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Date of Issue: January 12, 2006

Holiday week flat for some Island businesses, but outlook strong

It was the season to be not so jolly for a number of Island retail store and accommodation owners from Christmas through the New Year.

Some retail stores reported holiday sales were well below previous years and Island accommodation owners said Christmas week occupancy - while generally good - failed to meet last year's levels. Restaurant owners, however, reported that people were still eating out for Christmas.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Mary Ann Brockman said she's been getting mixed signals from retail store members.

"Some stores did very well, while others reported that sales were off. Overall, the Christmas week did not seem as strong as previous years," Brockman said.

Signa Bouziane of Mr. Roberts Resort Wear in the S&S Shopping Plaza in Holmes Beach, one of the Island's oldest retail clothing establishments, said Christmas week was "very slow. We were ready for the shoppers but they didn't come. Business was well off from past years and I don't know why."

Shoppers appear to be buying more on line or giving gift cards, she said, and Islanders and winter visitors were heading inland to the large discount stores for the Christmas deals. If Islanders are going "off-Island" for retail shopping, that could spell bad news for the Island's retail stores.

"It's a concern when you sit here stocked with a store full of clothes for Christmas sales and people don't show up," Bouziane observed.

But there is some good news on the horizon.

"Strangely, sales for early January have picked up, thankfully. We're hoping the trend continues," said Bouziane.

Ginny Dutton, who with her sister owns Ginny and Jane E's Antiques and Art with stores at 5602 Marina Drive in Holmes Beach and 9807 Gulf Drive in Anna Maria, said business was "OK," but "nothing like previous Christmas weeks.

"We seem to be missing a lot of foot traffic, a lot of walk-in customers. It's strange. There's no red tide and no hurricanes, so I wonder if the Island has priced itself out of the market."

She thought some accommodation owners had to raise their rates to meet their ever-increasing tax bills, an idea that Sabrina Musil-Buehler of Haley's Motel at 8102 Gulf Drive in Holmes Beach did not discount.

She's had to increase her rates to meet her 2005 tax bill, which jumped 55 percent from the previous year. However, there's a limit on how high a room rate can go.

"Christmas week wasn't too bad, but overall, bookings weren't as good as past years," she said.

But starting Jan. 2, visitors and reservations at Haley's began coming in at a steady pace.

"We're starting to fill up, but we need 100 percent occupancy for the next three months just to meet the tax bill for last year."

She said at the end of this winter season, she and husband Tom will have to make a decision based upon the winter season on whether or not to sell the property for condominiums or try and make it through another season and hope for some tax relief.

Island accommodation owners can't keep raising rates to keep up with rising taxes.

"If your tax bill goes up 55 percent, you can't raise your room rate 55 percent and hope to have anybody stay with you," she observed.

At the White Sands Resort on Gulf Drive in Holmes Beach, Jeff Gerry agreed that this past Christmas season was not what it usually is.

"We were at 90 percent occupancy, but normally we'd be 100 percent booked that week," he said.

Advance reservations, however, might indicate the Island could still have a solid winter season.

"We're picking up for the rest of January and should be sold out for February and March," he predicted.

Marge Moran of the Club Bamboo Resort on Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach also sees reservations picking up after a lackluster Christmas.

While Christmas week visitors to Club Bamboo were better than expected three weeks ago, "it was still slow," she said.

"But I'm getting a lot of reservations for late January and February, March and April. The long-term outlook for the season is looking better and I hope it keeps up for everyone on the Island."

If restaurant sales are any indication, Island retail and accommodation owners can expect a sold winter season.

"Our business was up," for Christmas week compared with last year, said Damon Presswood of Ooh La La! Bistro in the Island Shopping Center in Holmes Beach.

"And we've had an increase in customers since New Year's. So far, the season is a bit better than last year."

Restaurateur Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar restaurant in Anna Maria, the BeachHouse in Bradenton Beach and the Mar Vista on Longboat Key, said the excellent weather during Christmas week helped keep all three restaurants busy.

"That week was real solid for us," said Chiles. "It was about as good as last year and last year was excellent. Good weather was the key and with the weather holding, all three restaurants are still doing well for early January."

After the slow start to December, Chiles was glad to see business pick up that week. "It helped us pay some bills and with good weather, we'll stay strong."

If the trend continues, Chiles expects all three operations to be extremely busy from February 1 to the end of the season, which is late this year as Easter arrives in mid-April.

And it looks like the trend will continue, said Brockman.

On Tuesday, Jan. 3, the day the chamber reopened after the New Year holidays, there were 765 e-mail inquiries about the Island and 105 people walked in the door asking for information about Island accommodations, restaurants and shops.

"I think the season may have started slow, but we're staring to get a lot of people e-mailing us and coming in for information. That's a good sign," concluced Brockman.