KEY LARGO — For visitors longing for the laid-back Florida Keys ambiance, much of the charm is in small, eclectic lodgings with such alluring names as Rainbow Bend, Pines & Palms, Deer Run, Kona Kai and Lime Tree Bay.
"A lot of people come to the Keys for a certain Keys vacation in mind: to stay at a mom-and-pop," said Jodi Weinhofer, executive director of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys. "They are places that don't exist in other locations and are a huge part of what makes the Keys special."
They also are places that have proved resilient through the past two years of a global recession, a lingering cold spell during the 2010 high tourist season, the BP oil spill that kept visitors away in droves last summer and even ongoing sewer work along U.S. 1.
"We're here, but it has been a struggle," said Linda Adams. She and her husband, Dave, are entering their 22nd year as owners of the Rock Reef Resort with 21 units in Key Largo.
Small-property owners did what they had to do to keep the lights on. Joe and Ronnie Harris, owners for the past 20 years of the Kona Kai Resort, Gallery and Botanical Garden in Key Largo, didn't take salaries for part of 2009. Jay Marzella, owner of the Parmer's Resort on tranquil Little Torch Key for the past 12 years, was forced to cut his staff from 25 to 15 people.
Most lodging places slashed rates to keep occupancy from plummeting.
"The mentality of a lot of customers is they come down going door to door looking for the best deal," said Jim Bernardin, owner of Pines & Palms Resort, with 25 oceanfront units and free dockage for guests' boats in Islamorada.
In 2007, occupancy rates for Keys motels, hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns outside Key West were 61.9 percent, with an average rate of $197.19 per room, for the approximately 60 percent of the lodging facilities that reported data, according to Smith Travel Research.
In 2010, occupancy rates were exactly the same, but the average room rate dropped nearly $40 a night to $158.35.
"It has not been fun, very bad," said George Edison, general manager of Grassy Keys' Rainbow Bend Resort, with 23 units and a great perk: free half-day use of a Boston Whaler motorboat for each day of the visit. But even that perk didn't prevent him from having to roll prices back to 2005 levels.
Jackie Harder, executive director of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, said she knows of no Key Largo lodging properties that have been unable to pay their mortgages and bills.
"These small properties don't have the same distribution channels as the flagship chains, but they have customers coming to their properties for 20 years who won't stay anywhere else," Weinhofer said. "That helps."
But not all small properties survived. On Grassy Key, the Flamingo Inn, with a three-bedroom unit going for $143 in high tourist season, closed its doors last year.
Outside Key West, another 14 small hotels also are for sale in the Keys.
"Some are distressed, and some are not," said Brian Schmitt, a broker with Caldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate Co.
Rainbow Bend, which includes a five-star gourmet restaurant called the Hideaway Cafe, is on the market for $4.5 million. So is the seven-room Anchor Inn in Marathon for just $699,000 — not much more than the cost of an average home in the Keys.
For 104 miles, from the entrance of Key Largo in the Upper Keys to the outskirts of Key West at the end of the island chain, there are only eight big chain hotels: five in Key Largo, two in Islamorada and a new Holiday Inn Express in Marathon, according to researcher Jessica Bennett of the Monroe County Tourist Development Center.
"We have 38 hotels in Key Largo, and the overwhelming majority are the mom-and-pops, the small, unique accommodations," Harder said. "They kind of run the gamut from the high-end Kona Kai to the inexpensive cottages."
Many of the Keys' small lodging facilities have had or are making upgrades, even in tough economic times, to gain an edge in the market.
The Kona Kai, where the 11 units range from $225 to $899 a night, has added a botanical garden with a staff ethnobotanist to give tours and explain the relationship between plants and human culture.
Bernardin at Pines & Palms has opened a poolside tiki bar that also overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.
Victor Bubnow, who has owned Lime Tree Bay Resort in Layton for 20 years, is just wrapping up a $2.5 million renovation that includes the addition of six two-bedroom, two-bath suites just 20 feet from the Gulf of Mexico. He also moved the parking garage away from the waterfront and added about 200 palm trees to increase the tropical lushness.
Some lodgings also have been helped by claim money received from the BP fund doled out by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. Monroe County businesses and individuals had received $68.1 million as of March 1, but exactly how much has gone to lodging properties is not available.
But the BP oil spill is now a memory. The weather this high tourist season, beginning at Christmastime, has been chamber-of-commerce perfect. And while the recession may not be over, many people who have been frugal while worried about losing their jobs and homes are thinking about taking vacations again.
The Keys' small lodging owners agree that the worst of the economic storm may be past. On Presidents Day weekend at the end of February, it was nearly impossible to find an empty room anywhere on the islands.
"It was the first time in a long time you could go down the highway and see 'No Vacancy' signs everywhere," Adams of Rock Reef Resort said. "It lifted our spirits and gave everybody a shot in the arm."
It also helps to push future visitors to start booking in advance.
"I had a friend who needed a room Friday night of Presidents (Day) weekend, and I called every property I knew," said Daniel Samess, chief executive officer of the Marathon Chamber of Commerce in the Middle Keys. "Nobody had a room. I was sorry for my friend, but as a chamber guy, it's a good problem to have."