Tourism finishes strong
By MEGHAN McCOY and JESSICA SALMOND
With tourism season beginning, the island’s Chamber of Commerce forecasted a strong Thanksgiving weekend, kicking off the holiday season.
The Islands of Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Lai said although the island has had a strong year of tourism, mainly in the second and third quarter. The first quarter was relatively flat in terms of occupancy on the island.
“It had a lot to do with last year’s winter and the water quality. The repeat business was not there as year’s prior as a result of that,” Lai said.
The Lee County Visitors & Convention Bureau released its annual report for the 2017 fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2016 to Sept. 30, 2017.
According to the report, Lee County incurred $39.8 million of the tourist tax collection from paid accommodations. That’s an increase of .2 percent from the 2016 fiscal year, which was $39.7 million, and 5.2 percent from fiscal year 2015, which earned the county $37.8 million.
“This is really good news for us,” said Francesca Donlan, VCB Communications Director.
The tourist tax, also called the bed tax, is not charged to residents of the county; it’s a tax added onto the cost of getting a hotel room or rental in the county.
Of the $39.8 million, Fort Myers Beach raked in 15.2 percent, or approximately $5.1 million, followed by Sanibel with $5.3 million.
“We are really excited that the county has seen continuous growth,” Lai said. “When we look at it compared to what our competitors are doing in our neighboring counties, we see that we are very fortunate to have the things that we have in place – a robust marketing budget to come back.”
Donlan said this year, Midwesterners dominated the largest share of visitors, and the top markets from cities were Chicago, New York, Boston and Manchester, and Minneapolis.
“The Midwest is new, but the cities take turns sharing the spotlight,” she said.
The VCB conducts visitor surveys to gather data on what tourists think of the area, its attractions, etc. According to the results, Donlan said visitor satisfaction is on the rise with 89 percent saying they’re likely to return and 55 percent saying they plan to return next year, a good sign.
Donlan credits that satisfaction to the “tremendous” efforts of the customer service teams in the local tourism industry. The VCB holds a “guest first” program to train people how to deliver top notch service.
“We’re trying to be the friendliest place in the country,” Donlan said.
Because of Hurricane Irma’s impact to the area, the VCB has switched marketing tactics. Typically it focuses marketing more strongly on efforts to bring in visitors during the “off-season” when it’s slow. But this year, the VCB will switch to year-round marketing campaigns to make sure people know that Lee County is okay to travel to, and was not devastated by the storms.
“Tourism is really the economic engine here. We celebrate the visitors coming – we want them to stay longer and spend more,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure our message is out there about our slice of paradise.”
Lai said although Lee County did very well, Sanibel did not feel the impacts of increased lodging. He said all the men and women helping with cleanup efforts, such as utility workers and first responders, took refuge at the inland hotels.
“The impacts of the hurricane were not felt out here in terms of an occupancy standpoint,” Lai said, adding that vacationers were trying to figure out what the island looked like after the storm.
He said Hurricane Irma made landfall in September, a time when they rely heavily on the instate travelers for their staycations.
“Most of the market was impacted by the storm as well. Bed tax collection being what it was, and the fact that they were able to rebound a weak first quarter county wide had a lot to do with picking up with a lot of business after the storm,” Lai said.
Now looking forward, Lai said they are starting to see a strong season take shape on the island. The retail businesses and restaurants are doing really well, he said, which is nice to see.
“We are feeling the traffic already,” he said. “We know that Thanksgiving is going to be a strong weekend for us. We have great weather and a gorgeous destination that we know people will look forward to coming to next year.”
Lai said they are positioning themselves at the Chamber to market very heavily in places, such as Marco Island and the Keys – where cleanup is still taking place following the hurricane.
“Perhaps those vacationers would still consider Florida as a destination,” he said. “We know that there are very loyal vacationers that love Southwest Florida. They may have been in Marco Island and Naples the last couple of years. There are areas like Sanibel that they may not have tried before.”