After the coronavirus pandemic crushed Pinellas County tourism in 2020, there was uncertainty over how long a recovery would take.
Now, early data suggests 2021 could be the year of the comeback.
Pinellas County hotel occupancy in April hit 82 percent, which is 4 percentage points higher than April 2019, the highest performing year on record, according to Steve Hayes, CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism arm.
In March, Pinellas collected $9.7 million in bed taxes, the 6-cent levy on hotel and motel stays, making it the most lucrative March to date.
“I was like, is there a typo?” Hayes said upon seeing the data this week.
Tourism in Pinellas County is booming as society emerges from the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, setting the potential for 2021 to be the most profitable year on record. The year began strong even without the overseas and business travelers, who are normally part of the market but are absent due to international restrictions and the lag in advance corporate bookings.
Hayes said “we could come close” to beating the 15.2 million visitors who came to Pinellas in 2019, the busiest tourism year ever.
“I will add the caveat to that if nothing else happens” like a hurricane or an environmental disaster, Hayes said. “You know the travel industry for us, one little hiccup and boom, it could set off downward numbers again.”
Not only are occupancies and rates exceeding 2019 levels so far for New Hotel Collection’s three Pinellas County venues, but bookings for summer and fall are exceeding their best records, according to founding partner Tommy Del Zoppo.
His firm bought the Cordova Inn in St. Petersburg in December amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. Del Zoppo said the decision came in part because of strong occupancies he saw at his Harbourside Resort in Indian Rocks Beach and Beachside Hotel in Indian Shores after Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed bars and restaurants to reopen with restrictions last May and June.
“Our best four months in the history of this company were June, July, August and September coming out of the pandemic, so for us that was a strong indicator there was a lot of pent-up demand in the system,” Del Zoppo said. “We felt very comfortable in that purchase, that it was going to be a good acquisition.”
Though 2020 was not the worst year for tourism in Pinellas County, it had some of the worst months on record and deprived the area of millions of dollars in bed taxes, which help fund marketing and infrastructure projects. April 2020 was the worst single month on record, with 20 percent average hotel occupancies, according to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
There were 35,000 fewer tourism jobs in 2020 than the year before. Tourism had a $5.8 billion impact — $3.2 billion less than 2019.
Tourism began a slow revival following the low of April 2020, but the rest of last year still brought uncertainty.
At the start of the pandemic, Hayes said he was asked to forecast how he thought 2020 would end.
“I underpredicted,” Hayes said of the $48 million collected in bed taxes. That is $14 million less than what was collected in 2019.
Jeff Thompson, general manager of Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort And Spa, said his hotel just had the best spring break in its 11 years.
He said the hotel has been packed with visitors from mainly the Midwest and Southeast, as well as in-state travelers looking for a change of scenery.
In September, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater launched a $2 million marketing campaign to promote the area’s support of social distancing and mask wearing. The county passed an ordinance requiring masks in most indoor public places in June, but it ended when DeSantis invalidated all local mandates earlier this month.
“This destination has proven to be popular due in part to all of the safety measures,” Thompson said.
At TradeWinds Island Resort on St. Pete Beach, manager Travis Johnson said his summer bookings and rates are also pacing ahead of 2019, his best year.
Travel spending nationwide reached $69.5 billion in March, higher than the last four months but 31 percent below March 2019, according to the U.S. Travel Association. More than seven in 10 American travelers are planning a summer vacation, the group reported on April 29.
Johnson said although the resort is missing the corporate reservations that are normally booked a year in advance, short-term visitors have more than made up for the loss in business travel.
And because rates are higher for transients than groups, profits have surpassed TradeWind’s record 2019 year, Johnson said.
“It’s that whole pent up demand,” he said. “Folks are getting more comfortable and vaccines have played a big role in that.”