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St. Pete Beach hoteliers rolling in empty rooms

St. Pete Beach's hotel industry has suffered in the wake of the nation's recent economic troubles. Several resorts are reporting lower occupancy rates and decreasing profits compared to last year's peak season. One resort said business is down 30 percent since last year, with another lamenting that 2008 brought the slowest Labor Day in more than 20 years.

According to some hoteliers, the annual influx of "snowbirds" — Northerners who flock to Florida for the late fall and winter — has ebbed as well.

"This is the time of year when many of the snowbirds start coming to town," said St. Pete Beach Mayor Michael Finnerty. "But this year, I've seen fewer New Yorkers around town, significantly fewer cars on the streets and fewer people going to some of the restaurants. … Some of the resort owners have casually mentioned to me that they're struggling."

Finnerty said the city itself doesn't have a precise method to measure this slowdown, but anecdotal evidence, as well as numbers from local resorts, all point to a drought in business.

Gregg Nicklaus, co-owner of the Sirata Beach Resort, said he has seen a decrease in occupancy ever since the national economic slowdown began.

"It all started around mid July," Nicklaus said. "That's when all this economic chaos started … we ended up having the worst Labor Day in over 20 years. That put us in a very difficult situation to start the fall."

To cope, Nicklaus said his resort had to cut employee hours and freeze all fall renovations.

"We have not cut any of our services, but we have reduced the hours of all employees by at least 10 percent," he said, "On any given month, we've had a 5 to 10 percent decrease in business since last year. … With those sort of numbers, you can't afford not to cut back."

Other resorts in the area have seen an even more bewildering trend in business. "It just keeps sinking lower and lower; it's like there's no end in sight," said Robert Czyszczon, general manager of the Plaza Beach Resort. "I would say we've seen at least a 30 percent decrease in business compared to 2007 … people are spending less, going for the standard rooms as opposed to the premium rooms and are cutting the lengths of their stays."

Czyszczon is also seeing fewer snowbirds booking rooms than in previous years. "I guess they are just cutting back. People can't afford to drive or fly down here," he said.

Nearby resorts in Treasure Island also are reporting slower times. The general manager at the Thunderbird Beach Resort on Treasure Island said occupancy has continued to decline since last month, and that fewer out-of-state vacationers have booked trips.

While the flow of domestic travelers to St. Pete Beach resorts has slowed down, hotel operators do report a healthy number of foreign travelers visiting the area. "The Europeans really have benefited from our weak dollar in recent times," said Nicklaus. One euro is worth about $1.25 at today's exchange rate. The advantage has decreased in recent months, as the euro was worth just under $1.60 in July.

"Those Europeans have kept us afloat," added Czyszczon, "It is often less expensive for them to vacation in Florida than in Europe."

The Sirata, for example, partners with wholesale vacation package providers that offer car, air and hotel stays in various Florida locations. Nicklaus said many Europeans opt for vacation packages, and that those all-inclusive deals have remained more stable than individual domestic vacation plans.

But even these foreign travelers are more thrifty than they used to be.

"Not only are they shortening their stays, but they are generally more conservative with all their disposable income," Nicklaus said. "That not only affects us, but also has a trickle-down effect on our employees and other businesses in the area. … Everybody I talk to seems to be hurting because people are just spooked by this economic crisis."

St. Pete Beach hoteliers rolling in empty rooms 11/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 10:22am]
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