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Longboat Key Wednesday, Apr. 8, 2020 1 year ago

Outdoors-focused tourism operators struggle

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Perfect weather in the height of the season can't help business, they say.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

To a pair of guides accustomed to serving fans of the outdoors on Longboat Key, recent days have looked ideal . . . on the surface.

Clear skies, moderate temperatures, humidity that is still weeks away from becoming summertime oppressive ordinarily makes this prime season for paddling and casting for big ones.

But Will Bither, owner of Almost Heaven Kayak Adventures, and Steven Herich, owner of Beach Fishing Adventures, know appearances out the window can be deceiving.

Beach Fishing Adventures proprietor Steven Herich prepares to cast a net in an attempt to catch bait Saturday on Longboat Key.

Both men who operate on Longboat Key said their businesses have been hard-hit since March when the COVID-19 pandemic began changing the economy of tourism -- and pretty much everything else.

“I keep hoping I’m gonna wake up from a bad dream,” Bither said. “And be able to work and do the things I like to do.”

Bither estimates that 75-80% of his customers are tourists and he’s been unable to conduct tours that are so popular with them.  

The Almost Heaven website displays a prominent reminder that kayaks and paddleboards can be delivered for rental, but Bither said it has been about two weeks since his company has brought in “a penny” of revenue. He is trying to obtain aid from the government so he and his two employees can continue paying their bills.

The 2020 tourist and winter visitor season was looking strong through February.  Visitors in February were up more than 8% from the same time last year to 145,000. Expenditures by those visitors were up about the same percentage, to more than $202 million. Lodging occupancy and room rates likewise were up, and air travel through Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport hit record levels.

Beach Fishing Adventures proprietor Steven Herich reels in a black drum Saturday on Longboat Key.

Rick Konsavage, managing director of the Longboat Key Club, said the Resort at Longboat Key Club had been completely booked up through February and into March. Now, about 80% of its workers have been furloughed for lack of business.

Visit Sarasota President Virginia Haley called the drop off in March business one of “the darkest days ever for my industry.”

“Visit Sarasota County understands that the key to Sarasota County’s economic recovery will be to bring visitors back to our community as quickly as possible after the public health emergency has passed,’’ she said in a release.

Herich feels fortunate that he is able to continue his business, with comparatively few hiccups. Of course he has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic like anyone else — he now offers masks and hand sanitizer to customers and cleans all equipment with sanitizing wipes between trips. But fishing was included as an essential activity in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order.

Steve Nicolai, a former client and current friend of Beach Fishing Adventures proprietor Steven Herich, prepares his line for casting Saturday on Longboat Key.

That being said, Herich’s revenue has taken a nosedive since mid-March; he estimated that 65-70% of his business is generated by tourism. He is still accepting customers, but there haven’t been many recently. Fortunately, Herich has no other employees, and he feels financially prepared to wait out the pandemic. Still, he wishes he could spend more time fishing for pompano and redfish.

“It's kind of like the fish haven't got the memo,” Herich said. “It’s a shame because there's so much good fishing out there right now.

“I would love to be out there working. The weather's been beautiful.”

Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

See All Articles by Brendan

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