Did you wait longer than usual for a waterfront restaurant table in January? Or, did you find yourself stuck in traffic and think, “Isn’t it kind of early for season traffic?”
If so, you’re not imagining things.
This season has gotten off to an earlier start than usual, according to local business owners and managers, most of who report a spike in traffic in January.
Mark Meador, general manager of the 102-unit Casa del Mar, said that bookings in January are up 18.5% compared to last year.
The resort has received a flurry of last-minute bookings thanks, in part, to the weather.
“They’re calling in quite a bit,” Meador said. “The weather is getting nasty up North.”
Michele Kneuse, president of Florida Vacation Connection, reports that the company’s 150 to 175 rentals on Longboat and Lido keys are almost entirely booked through mid-April.
“I felt that things started to pick up just before the holidays in December, and I feel like in January there are more tourists in the area,” Kneuse said.
Harry’s Continental Kitchens owner Harry Christensen said that business is up approximately 25% compared to last year in all facets — which includes Harry’s restaurant, deli and catering, along with Harry’s Corner Store.
Already in January, the restaurant has served 300 breakfasts in a single morning — a mark it rarely reaches until after March.
“It’s been a great season since October,” Christensen said.
At Dry Dock Waterfront Grill, owner Eric Hammersand said that waits are already getting longer, and business is up approximately 8% year-to-date.
“January has been busier than last year, and I kind of attribute that to the mild weather,” he said.
Jimmy Seaton, owner of Longboat Limousine/Suncoast Sedan and Liquid Limousine Charters, said that warm weather leads to a spike in last-minute boating business.
Like other business owners, Seaton saw an early start to season.
“We actually, oddly, started getting busy in October,” he said. “November and December were record-breakers, and the holidays were very strong.”
This year’s mild winter is the most common explanation business owners and managers suggest for the strength of the early season.
The Key also benefits from the fact that last year’s January was also warmer than usual, meaning that tourists who visited last year and savored the sunshine are likely to return this year.
Still, others believe that economic improvements, as well as changes in homebuyer demographics are at least partially responsible for increases.
Susan Goldfarb, executive director of the Longboat Key Education Center, estimated that registrations (which refer to the number of programs students have enrolled in, not the number of students) are up by approximately 15% or more, with registrations especially high in January and February.
“Obviously people believe that the economy is better, and when people believe that it’s better, they follow through and do more,” Goldfarb said. “I think people are tired of watching every nickel and dime.”
Christensen attributes some of the increase to those who bought homes on the Key as “spec” homes prior to the recession.
“I think a lot of people who bought here like five or six years ago bought and came here for like a week here or a weekend there,” he said. “But I think a lot of those people are retiring now and living here for more of the year.”
Seaton said that demand has increased for his company’s long-distance car services, with customers seeking transportation to Miami or Gainesville, for example, which don’t have direct flights from Sarasota.
Seaton believes that younger people, those in their 40s and 50s who are still working, have recently bought homes on Longboat Key.
“The beautiful thing about that for us is that these folks are still coming and going, coming and going,” he said.
He believes that an increase in younger buyers who might only spend a week here or a long weekend there on the Key is also good for other businesses.
“They’re probably going to restaurants or the art show,” Seaton said. “These folks are out and about, and they’re impacting the community.”
Feeling hot, hot, hot?
Warm winter weather bodes well for local businesses, which experience an increase in traffic from beachgoers and tourists when the temperatures rise. This year’s weather will surely heat things up on the Key. Here are the average temperatures on Longboat Key recorded during the first two weeks of January during the last five years.