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At peak of season, where are tourists?

Traffic on Gulf Boulevard is peak-season thick. Even the metered parking lots around John's Pass Village are close to full. Yet in the gift shops, merchants say they're enduring a sales slump the likes of which they have never seen.

"The first week of March we actually did less business than the last week of February," said Mary Goergen, who owns a pair of John's Pass gift shops. "That's never happened in the 24 years we've been here. One of our vendors said it's the same up and down the gulf beaches."

In a running debate with her business partner and husband, Jim, she blames the cold and rainy weather that plagued Florida this winter. He insists it's only a temporary lull because Easter, on April 20, comes a month later in the calendar this spring than last. She fears the decline is evidence of heightened jitters over the prospect of war from vacationers wary to travel and wary to spend when they do.

A month into their peak winter season, business people who live off tourists in the Tampa Bay area are wringing their hands. Fewer visitors are showing up than last winter. They are not spending what they had been. Most in the industry are bracing for a war in Iraq and the grim possibility that terrorist acts in the United States will create havoc at a critical time in their year.

Statewide, vacation industry marketers are plotting strategies for recovery once the widely expected war is over.

In Tallahassee, Visit Florida Inc. is meeting today to talk about asking the Legislature for an extra $10-million to $50-million in general revenues for tourist promotion to recover from a war. One internal study suggests $50-million will be needed in the worst-case scenario: if there is a war and Florida is then the target of a terrorist attack.

The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is prepared to cancel all of the ads it can this winter once the first shot is fired in Iraq. The bureau wants to raise a war chest of $300,000 to $400,000 for an advertising campaign that would be launched after a war ends.

"We don't want to be spending money on advertising when people are not receptive to traveling," said Scott Schult, the agency director of marketing. "Then we can redirect the ads to markets where our research tells us people are receptive.'

The current winter season, however, is clearly off to a bad start.

Valet parking runners complain their tips are down. Taxi drivers, who frequently are independent contractors, moan that soaring gas prices have pinched their incomes. More vacationers are staying with friends and family rather than checking into hotels.

"Traffic picked up this week, but we should be doing better," said Lee Vowles, assistant manager of the Merry Mouse, a souvenir shop at John's Pass. "Last year March people spent $15 on things. This winter it's more like $3."

Starlite Cruises, which offers dinner trips from Clearwater and South Pasadena, is shifting promotion to locals because tourists slipped from 40 percent to 30 percent of their customer base.

Hotels are experiencing unexpected ups and downs as travelers put off decisionmaking until just days before departure.

"It's a real mixed bag," said Steve Hayes, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Some hotels say things are good, others say things are bad. Yet it's already getting hard to find a room next week because the NCAA regional basketball tournament is in town."

A war in the middle of peak season could be more devastating to the local tourist industry than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That's because winter is when hotels are jammed and they get their highest rates of the year.

"It could not come at a worse time for us," said Daryl Seaton, president of Sea-Wake Resorts, which operates hotels in Clearwater Beach, Crystal River and Melbourne.

"We make the bulk of our money this time of year. If we don't, it's a drag on the business for the rest of the year."

For instance, a measure of a hotel's financial health is revenue per available room, an indicator that reflects the occupancy and the average daily rate. In September 2001 the revenue per available room in Tampa Bay area hotels dropped to $34.34, down $7.47 from September 2000, according to Smith Travel Research. The same 18 percent drop in March would cost hotels almost twice as much lost revenue, $14.10 a night per room because the average room rate is $78.83.

Tourists have varying perspectives about traveling this winter.

In Treasure Island, Min Bassi has only one open room among 17 at her Algiers Resort. Then she got a call from a Canadian regular a few days away from checking in for two weeks.

"He said his wife is really hesitant about traveling to the United States right now because of the war climate, so they canceled," Bassi said.

Spring break visitor Kate Hammond, a Penn State sophomore, said the security hassles at airports did not deter her. But her brother is about to ship out for Kuwait. "These days he's in the back of my mind all the time," she said.

James Giaimo, who's vacationing with his family from Scotch Plains, N.J., has no qualms about flying this week.

"But you won't see me flying for the next few weeks," he said.

_ Mark Albright can be reached at albrightsptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

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