Local officials and business owners say tourism is back on track with some reporting their most successful season yet.
On any given day throughout March, visitors could be seen grabbing beach towels and sunscreen and heading toward the shore, something that wasn’t a possibility one year ago because of COVID-19.
In mid-March 2020, many restaurants, attractions and public beach access were rapidly shut down in an attempt to manage the spread of COVID-19 throughout the county. The closures caused a strain on tourism in what is typically the county’s busiest season of the year.
In February 2020, a majority of metrics showed the county was gearing up for its most successful spring break season yet.
The county saw 145,600 visitors who stayed in paid accommodations. Hotels reported an occupancy rate of 91.7% at an average of $231 a night. The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport was experiencing 53% growth over the year before.
In March, everything changed.
Hotels went from 90% occupancy to 20%. The airport ended March down 25% and April down 95% from 2019.
Now, in 2021, county officials and business owners say tourism is getting back on track with some reporting their most successful season in history.
Virginia Haley, the president of Visit Sarasota County, said area hotels are now experiencing a 75% occupancy rate at an average of $206 a night. In February, there were 123,300 visitors who stayed in paid accommodations.
“Those are really good numbers,” Haley said. “Obviously, they’re not as good as the record-breaking year, but it’s pretty phenomenal when you think of everything we’ve been through for the past year.”
Many businesses, particularly those reliant on beachgoers, were struggling to keep afloat after a dip in tourists and limited capacity regulations due to COVID-19. Sarasota County doled out more than $10 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to help businesses recover.
Now area businesses, particularly those on Siesta Key, are reporting record numbers.
Jan Solomon, co-owner of Key Sailing, said 2021 is gearing up to be the record year for her sailing charter. Each week of March, Solomon and her husband, Tim, completed 23 charters with a waiting list of about 30 families.
“We have families that have not had a chance to get together for more than year,” Solomon said. “It seems like people are very happy to be able to go sailing and to spend time with family.”
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, too, is expecting higher numbers. In the entire month of March 2020, the office handled 500 calls for service on Siesta Key. From March 1-25, 2021, it handled 475 calls.
Haley predicts the traffic flow will continue as spring break season pushes further into the year due to revised schedules at schools and universities. She said the momentum might push all the way to the height of summer tourism.
To plan for popular tourist seasons, the Visit Sarasota team had to switch up its strategy. It focused heavily on vehicular travel rather than air travel and highlighted the outdoor dining and activities the county has to offer. Sarasota Restaurant Week, the PGA Tour’s World Golf Championship and the U.S. National Croquet Championships were large attractors.
Five of the top 10 visitor origins are from Florida, which Haley said is typically not the case.
“People who might normally be going on a cruise are instead staying put and doing driving vacations,” Haley said.
However, the organization is slowly starting to funnel money into air travel ads, particularly in partnership with Allegiant and Southwest Air flights. Rick Piccolo, the president of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, said those efforts aren’t in vain.
After bringing its nonstop destination service to 46 cities, Piccolo said the airport expects to have a record amount of traffic for the month of March with a total of about 260,000 passengers. The previous record of 255,000 was set in 1991.
“A year after, we’re going to be fully recovered and then some,” Piccolo said. “It’s great. We are tracking well ahead of the national average.”
Although the area seems to be recovering well, Haley said it is too soon to give the all-clear.
“You have people who haven’t been able to go anywhere and who don’t have a lot of choices on where to go, so we have to be careful not to get a false sense of, ‘Everything’s OK,’” Haley said. “These people, given the choice, may prefer to be in the Caribbean or Europe or on a cruise.”
Haley said the county probably has about six months to take advantage of pent-up travel demands before switching gears and working toward bringing back traditional means of tourism.
The big area that’s currently lacking is business meetings and conferences, which annually represents about 5% of total tourism.
Although not a large overall number, Haley said it is important business because it typically attracts people throughout the weekdays while leaving weekends open for vacationers.
“We want to get a solid base of business flowing constantly, so we can keep our employees working all week long,” Haley said.