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Longboat Key Wednesday, Sep. 9, 2009 12 years ago

Summer survival

by: Robin Hartill Managing Editor

It’s summertime on Longboat Key. It’s hurricane season. Temperatures hover in the mid-90s and feel even hotter. Gulf of Mexico Drive is empty, because Longboat Key is empty. And this year, the slow economy threatened that Longboat would be emptier than ever … right?

Not exactly, say owners and managers of Key resorts and rental properties. They’ve had to be more creative and flexible than in the past, offering specials and relaxing rates to attract more guests. They’ve focused more on Floridians, who, in the past, might have vacationed out-of-state.

The results are varied, with some reporting numbers that have held steady and others seeing modest decreases or increases in occupancy.

But even for those who have experienced small declines, there is good news. The drop-off wasn’t as bad as they expected. And people are still visiting Longboat Key, even if they’re making shorter trips.

“We’ve had people say they’ve given up other things so that they can go on vacation,” said Cindy McGucken, manager at Sun ’N’ Sea Cottages & Apartments.

Who’s visiting?
D.M. Williams, general manager at Casa del Mar, began noticing more Floridians than usual last summer, a trend that has continued this year.

“Gas prices brought them closer to home,” Williams said.

He’s seen fewer Europeans than usual this year, but more Canadians than in the past.

Although June and July were slower than usual, August and September bookings were strong. By the time the resort’s fiscal year ends in September, Williams predicts that occupancy rates will be 3% higher than the year before — currently the resort’s best year on record.

Longboat Key Club and Resort Public Relations Manager Katherine Songster said that group business travel is down, but leisure-room night stays are up for April through July, compared to the same period in 2008. August numbers aren’t available yet, but Songster said resort officials expect the trend to continue.

The top-performing markets for Key Club visitors have been Tampa, Orlando and Sarasota, in that order, with the number of international visitors roughly the same as last year.

Michele Knuese, president of Florida Vacation Connection, which markets rental properties, said that the company’s strength continues to be in its “drive-in market” — people who drive eight hours or less to the area from their homes. Knuese said the company’s off season stretches from May to October. But she expects this year’s off-season occupancy numbers to be 7% to 8% higher than those for 2008.

At Sun ’N’ Sea, bookings declined approximately 10% from last year, which wasn’t as bad as McGucken expected. She, too, has seen lots of Tampa and Orlando residents and fewer people from out-of-state.

Although August was the resort’s slowest month and September will also be quiet, Labor Day weekend numbers were looking strong Thursday, Sept. 3, with 23 of the 24 units booked.

The Diplomat Beach Resort Manager Kathi O’Dell said that this summer’s numbers have been roughly even with those from last year.

“I think there are more people from closer around here taking shorter times rather than taking longer times,” she said.

Visitors who, in a stronger economy, might have stayed for two weeks are now staying for three or four days.

“People have cut back a bit,” McGucken said.

And although repeat visitors make up the majority of renters, more people are learning about the resort, both from word of mouth and the Internet.

“We’re starting to see some new faces,” O’Dell said.

Striking a deal
Some resorts have offered special discounts and packages to attract customers. But resort officials agree that value is key.

Knuese said that Florida Vacation Connection has added new properties that have appealed to visitors.

The company also has offered specials. Customers have responded more to discounts — some of which have been as high as 50% — than they have to packages that offer free nights.

The Key Club has used the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter to promote specials.

In May, the Diplomat began offering a special of a fourth night free to guests who stay three nights.

Hotels and resorts have also become more flexible to visitors. At White Sands of Longboat Key, a time-share resort, Donna Migone, rental sales manager, said that owners have become more flexible about pricing when it comes to renting their units.

“They’re taking the slow economy into consideration,” she said.

Although Casa del Mar has a one-week minimum stay, Williams said he has relaxed the rule to accommodate people who want to stay for a shorter period.

“If you’re not giving someone an incentive, they’re going to drive down the road,” he said.

Looking ahead
September is usually the slowest month of the summer for Longboat Key resorts, because families often avoid vacationing after the school year starts. Also, because hurricane season peaks Sept. 10, many vacationers avoid vulnerable areas around that time.

Still, hotel officials are optimistic. Last-minute bookings are especially strong, with guests waiting to see the latest specials and hurricane forecasts before making plans.

“They’re doing things spur-of-the-moment,” O’Dell said.

Last-minute guests could translate to an even stronger September than resorts are predicting.

Plus, repeat customers continue to come back. At Sun ’N’ Sea, McGucken reports that guests continue to book reservations for the next year before checking out from their current stay, just as they did when the economy was strong. Williams said that, during better times, approximately 85% of Casa del Mar guests book their next stay before leaving. He estimates that the percentage has dropped, but the majority of visitors — approximately 60% — continue to plan their next stay before leaving.

That could mean that 2010 is shaping up to be another strong year. Plus, resorts are reporting new guests who are learning about Longboat Key and its accommodations. Those new visitors might be next year’s repeat customers.

“Repeat customers are our largest category, but we’re getting a lot of referrals,” O’Dell said.

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