As biz tourism dips, breakers and baseball help
Wake up and good morning. Tough economic times for Florida's tourism industry, of course, but also some bizarre marketing challenges. The Wall Street Journal this week reports that luxury resorts find more corporate clients are avoiding booking business anywhere where the word "spa" or "resort" appears in the name. The Journal cites one anecdote in which Amelia Island Plantation up near Jacksonville was asked: Could the resort (with four golf courses, more than 20 tennis courts, a spa and condos that fetch up to $800 a night) drop the word Island from its address?
The paranoia from businesses is largely driven by the federal bailout under way and the keen interest in avoiding any public backlash of corporate events held in places deemed too posh for the current economic climate.
(Memo to AIG, now 80 percent owned by U.S. taxpayers and which has become the most politically tone deaf company in America when it comes to infuriating the public -- its owners. (California resort after federal bailout? Sure. Massive bonuses to AIG employees, some of whom played a role in getting AIG in financial trouble? Why not?) Kudos, AIG, for messing things up so much that so many more businesses are avoiding tourism-related meetings like the plague.)
Right or wrong, it's nasty news for the state tourism industry. In the last quarter of 2008, the number of out-of-state visitors to Florida dropped 13.6 percent from a year earlier, the largest decline since the quarter following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many tourism officials, the Journal says, expect a double-digit-percentage drop in visitors in 2009, at a time when the state is reeling from other economic woes, including being among the hardest hit areas of the real-estate meltdown. "Tourism gets hit hard" is a Monday headline in the St. Augustine Record.
Thank goodness for the current burst of spring breakers into the state -- from South Florida "beach on a budget" breakers to the "Deals R Us" pitch of Panama City -- driven south by a nasty winter up north. Not that many college students stay at upscale resorts. Clem Bason, president of the Hotwire Group, which sells discount hotel rooms, told USA Today that lower fuel prices and airfare sales are helping. Orlando is Hotwire's 2009 value destination, where rates are down more than 10 percent from the same time last year. Says Bason:
"Florida rarely has excess availability (at spring break), and this year it does."
Perhaps, but my experience is more like the report coming out of Fort Myers: plenty of people are visiting Florida right now for the beaches and baseball's spring training. I was out on St. Pete Beach and Pass-A-Grille on Sunday and things were hopping -- if finding a parking space is any indicator. And last night? I was in section 22, deep in right field, of Bradenton's McKechnie Field where the Tampa Bay Rays whipped the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-4. I needed the Hubble Telescope to see any details of the game but the evening weather was great and my son and I were surrounded by out-of-staters. These were the only tickets I could get, and yesterday's Yankees-Phillies and Blue Jays-Red Sox games were already sold out. Cha-ching.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist