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Date of Issue: April 13, 2006

Occupancy levels leave some Islanders wondering

No decline in beach occupancy
Beachgoers packed the Manatee Public Beach last week, leaving motorists scrambling for a parking space and the Island trolley full. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

Law enforcement officials in all three Island cities say traffic this winter season is the busiest they've ever seen, and Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine has been on the Island for 20 years.

In February, the Manatee County Area Transit Island trolley set a one-day record with 2,600 passengers and a three-day record with more than 6,000 riders, prompting concern from some MCAT officials that the trolley might be over-burdened.

Restaurant owners are reporting good sales and most accommodation owners surveyed by The Islander last month said they were been booked solid in March and April is the same.

That's why some tourism industry officials could be scratching their heads over the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau report that occupancy of Island accommodations in February was only 59.6 percent compared with 77.9 percent for the same month in 2005.

"Our members haven't been complaining. Everyone's said it's a good season now," said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Ann Brockman. That's after the admitted slow start in January and early February.

But it's not a great season.

Brockman said she's noticed that quite a number of people stopping at the chamber office's at the Island Fitness Center say they are from Indiana or Ohio and just on the Island for a day visit.

"They say ‘what a wonderful Island you have,' and ask about staying here next year. I can only guess that a lot of the people we're seeing out here are staying on the mainland, but coming here for the day."

In fact, Brockman added, she's had people staying in Sarasota come to the chamber office to inquire about an accommodation for next year.

With all the vehicles and beachgoers on the Island, some might wonder about the occupancy levels.

Actually, the CVB gets its figures from 26 percent of the available rooms on Anna Maria Island, including condominiums. And they've been surveying the same properties every month for the past 18 years.

But the February occupancy figure for the Island could have been off, said Monica Luff of the CVB.

"We had one property that was way down [in occupancy]. It was so bad that it might have skewed all the numbers," she said. And another property on the Island is reporting occupancy is way down for March, Luff added.

CVB Marketing Director Susan Estler said the warm weather up north in January and early February could also have been a factor in the low occupancy figures.

Traditionally, if it's warm up north, the visitors will stay there, she said. As soon as the snow and ice show up, people start coming to Florida and, this year, the cold weather didn't arrive until mid-February.

"I think the entire season has been one of cautious optimism," she added. January was very soft for the industry, but it picked up in late February. March appears to have been a solid month, and Estler is optimistic about April.

With Easter not until mid-April, that usually "extends" the season, she said. When Easter arrives in March or early April, many visitors head home after the holiday. "Hopefully, April will be a solid month for everyone," concluded Estler.

It should be, chimed Brockman.

"A late Easter always helps on the Island. And we're getting a lot of calls for a May or June visit and that's during our normally slow months. Everyone's hopeful," she said.