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Sanibel summer: more business, less closures

By Staff | Aug 31, 2016

There was a time not long ago when many businesses on Sanibel would close up shop for at least some part of the summer.

In the last decade, however, businesses in Sanibel have enjoyed a “second season” where locals come to enjoy the sights and sounds of the island.

The result has been record business by many of the restaurants, shops and hotels during the summer months, while those who do close will only do so for a few weeks.

Things have slowed down now, and will remain so until the end of September, when the “snowbirds” slowly start to return.

This “second season” started just around the time of the economic downturn, where many south Floridians, affected by skyrocketing gas prices, starting to forego vacations for staycations.

Ric Base, president of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, said the Florida market really discovered what Sanibel and Captiva had to offer.

“When you’re from the east coast, it’s an entirely different world here. When they found us, they started coming in droves and it picked up summer traffic,” Base said. “It’s the drive market from two or three hours away we’re getting.”

Closer to home, Southwest Florida residents and families started flocking into Sanibel to spend a day or a weekend, eating in restaurants and shopping in its stores.

This happened more and more, to the point where last summer was the best on record.

This summer, water quality, the early start of school and fears of the Zika virus kept more people home this summer. It was still another strong summer, but not like last year.

John Lai, chamber chairman-elect and owner of the Inns of Sanibel, said his four inns saw record numbers in July after a flat June. But August has seen business slow to a crawl for all the reasons stated.

“Tampa and Miami-Dade have been a huge feeder market for us. When you factor in the water quality issues and the Zika scare, it’s made for a perfect storm in August,” Lai said. “For four out of the last five years we’ve seen double-digit growth in the county. But we’re seeing occupancy decline although our rates are stronger.”

Lai said the big issue down the road could be the new guests who come and see the water quality and decide not to return.

“We’re getting people to try Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach. With the water quality issues, I’m afraid they won’t return. They may come and enjoy it, but they may also remember they went somewhere else with prettier water,” Lai said. “We’ve seen cancellations here because of Zika, and that’s very real.”

And people always have to eat. Mark Blust, owner of Timbers Restaurant and a member of the chamber board, said he has seen business increase nicely during the summer. They may not be February numbers, but it certainly represents a mini-season, with 70 percent occupancy.

“I thought we held our own very well. To try to beat last year was a little challenging, but overall we’re happy with the way summer shook out for us,” Blust said.

Many of the retail outlets have also stayed open, according to Daniel Thompson, who has owned Suncatcher’s Dream for the last 17 years. He said he does as much local business as tourists and has built a following that allows him to stay open year round.

“Things have slowed now, but we already get back in the swing of things in late-September. Things are already filled in,” Thompson said. “It’ll be interesting to see if that happens in the next couple years.”

Lai and Thompson said the press regarding Zika, as well as the BP oil spill in 2010, also had a hand in creating hysteria, resulting in a decrease in business.

Still, businesses are seeing more Floridians, more Southerners and more Europeans. Thompson said he is also seeing more Northerners, which is a new thing.

“It’s as hot down here as it is up there and at least they can be on the beach. The rates are down and the kids out of school,” Thompson said. “July is a huge month. Times have changed.”

As for closures, some of the businesses are taking their time off now for maintenance, since it has slowed down.

But those businesses are becoming fewer with the time off much shorter.

Chamber board chairperson Donna Puma, for example, will close her shop, Pinocchio’s Original Italian Ice Cream, for three days after Labor Day for maintenance and to give her workers a chance to breathe.

Base said when he moved to the are 30 years ago, they closed the town down. That’s not happening anymore.

“We see sporadic closing in September. About 15 to 20 percent of restaurants and 10 percent of the businesses close down for anywhere from a few days to a month,” Base said. “Retail doesn’t tend to close down for any length of time.”