The Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce presidents talks season, new developments and the future of tourism.
About three weeks ago, Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce President Gail Loefgren saw her first car carrier of the season.
Since then, she has seen one every day.
“They’re coming back,” she said. “It’s beginning again.”
As snowbirds trickle back to the island, Loefgren, who was chamber president from 1993 to 2008, and then again starting in 2013, explains what residents can expect for this season, how new developments such as Zota Beach Resort and the newly renovated Bayfront Park affect tourism and where she sees tourism heading in the future.
What do you think people can expect in terms of tourism this season?
I think it’ll be about the same as last year. I have had conversations with a lot of the hoteliers already, and a lot of them are 95% full. I would say the majority, at this point, are about 80-85% already full. I think most of them still have a room or two now and again. It’s kind of spotty. A lot of them are full through December though, so that’s an interesting thing that the rest of the year looks really good.
We’re going to deal with the same traffic. I think that the city of Sarasota is trying to help, which is a good sign. That hasn’t happened before, and if we can get Manatee County [to help] with going through Bradenton Beach, especially the roundabout and that stoplight on 121st, that would be advantageous to us. If we could just fix those spots it would be good, but we’re a beautiful island. We have a two-lane road, and we’re all four lanes coming into two lanes.
People want to come here, and I don’t think that’s going to stop, so I think we’re going to deal with traffic. I was here in the early ’90s though and the traffic was worse. That was the heyday of our tourism. The Holiday Inn was still here and The Colony was open, and we don’t have those two anymore.
How do developments like Zota Beach Resort and Bayfront Park affect tourism?
Well, Zota will affect tourism because of the nightly stays, and we only have that resort and a few of the smaller resorts that do in-season nightly stays. A lot more do the one or two nights off-season. I think Zota will be a huge help for our business community because when you have the nightly stays, it’s more of a turnover. When you have somebody stay here for a week, they might go to one restaurant a night and never go back. When you turn people over every night, you have a much better shot at distributing the wealth. That’s what happened when the Holiday Inn left. We didn’t have that constant churn.
And Bayfront Park will be good for tourism because last year, tourists knew that Bayfront Park was being renovated and they wanted to know when [it would be done]. [They would say] ‘I want my dog to go down there.’ So we said, ‘Well, when you come back next year it will be done.’ All those amenities on Longboat Key make us a high-end, lots-of-things-to-do destination.
What do the town’s 250 tourism units mean for us?
The town voted in 2008, and it was an overwhelming yes to bring back the amount of tourism units we lost. If they take them away, then we’ll be back to the loss of tourism units, which basically support our business community through season and then through summer. We would be going back to where we were.
The Holiday Inn closed in 2003, so it was a dramatic difference for our business community. The chamber was put in charge of the referendum, and then I worked with three members of the Planning and Zoning board to pass it, which was in March 2008. That’s when we added 250 units and Zota is the only one that’s even asked. The Colony will probably ask for some, but I don’t think they’ll ask for the rest. I think they’re trying to keep this the way residents want.
Have you seen the attitude toward tourism change over the years?
I have seen it change. When the Holiday Inn left, it was a loss. We lost business out there, and when that started to happen and tourism declined because there was nothing to do, I think the residents out here began to notice. They especially noticed businesses disappearing.
I saw dramatically how they changed their minds. Obviously, they changed their minds when they voted to add the 250 tourism units, and that has certainly helped our business community. Business is beginning to come back. We’re so dependent on tourism as are destination islands like this, because those are the people who are future residents. I think half the island came from The Colony.
Do you think the Arts, Culture and Education Center will attract people?
That will be good. That will be a good start. I think it will be well-run and will be really pretty, and it’s in a good location. We need a town center, someplace where people can go and gather and have some fun. That may be the start of retail, maybe a new restaurant. Visitors, one of the questions they always ask is where can they go that’s like a town center. I think they think of the village at Siesta or Bridge Street on Anna Maria. I mean, most people have that, a place where people can go and gather, have a drink or go be entertained.
I think of a green space where you can have an outdoor concert. That’s personally my vision, so I’m anxious for the arts and culture center. It will bring people out here to shop with things to do. A center like that could spawn businesses that we don’t even think about, and we don’t need a ton of new business, but some unique, different business would be fun to have.
Do you think it’s gotten better for business on Longboat over the years?
I do. I think since we’ve begun to recover from the Great Recession, tourists have come back. I think business has been much better. There are more people back because for so long people held onto their money. They didn’t know when the recovery was going to happen. So even if they had money, they didn’t travel. They stayed home for a few years. Then it was a release.
I think it’s coming back to where it was in the early ’90s. I know when I go out here, the restaurants are full. Here in season, I see people wandering all the shops.
What do you think tourism will be like in the future?
I think it depends on if we stay relevant, which means we continue to upgrade some of our older establishments.
We’re an aging island. A lot of our resorts and businesses have not been upgraded, remodeled, whatever and a lot of that has to do with some of the codes that the town is working on, because they know it, too.
I think our businesses would do that [upgrade], but it just needs to be economically viable. We have to keep up with the rest of the world, and if we do that, I think that tourism will remain steady.
With the addition of a town center and new businesses, I think, we could [see] an increase. There’s only a certain amount of people that can stay here. When our hotels get filled, they’re filled, and the past few years, they’ve been pretty full, so I don’t know that we’ll get an increase in people.
We just want to keep it where it is. Keep it steady. There maybe be a little more with the new Colony, but there’s really no more room, I don’t think, for a major hotel. It seems like we’re pretty full. We just need to stay relevant. There’s so many things changing. We have to think about the future and we know it’s digital and people can work from anywhere. I think we have to keep in step and try to be aware of what’s coming because it all changes so quickly, and that’s what going to be important to tourists.