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Record cold in north drives boom here

By Staff | Apr 22, 2015

John Lai, General Manager of The Inns of Sanibel and president of the Lee County Hotel Association. BRIAN WIERIMA

After another winter which blasted snowfall and windchill records, not everyone is feeling the misery of what such weather can bring.

In fact, there are quite a few in the category of “very happy.”

After a record-setting year in 2014, the hospitality industry in Lee County, particularly Sanibel and Captiva, enjoyed yet another peak season, which eclipsed the numbers set during last year’s busy season.

“As a region, this was a February and March for the books as in terms of occupancy,” said John Lai, who is the General Manager of The Inns of Sanibel and the president of the Lee County Hotel Association. “We saw occupancy in high to low 90-percent. All the growth in revenue comes from rate. The demand is there, the ability to raise rate, is there too.”

On Sanibel alone, there is roughly 4,500 rooms available, which includes resorts, hotels, vacation rentals and private homes which rent to vacationers. The busy season basically started in the third week of January and ran through the first week of April.

During that time, rooms were just about full capacity on a weekly basis, and that is good news for the other nine to 10 months out of the year for businesses which cater to the out-of-state guests.

“It sets the stage for the rest of the year, for most of our properties in the Hotel Association and throughout Lee County, the first quarter in some cases, is a third or half of annual revenue,” Lai said. “It’s a big deal. We saw a strong presence from the Northeast and the Midwest. Wherever the weather up north got colder, it certainly helped us down here.”

The nasty winter from 2013-14, which was called the Polar Vortex, also was a big contributor to this season’s success.

“Last year’s weather was a key driver of people booking six-months out or even three-months out,” Lai said. “They are thinking about it months ahead, instead of weeks ahead.”

Another indicator of the visitors staying on the island for longer periods of time came in the form of the Causeway numbers. Traffic over the Causeway was up 5.8-percent in January, three-percent in February and 3.2-percent in March.

“These are modest increases, but it tells us, people drove over once and stayed,” Lai said.

Other indicators of the boom in popularity on Sanibel and Captiva were evident in 2014. Tourist tax collections, for instance, were up in record numbers from previous years. The so-called bed tax in May 2014 was up nearly 17 percent from 2013.

The numbers are tracked by the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.

“We’d like to credit ourselves” with a marketing campaign, said Lee Rose, the Bureau’s communications manager and a long-time observer of the health of the region. “But there are great attractions in Lee County. I just think there’s more confidence in the economy. And it’s nice to see the figures (grow) in summer time, too.”

The improved figures are a sharp change from just a few years ago when the US economy was bottoming. Bed taxes collected in 2010, for instance, were about $16.6 million. The number almost doubled last year, and the figures this year will top last year’s.

In regions like southwest Florida, and especially Sanibel/Captiva, the rise in bed taxes is an obvious indicator that more visitors are choosing to visit, and that social marketing and other outreach is working, said Ric Base, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is one of southwest Florida’s more popular, with its website recording hundreds of comments and tips for fellow travelers.

Thousands of visitors stop by chamber offices just off the Sanibel Causeway.

“What (bed tax revenue) means,” Base said, “is more marketing dollars for the area. More people are traveling as the economy continues to improve and that raises occupancy. As occupancy rises, rates follow. It’s all positive news.”

Sanibel merchant Billy Kirkland this season had his best sales in 20 years. The owner of Billy’s Bike Rentals opened a second location at the Bailey’s Center, but said a couple of factors were at play.

“It was a miserable winter and the magazines and Lee County are doing a good job of telling everyone how nice Sanibel is,” Kirkland said.

Baseball also played a role in the boom, with hotels, resorts and restaurants hitting a home run in the month of March, which had each the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins playing their spring training games in Lee County.

“I would estimate around 50-percent of our guests (on Sanibel) went to at least one spring training game when they were here,” Lai said. “Having two Major League Baseball teams with two great stadiums in Fort Myers, is a huge attraction.”

But the major spike in production came from rate, since occupancy is pretty static because there are only so many rooms which can be filled.

Lai said there was a 2.6 percent growth as a region in occupancy, but an impressive 15.3 percent growth in rate.

“That is a considerable number,” Lai said. “We grew so much in revenue, even though we didn’t take that much more volume, but grew in rate. People are willing to pay the dollar. But new product will be helpful, and renovated product will be necessary to maintain these rates.”

The future, although is hard to predict in such an unstable industry and economy, is looking like the momentum will continue. That also goes for what is considered the “slow” season, which is in the summer and fall months.

Lai credits the Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau for marketing the area well, especially during the off-season portion of the year. Half of the bed taxes the VCB collects from hotels and resorts, goes back into marketing.

“It keeps us in forefront of peoples’ minds, so the VCB and local chambers have been vital,” Lai said. “As an industry throughout our market, we are seeing significant bookings for next year, and are pacing ahead for 2016 from where we were in 2015.

“I see next year being a very strong year. We didn’t think we would beat 2014’s numbers and we blew those away.”

(Craig Garrett also contributed to this article.)