TAMPA — Despite the threat of a catastrophic storm, it was business as usual at many Hillsborough County hotels in the days before Hurricane Irma bore down on the Tampa Bay region.
Between Sept. 3 and Sept. 9, county hotels actually saw a 10 percent increase in revenue over the same period last year, according to Visit Tampa Bay, the tourism promotion agency for Hillsborough.
And when the numbers are tallied, Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada doesn't believe Irma's pass through the bay area will have much of an impact on tourist development taxes collected on each night's stay at a hotel.
"We really dodged a major impact here," Corrada said.
That's a big relief for local officials, and not just because tourism is such an important part of the local economy.
Hillsborough County is chasing the elusive distinction of a Florida "high tourism impact" county, meaning it generated $600 million of revenue in a calendar year at hotels, motels and other short-term rentals. Counties that pass the threshold can increase the tourist development tax, often called the room or bed tax, from 5 cents on every dollar spent on hotel stays to 6 cents.
Some local officials have eyed the sixth cent as one potential way to pay for a Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in Tampa. Those who want to use the room tax for a stadium are quick to point out it is primarily paid by tourists, unlike property or sales taxes. But the tax is off the table if the county doesn't first pass the $600 million mark.
Last year, Hillsborough just narrowly missed the goal; hotels in the county brought in more than $597 million.
Through August, room tax collections are up 2.7 percent over last year, which would put Hillsborough on pace to surpass its goal.
But the margin for error remains slim and a major hurricane like Irma could have easily pushed the county from on track to just short of $600 million again.
Indeed, Irma scared some visitors away and it caused the postponement of the popular Tampa Boat Show at the Tampa Convention Center. And some coastal hotels, like the Grand Hyatt near Tampa International Airport, closed during the storm.
But other hotels filled with evacuees from across the state. More yet provided temporary housing for out-of-state emergency crews and workers, who descended on the state to assist in relief efforts and repair power outages.
As the projected path of the storm moved from Florida's east coast to the west, Corrada said there were mass cancellations, especially by those seeking shelter from other parts of the state. But when the forecast shifted east again, local hotels saw another boost in reservations.
"It was pretty schizophrenic for our hotel guys," he said, but added, "I've got to tell you, we were up on our feet pretty quickly. We were not as impacted as some of our brothers and sisters around the state."
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Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.