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Date of Issue: March 11, 2009

Season great, almost 'no vacancy'

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With the recent arrival of warm weather, the Manatee Public Beach has been a popular attraction for beach volleyball players and sun worshippers. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

Anna Maria Island’s winter tourist season got off to a great start in December and January, as occupancy of Island accommodation units were up compared with the same months last year.

And February has been a solid month for visitors, said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman, but there are a few vacancies.

“A few of our members say they have rooms,” said Brockman. “They’re not complaining, although we are usually sold out at this time. Considering all the interest we’ve seen, I expect those rooms to fill up in the next few weeks.”

The “interest” is coming from some very good, free publicity recently and what the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau describes as an aggressive marketing campaign about the benefits of an Anna Maria Island vacation. The March issue of Southern Living has a four-page spread on vacationing on the Island.

Ton Buehler at Haley’s Motel in Holmes Beach said fewer people are making advance reservations, and more are taking a chance on finding a room on the Island.

“The walk-in traffic has been great. Advance reservations for March are a little behind. Last year at this time, we were totally booked for March. But we’re still filling up on a nightly basis,” he said.

While there might be a few motel accommodations available on a nightly basis, the short-term rental market appears to be exceeding expectations.

Mike Norman at Mike Norman Realty said the rental market this year is ahead of last year’s pace by about 20 percent.

At Island Real Estate, Alan Galletto reported that vacation rentals were up more than 15 percent from last year.

David Teitelbaum of the Seaside, Tortuga and Tradewinds resorts in Bradenton Beach and a member of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council said his resorts are booked solid.

“People have heard about the Island,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of the value and what we have to offer, but it’s true that visitors don’t book months in advance like they used to. It’s just the economy. I’m positive the accommodations will have a great season.”

Ken Gerry of the family-operated White Sands Resort in Holmes Beach agreed that many visitors don’t book as far in advance as in prior years.

“Lately, we’ve had a lot of walk-in traffic. If we can’t accommodate them, we give them a list of places to contact. So far, the season has been as good or a little better than last year,” he said.

Most nights this season, the White Sands has been full. A walk-in guest quickly fills the occasional cancellation, Gerry said.

“We have a lot of our regular guests who come every season, but we’ve also gotten a lot of phone calls from new people who say they’ve heard about the Island,” Gerry said. “I think the recent articles in Southern Living and USA Today really helped. And, hopefully, with Easter coming in mid-April, the season will last a little longer.”

Brockman said the trend is for visitors to stay through April when Easter comes in the middle of the month, and this year, Easter is April  12.

She also agreed that the story in Southern Living about an Island vacation appears to have really boosted interest.

“We were swamped with phone calls and e-mails after the story appeared. And our Web site got more than 2,000 hits in one day. It was just great for everyone,” she said.

 Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau marketing director Jessica Grace said the season has been going great, but the BACVB isn’t resting on its laurels.

Marketing programs the next two months will continue to target Midwestern states, Canada and Europe, she indicated.

“So far, so good. We’ve got our fingers crossed, and we’re continuing our marketing efforts,” Grace said.

Visitor occupancy figures for February will be released this week by the BACVB. Figures for January 2009 were up about 5 percent from the same month last year.