The plea went out last week from Erin Duggan, communications director of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, during an informal gathering of tourist industry representatives: “Please let us know of any weeks with available rooms!”
“I am starting to get calls from people saying, ‘Is there any way you can help us find a place (to stay)?’” SCVB President Virginia Haley said Monday. “Everybody’s reservations look fantastic, (but) Siesta is our hotbed.”
Tess Herschman, visitor services manager at the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, concurred: For the first week of April, especially, the chamber staff is running out of suggestions of places for people to stay, because almost all the resorts and inns on the Key are booked.
“I think it’s going to be really busy in February and March (too),” she said.
Sarasota County saw a 10.2% increase in the number of tourists visiting the area from October through December, compared to the same period in 2010, Haley said. The increase in tourists from Europe for those months was 16.3%.
More importantly, Haley said, the county experienced a 13% increase in tourist spending. “That, for us, is great,” she said.
Although the number of visitors had been rising over the past year, Haley said, they weren’t spending as much money.
“They had really ratcheted back their spending … (now) the wallets are opening up,” she said.
For the 2011 calendar year hotel occupancy throughout Sarasota County was up 63%.
“That’s really good,” she said, because that means “the market’s strong enough (that hotel companies) can start to make improvements to their properties.”
In the hotel industry, Haley said, a 60% annual occupancy level generally is the point where business managers feel comfortable about making new investments, including renovations and hiring more staff.
That, in turn, she said, translates into more positive customer experiences.
At the Palm Bay Club on Midnight Pass Road, Manager Carlin Strouse said she is seeing a 20% increase in bookings for this year, with an expected rise in revenue between 15% and 20%.
“All of the budgets have already been met or exceeded for the next three months,” she said. “It’s going to be a great season.”
At Siesta4Rent vacation rentals, General Manager Jamie Styers said his figures showed a 19% increase in February bookings and a 13% increase in March reservations, compared to the same months in 2011 — in spite of the fact the firm is handling fewer units this year.
In January, his numbers were up 16% over those from 2011.
Siesta4Rent handles a wide variety of accommodations, from studio apartments to four-bedroom condominiums on the Key, according to its website.
Styers said he is getting bookings as far as four and five months in advance — “like (we) did eight years ago … so that’s definitely a good thing.”
“We’re already taking bookings for February and March,” said Sheila Lewis, co-owner of Siesta Sports Rentals on Midnight Pass Road. “We had the busiest December since we’ve been here.”
She and her husband, Mike, have operated the business since 1995; they bought it eight years ago.
Most of the tourists officials and property owners and managers said they attributed the better numbers to the No. 1 beach ranking for Siesta, as well as to the warmer winter.
“The weather is certainly cooperating,” said Russell Matthes, co-owner of the Daiquiri Deck and the Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar in the Village, “and I think the No. 1 beach ranking has helped as well … We hear (about) it all the time.”
His business figures for 2011 were the best he’d seen since the 2005-06 season, he said. “Last year was a banner year for us,” and, for 2012, he said, “so far, so good.”
Matthes added, “If this continues, I think we’re going to have an amazing season.”
“Business is booming,” said Rick Munroe, owner of Sun Garden Café in the Village. “It’s been a fantastic 17-month run.”
Munroe said he is seeing customers from all over the United States, along with more Europeans on the Key this season.
Bob Kirscher, co-owner of the Broken Egg restaurants, said his business was up between 15% and 20% from 2010 to 2011.
“It was the best Christmas week ever,” Kirscher said, “and we finished up the best summer ever,” even though the Avenida Messina location is about two-thirds the size of the original Broken Egg on Avenida Madera.
Not only is the economy improving, Kirscher said, but also the No. 1 beach ranking could not have come at a better time. Kirscher noted that the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had an impact on businesses throughout Florida, regardless of the fact that none of the oil showed up on the Southwest coast. “I truly believe that the oil spill cost us 30% of our revenue (in 2010),” he said.
“I totally expect the winter will be one of the best we ever had,” Kirscher said.
At Used Book Heaven, Bob Orlando, husband of owner Pat Orlando, said their January sales figures were up 15% over the same month for 2011. “We’re really busy,” he said.
Tom Kouvatsos, co-owner of Village Café, said his numbers are up as well.
“We can only assume that (the No. 1 beach ranking) is a part of it,” he said. However, Kouvatsos said he also felt the improved economy in other parts of the country was a big factor.
Business owners share what they’re experiencing and predicting as the 2011-12 season gets under way.
“I totally expect the winter will be one of the best we ever had.” — Bob Kirscher, co-owner of the Broken Egg.
“All of the budgets have already been met or exceeded for the next three months.” — Carlin Strouse, manager, The Palm Bay Club
“The numbers are up.” — Tom Kouvatsos, co-owner of Village Café
“The weather’s nicer. That’s really drawn people down here.” — Leslie Philips, clerk, Davidson Drugs