A ‘better than expected’ summer

The summer of 2020 turned out much better for island hotels and shops than almost anyone expected coming out of the coronavirus lockdown. Some businesses report a decline in sales compared to prior summers, but the big hotels and many shops say they have been busy, with some having their best summer ever.

Snowbirds staying in Vero longer than usual, instead of returning to the Northeast where the pandemic was intense during the spring, and flocks of visitors from South Florida, which has seen many more coronavirus cases than the Treasure Coast, are two main factors that drove the successful summer season.

A strong real estate market, which brings new residents and potential buyers to town, also helped.

South Florida visitors, along with guests from Orlando and other large Florida cities, see Vero as a relatively safe place to take a vacation or weekend getaway and they have filled the larger hotels on weekends. That activity, in turn, has helped other Central Beach businesses as visitors ventured out from their hotels to shop and dine.

According to Statista, a global market data collector, the occupancy rate of U.S. hotels overall was a dismal 47 percent this summer, but Costa d’Este Beach Resort & Spa had a busy season and was fully booked for Labor Day weekend, according to general manager Chad Olson.

“The resort performed this summer just as it historically does, which is phenomenal, all things considered,” Olson says. The stylish hotel’s summertime guests were mainly Florida residents, so travel restrictions had little effect on the numbers.

Awet Sium, Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel and Spa general manager, says “the summer went great,” even though numbers were down slightly from last year, and he’s seeing an expansion in the hotel’s booking window from one week to 21 days, which is promising.

Sium expected to be at full capacity over Labor Day weekend and is seeing positive indications for September, October and November, with an increase in small group bookings to help fill any gaps in occupancy.

Olson said Costa actually saw an uptick in food and beverage services compared to prior summers. “I think that the guests, when they got here, didn’t necessarily leave the property [as much]. They came here and enjoyed room service, the spa and dining out on the property,” says Olson.

So far, bookings at Costa in September are slightly ahead of last year.

“We sold out faster for this Labor Day weekend than any year that I’ve been here,” Olson says. “Historically, people always waited until the last minute for Labor Day because hurricanes always seem to come around at this time. This year, everybody said the heck with it; we’ve been through enough.”

Olson says it’s still too early to predict how busy October will be because many guests are still booking on short notice, but he also notes that intimate weddings are on the upswing at the hotel. With capacity restrictions still in place, couples whose nuptials were canceled earlier this year are opting to wed now with festivities on a smaller scale.

About 85 percent of the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa’s guests travel from Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Palm Beach, looking, Sium says, “for a little more relaxed experience on the beach. They still want that luxury experience and can have all of that while being in a city with low COVID-19 cases.

“We can seat over 300 guests outdoors. That’s been our claim to fame. Both restaurants have really been gangbusters. Our new facility, Heaton’s, is open-air and covered.

“We’re being protective of our guests and employees, so much so that we still haven’t had a case at our hotel,” Sium adds.

At the Driftwood Resort, the matriarch of the island hotels, Zach Zebrowski, owner relations manager, says an influx of weekend guests has carried the hotel through the summer. “We’ve been booked most weekends, and we are already taking reservations out as far as December.”

South Beach Place, a boutique hotel a mile south of Central Beach, has been busier this summer than last summer, says Nikki Barroso, manager. “A lot of people are coming from South Florida, especially on the weekends. Last summer, people had more choices; now they are doing domestic tourism.”

Looking ahead, Barroso adds that South Beach Place is already almost fully booked for high season, a promising sign of things to come.

Business at the Prestige Hotel, also in Vero’s South Beach area, hasn’t been as strong, says General Manager Edyta Zachariasz. While the hotel was booked for Labor Day weekend with guests from Miami and Palm Beach, overall summer traffic was down by more than half compared to prior years.

The hotel’s traditional clientele are mainly Europeans, and with international travel bans still in place, Zachariasz is not seeing many bookings for upcoming months.

Business has been slow at the Islander Inn in Central Beach, too, where Manager Mary Jane Moreton says “with COVID-19, we take two steps forward and four steps back.”

Usually, the hotel is rented out for Labor Day weekend by a single family, but the family canceled this year, leaving lots of empty beds at the 16-room hotel.

Despite that glitch, hotel guests have been a big factor in the success of shops in Central Beach, where Leigh Jewelers had a 24-carat summer, according to owner Suzanne Leigh. “May, June, July and August far exceeded the expectations I had placed on those months before COVID hit.”

She attributes the successful summer to “self-purchasing to help people feel better, winter residents staying longer and an increase in visitors coming up from South Florida.”

Looking forward to a busy season, Leigh adds, “I believe winter residents are coming back. Especially if they’re in the Northeast. At least being here in Vero, they have the opportunity to be outside in the winter months as opposed to being sequestered indoors.”

Lyra Mickley, owner of Lyra’s, which offers artwork, furniture, lighting and accessories for the home, says she has had a pretty good summer, considering everything that has gone on this year. “People stayed longer, and we have had a lot of people coming in that are leaving the city and moving down here.”

Mickley adds she’s hopeful the season will be better than ever as clients have shared plans to come in November and stay through the holidays instead of going back north for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Diane Williamson, manager of Loggia, which offers “fine apparel, jewelry, shoes and handbags,” says her store has seen an influx of customers from South Florida and noted that there have been many people who said they were newcomers to Vero Beach in the last two weeks.

Sassy Boutique saw significant changes over the summer, says Deana Marchant, co-owner. The shop moved to a new location on Ocean Drive, which stirred up some interest. “Overall,” she says, “we did pretty well. We maintained a good summer business, but we worked hard for it.”

After the hubbub of retrofitting the new space, Sassy’s buyers have now turned their attention to finding new lines for the coming winter season, since they were unable to visit the New York market or attend the big Miami show where they normally find merchandise.

“The designers are trying to find new ways for us to do our buying,” says Marchant. “We have personal appointments on Zoom and Facetime, but that’s difficult because you can’t feel the fabrics. Some of our reps are starting to come to visit us again. That’s much better because we can try on and see how things fit.”

Pauline Adams, owner of jewelry boutique I’ll Never Tell, says she is optimistic about the future of her business, even though “we have no idea what’s going to happen with season.”

She says “it’s tourism from the hotels” that is driving sales in her store. “Thank goodness many of the hotels have been booked this summer.”

Despite a general sense of cautious optimism, some stores are still lamenting the sales that didn’t occur during the early weeks of the pandemic last spring.

“We had a good June, we had a pretty good July and a nice August, but you have to put it in context,” says Beach Shop owner Martin Bireley. “We missed ‘Christmas.’ It was a good summer as summers go, but we missed our six weeks of ‘Christmas,’ which for us is during March and April.”

The Allure Gallery saw less foot traffic earlier this summer, says Jennifer Jackson, manager. “There was a big dip in sales, but things are picking up now.” She, too, attributes the uptick to busy hotels full of South Florida visitors, people taking Florida staycations and day trippers coming up from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.

At Posh Clothing and Accessories, sales are down about 25 percent because of COVID, says Lynn Williams, owner. “A lot of my customers still don’t feel safe going out to dinner. They’re staying home, so they don’t need to buy clothes.”

Conversely, White’s Tackle on Cardinal Drive had a busy summer because people had extra time on their hands. David Olson, manager, says he sold quite a bit of beginner fishing equipment.

“A lot of people were looking to do something to get out of the house, and fishing was one of those things, and people who typically stayed just for the winter stayed longer,” explains Olson.

Another good sign for the beachside retail scene is new businesses opening.

Ryder’s gourmet market opened last Friday and Hot Wax, a smoke shop that offers a complete line of CBD products and assorted handblown paraphernalia, is another new kid on the block. The shop opened on July 1.

“Everything is going great, all things considered,” says Hot Wax co-owner Wes Gensel.

Heading into mid-September, most island merchants and hoteliers are feeling pretty good and turning their attention toward preparing for what they expect to be a good winter season.

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