If you could predict the weather, you could forecast the outlook for the island’s resorts and businesses more accurately.
A snowstorm up North sends a flurry of last-minute visitors seeking refuge in the sun.
Warm winters and plenty of sunshine are good, of course, while an unusually cold winter like that in early 2010 is not so good.
But, although you can’t predict the weather, some indicators suggest that this season’s forecast is good.
Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, wrote in a Dec. 18 email to the Longboat Key Town Commission that during the month of November, compared to the same period in 2011, the county had a 10.4% increase in visitors who spent 13.7% more than they did last year.
In Manatee County, tourist development tax collection rose by 6.9% in November 2012 from November 2011, although collections in the Longboat Key portion of the county were down by less than 1%.
Sandra Rios, director of communications at the Longboat Key Club and Resort, said the resort is seeing a return of group business in early 2013, with some groups returning that hadn’t booked for five-to-seven years.
International travel remains strong, according to Rios, and got a boost earlier this year from the Swiss Edelweiss Air coming to Tampa International Airport, because Switzerland is one of the resort’s top-three international markets.
At Casa del Mar, General Manager Mark Meador said that bookings are up 2% to 3% compared to this time last year.
“January is good,” Meador said. “We’re waiting for the weather. We still have some empty spots, but snowstorms will bring in stragglers.”
Of course, local businesses and resorts are keeping an eye on the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort’s proposed redevelopment plan — a project that, because of a recent court ruling, could be almost as difficult to predict as the weather.
Two days after the Ocean Properties Ltd.-owned resort submitted pre-application documents to the town’s Planning, Zoning and Building Department Nov. 12, calling for the redevelopment of the existing 102-room resort and addition of 85 more rooms, Sarasota 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Lee Haworth ruled in favor of the Islandside Property Owners Coalition (IPOC) in its challenge of the town’s code changes that gave commissioners more flexibility when approving projects.
Essentially, that meant that applications for future Longboat Key projects, including a redeveloped Hilton, were put on hold.
The Hilton planned to close the resort in May 2013 for between nine and 12 months of construction.
The Hilton’s website currently isn’t accepting reservations for the stated construction period.
“Please be advised that this hotel will be closing for renovations beginning May 1, 2013, and will re-open during the second quarter of 2014,” it states.
“We’re leaving that (application) with our legal department right now,” said Ocean Properties Ltd. Vice President Andy Berger. “The town is working with us, and we’re hopeful the project can move forward, although the start of it might be delayed by a month or two.”
Other resorts are keeping tabs on tourists displaced because of the Hilton project.
“Those poor folks are going to have to go somewhere,” Meador said. “We’d like to get at least a piece of that.”
Of course, any project that affects tourism locally also impacts other Key businesses, which rely on tourist dollars on an island with a relatively small year-round population.
Business owners are mixed when it comes to the potential impact of the Hilton closing for a year.
Harry Christensen, owner of Harry’s Continental Kitchens and Harry’s Corner Store, said that tourism is vital for the island.
“People who use the Hilton use our businesses,” said Christensen, who believes that many Hilton guests will still come to the island but stay at other resorts or rent houses.
“That will be the third hotel we’ve lost,” said Stephanie Claussen, owner of Steff’s Stuff in the Centre Shops, referring also to the Holiday Inn, which closed in 2004, and the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, which closed two years ago. “I don’t think it’s going to help.”
But David Miller, owner of Cannons Marina, said that the impact would be minimal, at most, on his business.
“There are enough other places here that people are still going to have a place to stay,” he said.
Design 2000 owner Sandy LaRose wasn’t concerned about the impact at Whitney Beach Plaza, which currently gets almost no foot traffic from tourists.
“I’m enthusiastic about anything that revitalizes the Key,” she said.
Many local business owners are also focused on developments at two of the island’s three shopping centers.
Publix re-opened Dec. 13, after closing for eight months of construction, and the Shoppes of Bay Isles remains under construction. Contractors recently began the first steps of renovating the mostly vacant Whitney Beach Plaza.
Christensen, who got a significant boost in business at his convenience store during Publix’s temporary closure, expects some of that increase to carry over even after the supermarket’s re-opening.
“A lot of people who had never been in here before came in and saw it,” he said. “A lot of people will come back. Even with Publix opening, they’ll come back in. You get a tomato and a head of lettuce and a couple of steaks and have dinner.”
At the Centre Shops, Claussen said that merchants know they will face increased competition for customers. The Centre Shops has essentially been the Key’s only shopping center for the past year, but the new Publix shopping center and the possibility of a revitalized Whitney Beach will compete with local shoppers.
LaRose is excited about her salon’s prospects in 2013, now that construction at Whitney Beach has started. The salon has struggled in recent years with customers believing that it had closed because of the appearance of the shopping center. She estimates that she lost 40% of her staff and business.
“We’re excited about the future here,” she said. “We feel like we’ve paid our dues.”
Another factor that could affect tourism this year:
Easter is March 31, and Passover is March 25 through April 2, meaning that both occasions fall relatively early this year. That means that the end of March is likely to be extra busy, and traffic will probably drop off earlier in April.
Although some merchants worry about the impact of a shorter season, others say it can be a good thing.
Christensen said that when Easter and Passover fall later in the year, many visitors have returned to their home states by the holidays.
But when they’re earlier they spend the holidays — as well as their money — here on Longboat Key.
Like many business owners, Christensen is banking on a successful 2013.
“I think tourism will be wonderful,” he said, “as long as we don’t have a cold, cold winter like we did a couple years back.”
Loss of businesses
The U.S. Census Business Patterns Survey determined that Longboat Key had 216 establishments — defined by the Census Bureau as a single physical location at which business or services or industrial operations are performed — and 2,129 employees on their payrolls as of March 12, 2010.
The 2010 data is the most recent set available for the Key and shows a decline over the past decade.
In 2001, the Key had 256 establishments and 2,909 employees.
Data from 2011 will likely show a further drop, because it will reflect the closing of the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort in 2010 in which 75 employees lost their jobs. At its peak, the Colony had approximately 350 employees.
Many residents and business owners believe that the loss of business was spurred by the closing of the Holiday Inn in 2003 and the decline and eventual collapse of the Colony, because the loss of hotel units translated to fewer customers each year.