CLEARWATER BEACH — Waiting at the bus stop, a box of leftover chicken wings perched on his lap, Scott Soprano could be the poster child for a tight tourist season.
He drove straight down from Ithaca, N.Y., and stayed at his grandfather's Largo home with his mom, sister and a friend, Jen Perry. They bought $4 all-day bus passes to the beach, cooked most dinners at the house and enjoyed free sunshine.
"We could have gone somewhere else," said Soprano, 27, an animal technician at Cornell University. "But we couldn't afford to stay there two weeks."
Tampa Bay area hotels, beach shops and restaurants count on spring season — Presidents Day weekend through Easter — to make their biggest profits of the year. While visitors flocked to the area, say tourism officials, the sour economy caused many to spend less.
"We'd pinned our hopes on a better spring," said Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "Was it all we wanted? No. Was it good enough? Yes. You've got to stay in business."
In St. Pete Beach, the Alden Beach Resort & Suites cut rates 20 to 30 percent to fill rooms, said general manager Anthony Satterfield.
"Normally, we wouldn't be doing this kind of discounting in February, March and April," he said. "But we had to."
Ditto for the nearby TradeWinds Island Resorts. The TradeWinds, with the most rooms in the Tampa Bay area, filled just over 90 percent them last month through price breaks, especially for large groups, said chief operating officer Keith Overton.
"We accepted government (rates) in season that we would not have considered until now," he said.
Hillsborough hotels also struggled. Most reported occupancy is down and room rates are down from a year ago, said Steve Hayes, executive vice president of Tampa Bay & Co., the county's tourism marketing agency.
Not everything is gloom and doom. Brand-name beachfront hotels packed rooms without discounts. The Holiday Inn Clearwater Beach charged $200 to $500 per night last month and still filled more than 95 percent of the rooms on average, said owner Jeff Keierleber.
Day-tripping locals packed the beach last week. They're a mixed blessing for merchants, shunning hotel rooms but visiting restaurants and bars.
"We get locals in tight times," said Ken Hamilton, owner of the Palm Pavilion Inn and Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar in Clearwater Beach.
His business was slightly ahead of the previous March.
Pricey diversions are taking a beating. Between the economy and stormy weather, customers booked 20 trips last month on Capt. Tom Sprague's charter boat, Dos Amigos, in Clearwater Marina, down from 30 a year earlier. March and April typically account for half his annual business.
But the economy didn't slow down the "Getaway Gang," seven Philadelphia area women on their 25th annual excursion. They took in a Philadelphia Phillies spring training game, rented an Indian Rocks Beach house for a long weekend and hired a local chef to cook dinner.
"We're stimulating the stimulus," said Rosemary Esposito of Cherry Hill, N.J.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.