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Hillsborough tourism officials wonder about industry’s rebound

The count is planning for a 45 percent reduction in 2021 tourist tax collections.
A slide from Visit Tampa Bay shown to the Hillsborough Tourist Development Council Thursday
A slide from Visit Tampa Bay shown to the Hillsborough Tourist Development Council Thursday [ Visit Tampa Bay ]
Published Jun. 11, 2020

TAMPA — The tourism outlook in Hillsborough County remains unsettled and industry representatives disagreed Thursday over how quickly the hospitality industry will rebound from the coronavirus shutdown.

Visit Tampa Bay president Santiago Corrada said hotel occupancy in Hillsborough County showed an uptick in May over April, though still off more than half from the same time in 2019.

In April, occupancy was down 69.8 percent and in May the drop was 56.1 percent from 12 months earlier, said Corrada. Likewise, hotel revenue was off 84.7 percent in April and 72.6 percent in May compared to 2019.

“It’s not a rosy picture, but it’s gradually getting better,’’ Corrada told the Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council Thursday morning.

Related: After tourism hit all time low, Tampa Bay sees signs of a bounce back

Ron Barton, the assistant county administrator for economic prosperity, told the council tourist tax collections — a 6 percent surcharge on overnight accommodations — showed industry activity was off 52 percent in March and 81 percent in April. Before the pandemic, the county expected to receive $42 million in tourist taxes in fiscal year 2020, the first full year since the tax increased to 6 percent in September 2019.

Now, Barton said, the county is calculating a 45 percent reduction in tourist tax collections for the coming year as it prepares the 2021 tourism budget that begins Oct. 1.

“I’ve got a concern that it’s going to be worse than that,’’ said Lou Plasencia of the Plasencia Group, which does hospitality sales and consulting.

Urban markets with larger convention halls and hotels are not rebounding as quickly as markets geared to leisure and recreational tourism like coastal and mountain areas, he said. And, if local hotels begin cutting room rates in order to compete for business, the county will struggle even to meet the tourist tax projections in the proposed budget, he said.

Corrada said 36 conventions or other events remain on the schedule through the end of September, one of which is expected to attract up to 6,000 people. But he acknowledged that cancellations could occur closer to the events’ dates.

Related: Hillsborough cuts funding to Visit Tampa Bay

As part of its budget plan, the county will rework allocations to its tourism promotion partners and tap reserves to cover $2.5 million promised to the Super Bowl Host Committee and to the city of Plant City for sports field renovations.

The county banked the reserves in prior years, when tourist tax collections exceeded projections, to create a rainy day fund.

“All of us, obviously, would agree that it is raining and then some,’’ said Tourist Development Council member Bob Morrison.