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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Island tourist season had slow start, but boom is here

While many Islanders might think the daily traffic pattern on Gulf Drive is higher than normal for a winter season, tourism to Anna Maria Island actually got off to a slower than usual start in January.

The Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau reported occupancy at Island accommodations in January 2005 was only 37.5 percent, down 9.3 percent from the 46.8 percent rate recorded in January 2004.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Director Maryann Brockman agreed, noting that many members had reported an unusually slow January.

"It's been a slow start to the season," said Brockman. "I think the hurricanes of last year hurt us somewhat. People seemed to think there was nothing here."

But following a mid-January article in the Los Angeles Times and an early February story in the New York Times about the wonders of Anna Maria Island, visitor arrivals seem to have increased significantly, she said.

"Business has picked up a lot. February seems to be booming and March is looking great," Brockman predicted. "We're getting swamped with calls from people looking for rooms."

The chamber office recently mailed out 500 travel packages that had been requested by people who plan to book a vacation on the Island. "Normally, 500 packages would last us about three months. I'm sure the New York Times article really stirred some interest," said Brockman.

And, she noted, those stories were completely unsolicited. "They were just from writers who came here and liked what they saw," she said.

In addition to the two newspaper articles, the current British edition of Conde Naste Traveler features a story and photos on Anna Maria Island.

Susan Estler of the CVB said the New York Times article appealed directly to those people looking for the "quiet, Old Florida charm" that disappeared from many Florida barrier islands several decades ago.

"People might have thought a Florida vacation was nothing but going to a tourist attraction destination or a beach with miles of high-rise condominiums, hotels and swinging night clubs. Now, they know they can still find the old Florida vacation," she said.

"And we're not about attractions and mass tourism. We cater to the families and people who want a quiet beach. We're not for people looking for the night life, we're not for people looking for a manmade attraction."

Estler agreed that some visitors might have stayed away from the Island because of the hurricane publicity, but she noted that overall occupancy (Island, Longboat Key and mainland) was only down 1.5 percent for January 2005 (55.8 percent) compared with the 57.3 percent rate for January 2004. In fact, mainland occupancy rates for January 2005 were at 72.9 percent compared with 69 percent for the same month last year.

"It would seem that people continued to come to the area during January, but not as many went to the beaches to stay. That seems to be changing quickly," she added.

Nigel Brown of Anna Maria Beach Cottages agreed. "January was somewhat slow, but we're booked solid right through to mid-April," he said.

He noted that since the Conde Naste article was published in Britain, he's had two telephone calls from London asking for a room.

One was from an American who has lived in London for 30 years, but always vacationed in Key West. The second was from a couple from South Africa now living in London who had been looking for a quiet getaway.

"I guess you could say we're really going international," said Brown with a laugh. "But business has really picked up the last few weeks and I'm sure those stories really helped."

At the Econolodge Surfside Resort and Bamboo Club in Bradenton Beach, the only national chain motel on the Island, Marge Moran also said business has really increased the past few weeks, with weekends usually selling out.

"We've got a few spot vacancies between now and Easter, mostly for a weeknight stay," she observed. "A lot of people don't realize we have daily rentals. We always try to help the walk-in traffic, but the best bet is to book in advance."

Kent Davis of the Siam Garden Resort in Anna Maria concurred. "We're booked completely through April, but January was a slow month. Everything's looking great now."

The long-stay rental market is also up for February and March, according to Mike Norman of Mike Norman Realty in Holmes Beach.

The company has more than 300 vacation rental properties and March rentals are nearly 100 percent booked, he said. Additionally, February was a solid month and January rentals were up from last year.

"I'd say the season is looking very, very good," said Norman.

Island restaurants are also reaping the benefits of increased visitor traffic.

"January was good, but February was outstanding," said Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar restaurant in Anna Maria, the Beach House in Bradenton Beach and the Mar Vista on Longboat Key.

"All three locations reported a considerable increase in business in February, the best-ever month," he said.

Damon Presswood of the Ooh La La Bistro in Holmes Beach couldn't be more pleased with business this February. "January wasn't that slow, but it's been great during February. Certainly way ahead of last year," he said. "We've doubled our business from last year on many nights in February and March," said Presswood, who recently added 25 seats to his establishment to accommodate patrons.

A sure sign the winter season is picking up is traffic on the Island. Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale said traffic volume was normal for a winter season until recently, when he and other officers began to observe longer-than-normal backups at the Gulf Drive-Cortez Road intersection.