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Date of Issue: April 23, 2008

No recession for Island's winter tourist season

While many major media outlets continue to announce rather grim economic news, including the dreaded “recession” word, Anna Maria Island the past winter season appears to have escaped any recession fears, at least in terms of visitors and their spending.

Figures released by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for March report occupancy of surveyed Island accommodation units was at 88.9 percent, a 5.2 percent climb from the same month in 2007. Likewise, Longboat Key occupancy also jumped, rising from 85.5 last year at this time to 89.4 for March 2008.

At the same time, the average daily rate for an Island accommodation unit climbed to $191.86, a 9 percent increase from the same month last year.

The news brought a smile to CVB marketing manager Susan Estler.

“I haven’t had any of our members complain about the season. In fact, most have been singing praises and we’ve been extremely busy with requests for information. I think we’re seeing the result of a lot of hard work and a consistent marketing program. We’ve been getting a lot of good press coverage overseas, and I’m very encouraged for the summer,” Estler observed.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Mary Ann Brockman couldn’t agree more.

“We’ve had no complaints from any of our members,” noted a pleased Brockman. “I think it’s safe to say the Island has been very busy the past two months.”

In addition to European visitors, Brockman believes more Canadian visitors came to the Island this year than in years past, a direct result of the one-to-one exchange rate Canadians are now getting for their dollar.

And a lot of them headed to the chamber offices.

“In fact, we had 3,012 walk-ins in March and that was a record,” she added.

About 70 percent of the walk-in traffic was looking for an accommodation, but they also wanted information on where to take the kids, where the fishing boats are, where they could rent a bicycle or motorcycle, and where the best restaurants are.

“I’m happy to report we had a lot of good restaurants to give them,” she said.

Among those restaurants are the BeachHouse in Holmes Beach and the Sandbar in Anna Maria, and owner Ed Chiles is delighted with the season.

“March was a record month for us, and we even had some days lost because of the weather,” Chiles noted. “And even April is going strong, so I expect we will continue to be busy.”

On the Internet, the chamber was fairly busy, recording 67,280 “hits” during March, accompanied by 667 direct requests for a rental unit.

“It’s certainly been a great season and our Island economy needed one,” Brockman noted.

It also helped that a weak U.S. dollar made a Florida vacation an attractive proposition.

Whereas Europeans two years ago were only getting about 70 cents for every Eurodollar, for this winter season the Euro was fetching about $1.60. As noted, Canadian visitors are getting an even exchange on their dollar, compared to about 75 cents two years ago.

“This year, a Florida vacation was very reasonable for the European and Canadian visitor. The attractive exchange rate appeared certainly to be a factor. From the reports I’ve gotten, everyone seems to be pleased,” Estler said.

One who can certainly appreciate the favorable exchange rate is Tom Buehler of Haley’s Motel in Holmes Beach. The motel has done well attracting German and United Kingdom visitors this winter and Buehler credits the exchange rate as the reason for a March sellout at the motel.

“Absolutely, the great exchange rate is why they’re here,” said Buehler. “And our March was 100 percent sold out because of that exchange rate. If we’d had twice the number of rooms, we would have doubled our occupancy,” said an obviously pleased Buehler.

“And we actively seek out the European visitor. With British visitors getting two-for-one on the pound to the dollar, this is a bargain vacation for them. Two years ago, I think they were only getting about $1.30 to the pound. A Florida vacation in winter is now not that expensive for them.”

With marketing and advertising in Britain and Germany, Haley’s has had its best winter in several years.

“And summer bookings are already ahead of last year by 25 percent,” Buehler added. “

Indeed, said Marge Moran of the Club Bamboo Resort on Bradenton Beach.

“March was one of the best months we’ve ever had. We had a lot of 100 percent occupancy nights and had to turn people away on occasion. We are way ahead of last year and everyone seems to be happy.”

As one of the few Island resorts to accept walkins seeking a single-night stay, Moran realizes that during the winter season, this can often play havoc with a property’s occupancy rate.

“We do try to accommodate people who show up on Friday evening and want a room just for a night,” Moran said. “But it was hard to do that this past season because of heavy demand and a lot of advance reservations.”

Moran said when she’s unable to accommodate a visitor, she attempts to find them lodging elsewhere on the Island. During the winter season, however, the person seeking a $100 room on the Gulf of Mexico “had to go inland,” Moran noted.

Even on the mainland, occupancy and room rates were up from last year. The CVB reported the mainland average daily room rate for March was $173.49, up from $162.64 for the same month in 2007. Mainland occupancy increased, but only slightly, rising from 88.3 percent last year to 88.5 percent for March 2008.

“I think it’s fair to say people prefer to stay on the Island near the Gulf than on the mainland and have to drive here daily,” added Buehler. “What’s not to like about an Island vacation in winter?”