Businesses pin hopes on upcoming ‘season’
As summer winds down and area businesses start looking ahead to their “season” — that magical time when Southwest Florida gets pumped with millions of dollars of tourist driven revenue — the outlook is at once cautious, hopeful, and mysterious.
Gas prices have come down about 30 cents in the last few weeks, just in time for the long holiday weekend, providing some rays of hope in an economy that’s been buckling horribly under its own weight.
And yet, as no one has come out and cried to the heavens, “Yes! We are in a recession!”, the general mood of most consumers these days is one of brutal cynicism. Most are watching their disposable dollars very, very closely.
How much of that disposable income will be pumped into local retailers, hotels, and restaurants remains to be seen, despite figures that have more or less proven the number of visitors coming to Florida has remained steady over the last few years.
A press release from the office of the Governor on Friday stated tourism increased by 1.2 percent during the second quarter of 2008, compared to the same period in 2007. Earlier in the week, Southwest Florida International Airport released its figures for the month of July, showing a 4.8 percent decrease in total passenger traffic over the same period last year.
It’s an odd mix, to be certain: at one end is the data that supports a bright future, the other end an ailing economy that breeds a dour, if not curious, outlook on the whole scenario.
At this point, most local organizations are saying it’s too early to see what the season may, or may not, hold. The same holds true for the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, as its predictions only extend three months out.
According to VCB’s Deputy Director Tamara Pigott, looking ahead at what they consider the “season” is nearly impossible.
“When we say season, we mean the high season. We mean January, February, and March,” Pigott said. “There are some challenges making a prediction so far out.”
The VCB is now putting a strong emphasis on the fall, a typically slow time for the real-deal tourist dollars that invade Southwest Florida in early spring. The long-term snowbirds — the property owners — do start to trickle back into the area toward the end of September, but the lack of a holiday between Labor Day and Thanksgiving takes national travel down to a standstill.
The VCB’s “Island Fall Fest” is trying to combat that period of doldrums by pushing a lot of the annual, localized fare toward the masses.
Fort Myers Beach’s Pirate Festival, South Lee County’s Taste of Bonita, Fort Myers’ Taste of the Town, and the Cape’s own Oktoberfest all are featured underneath that “Fall Fest” banner.
“We’re really trying to drive fall visitation,” Pigott added. “It might help us shore up some of the economic issues we might or might not face.”
Despite the obvious losses that would result from a slow season, those “economic issues” Pigott mentioned also includes “bed tax” money.
Bed tax revenues play a huge role in Lee County, paying for tourism-driven projects through the Tourism Development Council. Those revenues help to renourish the beaches, build better county park facilities, and, hopefully, keep Red Sox baseball in Lee County for another decade, to name a few.
Pigott said the VCB remains “cautiously optimistic” about the upcoming season, despite traffic decreases in June.
“Year to date, we are up 3 and 4 percent but it fluctuates given the month,” she said. “Generally speaking, though, the tourist tax revenue has been pretty strong, given the economy.”
As the portal to Lee County, Southwest Florida International Airport has taken its share of hits over the recent months.
The figures aren’t staggering by any means, but passenger traffic has definitely decreased since last summer.
According to Victoria Moreland, spokesperson for the airport, there are several factors that ultimately impact those figures. There are “fewer seats” coming into the airport, including the loss of three major airlines that were operating at Southwest International last year.
“Down is down. We don’t need to be rosy about this. We’re not looking through rose colored glasses,” Moreland said. “If we look at the whole picture we’re trying to hold our own. We’re not immune.”
Though Moreland is expecting August and September to be equally slow, one niche market that has increased over the year is the number of German travelers coming to the region, and new non-stop service to Columbus, Ohio, from Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C.
“We’re looking for different ways to attract people to our region,” Moreland said. “Columbus is going to fill a market need that we lost when we lost those three carriers.”
The Fort Myers AAA office is predicting that 296,544 of the estimated 1.4 million Floridians planning to travel this weekend will fly out of state, though that represents the exact opposite of what the region is trying accomplish.
Overall, AAA Travel Manager Marsha Kut thinks people are trying to stretch their travel dollar even further, and planning their trips closer to travel time.
“People are looking for added value, they’re being more conservative with their money,” She said. “They have a wait-and-see attitude.”
In the Cape, local businesses rely more on the long-term snowbird season than the short-term vacationers.
Business owners remain optimistic, even as they struggle through the fall, waiting on the snowbirds to land.
“In my gut, being down here for as long as I have, I anticipate having a good season,” said long-time Cape resident Elmer Tabor, who owns multiple business ventures. “But I wouldn’t go as far as to say we’re going to have a strong season.”
Not a traditional vacation destination, the Cape’s relatively close proximity to area beaches has no real effect on the local economy.
The desperate drive for those tourist dollars is even more desperate, then. And leaves many waiting, and watching, like the rest of Lee County.
“The outlook is good. Many have their fingers crossed to save their businesses,” Tabor said. “Many are hanging on by a thread, waiting on that season to come in.”