Island booked up, traffic backs up
The combination of a warm, sunny day and spring break converged March 10 to create traffic backups at major Island intersections for several hours, including the Gulf Drive-Marina Drive intersection. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin
If you don’t believe Island tourism is rocking and rolling this season, just take a look at the Gulf Drive-Marina Drive intersection in Holmes Beach most weekday afternoons around 3 p.m.
Lt. Dale Stephenson of the Holmes Beach Police Department said the daily backups at that intersection and the Manatee Avenue-Gulf Drive intersection are among the worst he’s seen in years.
There seem to be a lot of vehicles on the north end of the Island this year, Stephenson indicated.
“It’s been very crowded at those intersections the past few weeks,” he said in a bit of an understatement. “Traffic is definitely heavier than past seasons.”
Increased vehicular traffic means more visitors to the Island, and this could well be a record-setting season for Anna Maria Island.
Occupancy levels of Island accommodation units jumped 12.5 percent in February 2010, compared with the same month last year, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Island’s 74.9 percent occupancy level was the highest February in five years. In February 2009, the occupancy rate was 66.6 percent.
As February tourism was increasing, the January 2010 occupancy figures for the Island showed a 20 percent gain from January 2009, with a 51 percent occupancy level reported this year.
The January-February upswing in visitors bodes well for March, traditionally the strongest tourism month of the year, when Island occupancy climbs above 80 percent, said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman.
And, this year, Easter falls on April 4, allowing visitors to stay just a bit longer to enjoy that holiday, she added.
“This has been the busiest season we’ve had,” she said, and few chamber members are reporting any vacancies.
“If there’s (a) vacancy, they’ll call us to see if we’ve got someone looking for a room. We haven’t been getting many calls, and none of our members are complaining,” Brockman said.
From now through the first week of April, including Easter, there are just a few accommodation or rental units left for people planning a last-minute vacation to the Island.
“We are sold out,” said David Teitelbaum of the Tradewinds, Seaside and Tortuga resorts in Bradenton Beach and a member of both the Manatee County Tourism Development Council and Island chamber.
“One of the best seasons ever,” he said.
“We’ve had a few vacancies for one or two nights, but they are taken quickly. And Easter weekend is a complete sellout,” Teitelbaum added.
He agreed with Brockman that Easter is “well-placed” for visitors to book that extra week, rather than start making plans to head north at the end of March.
At Mike Norman Realty, which manages a large number of rental properties on the Island, Sally Greig said she has no rentals left for Easter week.
“It’s been a really great season already and people have booked well in advance for Easter,” she said.
“We are sold out for Easter, and just a few units are left for a short stay in March. We’ve got a few one-bedroom rentals available for a week starting around March 20, but I’d be surprised if those weren’t taken very soon,” she said.
If someone calls for a rental, Greig will try to locate a unit for them, either with her properties or through the chamber, but most people are calling for an Easter rental and those units are rare on the Island.
Teitelbaum said that people are now calling ahead for a reservation, rather than waiting until the last minute to book an Island vacation. That’s a change from previous years.
“We’ve become a popular destination and people realize it’s hard to come here at the last minute and hope to find a room. We try to help them through the chamber, but my advice to anyone is to book in advance,” he said.
That’s good advice said Dan Conrad of the Club Bamboo Resort in Bradenton Beach.
While Club Bamboo in the past has had a unit or two available for a walk-in visitor during March or Easter weekend, that’s not the case this year.
“People are calling ahead. We’ve got a few singles left, but those are being taken quickly,” Conrad said.
A few rooms were available last week for a one-or two-night stay during the week before Easter, he said, and a few units are available on the Saturday of Easter weekend.
“Other than those, we are booked solid up to Easter and I don’t expect those open rooms to last much longer,” he concluded.
Even what Floridians might deem as cool weather for March hasn’t dimmed the influx of visitors.
“We’re doing great despite the cold,” said Teitelbaum.
“Then I talk to someone from Canada and they say this is great weather,” he said with a laugh.
The flow of visitors has spilled over to Island restaurants.
“We’re doing very well indoors,” said Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar, Beach House and Mar Vista restaurants.
“Outdoor dining has been slowed by the weather, but with weather improving, the outdoor business is picking up. It’s been a great season and it’s not over.”
Dave Russell of Rotten Ralph’s Waterfront Restaurant in Anna Maria and on the Historic Bridge Street Pier, said business couldn’t be better.
“Unless the weather warms up,” he said laughingly.
“Seriously, though, this has been a fabulous season. We’re doing well and, with Easter coming late, we should do even better.”
Russell, Chiles and other Island restaurateurs have reason to be pleased.
Forecasters for the National Weather Service in Ruskin predict near normal temperatures for the remainder of March through the first week of April.
BACVB marketing director Jessica Grace has said the advertising and marketing efforts are paying off with the increase in visitors.
“This shows that we offer value for money. We target to people who want to enjoy a nice, quiet atmosphere. We’re not Orlando, we’re not Fort Lauderdale, and we don’t want to be,” said Grace.
The “value for money” on the Island is not just public relations talking. According to BACVB figures, the February 2009 average daily room rate on Anna Maria Island was $170.95, while this February it dropped to $159.34, down 5.2 percent.
Island driving during season
Island law enforcement officials have some good advice for motorists on the Island the next few weeks and Easter weekend, particularly driving in areas of heavy traffic.
Lt. Dale Stephenson of the Holmes Beach Police Department asked residents to plan their trips accordingly when they have to drive.
Peak hours are in the mornings, when people are coming to the Island, and in the afternoons when people are leaving. Residents should also note that traffic increases as the weather warms and skies clear.
“And, if you have to drive, be patient,” Stephenson said.
Motorists should be especially careful when traffic is bumper-to-bumper. Avoid rear-end collisions. Be watchful for pedestrians, cyclists and people on scooters or Segway vehicles, Stephenson suggested.