. People wonder why we were promoting the Giving Challenge; the fact that we smashed the record says something about us as a community.

“All of our hotels and restaurants are busy with new cleaning systems, new air-handling systems. Normally you hide that, but that’s something we’ve been urging them to document, take pictures of, post, have information for guests. Be very upfront with it.”

What about your marketing budget?

“We’ll do a mainly digital campaign for the recovery, [but] we’re trying to not spend money the rest of the year. We’ll need more ammo going into FY 2021. We’re basing our plans that the tourist tax will drop from $23 million down to $15 million.

“But there’s a lot of pent-up demand. People will not be going on cruise ships, they’re not going to travel internationally. I’d rather be conservative and be pleasantly surprised.”

Any bright spots?

"There are bright spots. Last week we just booked a citywide conference for next winter that will be using three hotels, the Westin, the Ritz and the Embassy House. We’re getting a lot of business leads for the latter part of this year and early 2021.

The trend nationally is toward smaller conferences?

"Yes. All these years, everyone has bemoaned the lack of a conference center here; now it’s serving us well.”

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