Beachside hotels report pretty good summer

VERO BEACH – Even with June showing a nosedive in visitors to Indian River County, beachside hoteliers say all things considered it has been a pretty good summer for attracting out-of-towners to our slice of paradise.

But while hotel occupancy has been pretty good, the tax revenue generated is flat compared to a year ago, down $10,000 from last year. After showing a steady increase in revenue since the start of the year, June saw a precipitous drop as the incessant drum beat of media coverage began to spread the notion that the Gulf oil spill was going to be a catastrophic and long-term problem for all of Florida’s beaches.

“We definitely saw cancellations (in June),” said Costa d’Este Director of Operations Monica Smiley. “The call volume just dropped off.”

The British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20 and by June the weight of the negative publicity, along with computer models showing oil getting caught in the Gulf Loop Current and covering east coast beaches, had everyone connected with the tourism industry from the President down to local hotel operators scrambling to get the word out that Florida’s beaches were clean and ready to be enjoyed.

“I think the oil spill had a huge impact, I heard that the perception of a lot of Europeans was that the oil had covered all of the Florida beaches, not just a small portion,” said Jennifer Bates, the director of sales for the Holiday Inn on Ocean Drive.

The numbers do reflect a huge drop in tourist tax revenue in the county for June after showing steady increases since January. In June revenue dropped more than 10.5 percent from the year before from $94,744 to $84,734.

“June was painful,” Smiley said. “It was kind of scary because nobody knew if that was how the whole summer was going to be.”

Though the official figures are weeks away, the good news is most of the beachside hotels contacted by Vero Beach 32963 said they saw an upswing in occupancy in July and August — enough to wipe out the concerns that June had wrought.

There were a number of factors for the bump, not the least of which was, as Bates said, “thinking outside the box” to come up with promotions and deals to attract guests who might have been wary of committing cash to a vacation or weekend stay where they thought they might not be able to use the beach.

The Holiday Inn has been promoting its 104 days of Summer and $104 room rate for some of its 104 rooms.

Costa D’Este has been running a special from Sunday through Thursday offering an ocean-front stay for $129 a night.

“We have even sold out some nights and to sell out on a Tuesday during summer is almost unheard of,” said Costa d’Este’s Smiley.

An apparent exception to the June swoon was the Vero Beach Hotel and Spa, which general manager Marco Scherer says has been topping projections throughout the summer.

Scherer said compared to June of last year room revenue was 14 percent higher and occupancy was up 23 percent and he cites similar figures for July.

“We consider our competitors the luxury hotels in West Palm Beach such as the Four Seasons, or (locally) the Brazilian Court,” Scherer said. “I noticed that they had a pretty good June too.”

He said his hotel may have benefited some from the gulf tragedy, attracting guests who did not want to risk a beach vacation on the west coast of Florida.

“We were getting phone calls asking where is the oil, is it coming your way,” he said. “We had people canceling from the west coast to stay with us.”

To be sure, part of the mid-summer rebound for local hotels has been the very active marketing campaign to let the world know that most of Florida’s beaches — and all 26 miles of Indian River County’s — were oil-free and open for business.

“We are absolutely still battling misperceptions regarding the spill,” Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer of the state tourism marketing board Visit Florida, said.

The state received $32 million from BP to fight the notion that Florida’s beaches were awash with oil.

“I would say Gov. Crist and his actions in unison with the Visit Florida web site really turned it around for us and really made a difference,” Smiley said. “We worked hard to get the word out through social media on the Share a Little Florida Facebook page, which links back to our Facebook page and lets people know that things are great in Indian River County.”

“Visit Florida put their spring and summer campaigns on hold to deal directly with the oil spill,” said the Holiday Inn’s Bates. “They launched Florida Live which helped tremendously with its web cam at the Sebastian Inlet so that that people could see our pristine beaches in real-time.”

Indian River County got into the act as well working with the Tourism Development Board to support their marketing efforts.

“The county took a very proactive stance and put up live web cams at the Sebastian Inlet to show that this is what our beaches look like right now,” Smiley said.

One of the key ingredients in saving the summer may have been the Internet campaign mounted by Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with member hotels.

Sue Hunt, the chamber Director of Tourism, found that many potential travelers were using the Web to do research on the state of the oil spill.

To reach those people and let them know they could come to Indian River County and enjoy a beach vacation, the Chamber took out Web advertising on the Visit Florida Editorial Insider pages, touting Indian River County’s beaches.

The county also posted a prominent link on its web site providing the latest information on the oil spill.

The access to that real-time information has proven invaluable in letting travelers know that their vacation plans are a go.

“Our booking window is a little bit shorter on the beachside, but we are finding that people are still traveling,” Smiley said. “But we are also finding that people are waiting until they get closer to their anticipated departure date.”

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