April 17, 2017

What took the ‘high’ out of season? Lee tourism regroups

Just how soft was Southwest Florida’s winter high season?

And what can make a difference for the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel tourism brand this summer – and beyond?

Destination promoters and members of Lee County’s lifeblood hospitality industry hashed over those questions and more last week at the county Tourist Development Council meeting.

They didn’t settle on a silver bullet, but took some encouragement in a lengthy Q&A session, a big-picture report from advertising agency MMGY Global, and new marketing strategies that could bolster visitation and spending as

early as this summer.

At stake: an industry that employs one in five workers in Lee County, and boasts an economic impact topping $3 billion annually.

“We rang a bell” said Jeff Webb, president of Lee County Hotel Association and owner-operator of the only Hampton Inn & Suites within Fort Myers’ city limits.

“Today, perhaps we steered clear of a few icebergs,” Webb added.

Historically, March is when visitor demand for lodgings and room rates are the highest. And the relatively late date for the Easter observance could keep the so-called off-season at bay another week or two.

Unfortunately, some of the industry’s chief performance metrics aren’t yet available for March, much less April.

Nervous over numbers

Still, hoteliers looked at bed tax numbers – one in a handful of key indicators –  and saw an unsettling trend:

  • Preliminary collections for January topped $4.1 million, 9.6 percent lower than in the prior year.
  • February collections reached nearly $4.8 million, down 3.4 percent year-over-year.
  • Through February, collections were down 3.3 percent down from the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

The county’s 2016-2017 fiscal year began Oct. 1.

Lee County charges a 5 percent tax on the rentals of short-term lodgings, with proceeds going to promote the area to visitors, maintain and enhance beaches and shorelines and pay down county stadium debt.

By comparison, Collier County, which has a 4 percent bed tax, previously reported collections approaching $3.3 million in February. That’s down by less than 1 percent from collections for February 2016.

Collier’s report, released earlier this month, said its collections were down 3 percent when comparing the current fiscal year with that of 2015-2016.

Seasonal softness hasn’t been universal in local business.

“I’ve had mixed reviews on season. Mine’s been good,” said Anita Cereceda, who owns two shops on Fort Myers Beach and serves on the town council as well as the tourism council.

“First quarter was not a good one for me,” said hotelier Webb. And, he thinks he saw early indicators in the fourth quarter occupancy and demand statistics from travel research firm STR. This company surveys managers in roughly half the lodgings properties in Lee County, chiefly name-brand hotels.

What went wrong?

Why was this season less than stellar for many hoteliers? Webb ticked off  several possibilities, including last winter’s murky coastal waters; publicity over Zika virus outbreaks elsewhere in Florida; a mild northern winter, Brexit, the strength of the dollar, the Trump administration travel ban, crime news, road construction, overcrowded beaches last year and the impact of Airbnb and other lodgings alternatives.

Research by MMGY Global also showed there is some concern for visitors on the cost of a room in Lee County versus other competitive destinations.

Tourism doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Clayton Reid, CEO of MMGY Global, gave an overview of the national and international situation.

Since President Trump first announced in late January a  ban on citizens from certain predominantly Muslim countries visiting the United States, travel bookings internationally were down 6.5 percent through March. That’s according to numbers from research firm Forward Data S.L.

However, if there is truly a “Trump slump,” Reid said,  “we see no evidence that it’s having a meaningful effect on (U.S) domestic travel.”

Western Europe showed a nearly 14 percent decline in bookings; however, Reid sees signs that region’s economic outlook is improving, bringing a travel rebound in the second half of 2017.

 

Locally, “the first two months of the year were soft – no doubt about it,” Reid said, adding: I personally don’t believe that’s a long-term trend.”

Summer ventures

Tweaking of  Lee County’s marketing campaigns began several months ago, and should bear fruit by summer. What’s new includes:

  • A test promotional effort between Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and Allegiant Air, the dominant carrier at Punta Gorda Airport. This airport — about 20 miles north of Fort Myers  — accounted for about 10 percent of Lee County’s summer 2016 guests. That’s up from 7 percent the summer of 2015.
  • Test marketing in Scandinavia.
  •  Launch of the new “Islandology” advertising and marketing theme, in which audiences will see vivid photos of the area, coupled with sayings that encourage getaways to a place where schedules and shoes are optional.
  • *Extending the promotional impact of National Seashell Day – June 21 this year – to the rest of summer.

Jim Larkin, general manager of south Fort Myers’ Crowne Plaza, hopes county commissioners will keep an open mind about spending more bed tax dollars on tourism promotion,

Bed tax collections have created “a good-size reserve, money set aside for rainy days,” Larkin said.

“It may not be raining. But it’s certainly drizzling.”

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