SARASOTA - Tourism in Sarasota County got a record-breaking kick to end 2013, a potent signal that the much-vaunted Southwest Florida visitor industry rebound will likely continue this winter.
Total hotel and vacation rental occupancy set an all-time record at 61.2 percent for December, surpassing a mark from 2005, while the average daily rate of $155.83 came close to eclipsing a December 2006 record.
At the same time, the number of tourists and the amount they spent in December rose by double digits over the final month in 2012, according to figures from Visit Sarasota County, the tourism promotion agency.
The December numbers make tourism promoters optimistic about the upcoming high season.
“From the volume we've been seeing, I think we could have a record-breaking season, but I don't think we'll see the growth of the last couple years overall,” said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County.
Haley attributed the December showing, in part, to promotional campaigns that targeted Midwestern states like Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.
“We've had very strong marketing, particularly in the Midwest,” Haley said. “The numbers from there were great.”
A total of 25,210 visitors from the Midwest stayed in the Sarasota County last month, a 16.4 percent increase from the same month in 2012, according to preliminary estimates from Research Data Services Inc.
Midwesterners accounted for 26.4 percent of the visitor market share in December, beating even the market share of in-state tourists.
Two weekend soccer tournaments held at the IMG Academy in Bradenton and at the Premier Sports Campus, in Lakewood Ranch, also elevated visitor totals throughout the region, Haley said.
“Both events bring in thousands of people,” she said.
The December tourism figures continued a string of exceptional months in Sarasota County in 2013, and hospitality industry leaders hope the record means the trend will continue into 2014.
To punctuate that effort, Haley heads today to frigid Chicago — where wind chills are forecast at minus 40 degrees — along with famed Sarasota aerialist Nik Wallenda.
Together, they intend to make pitches to travel writers, meeting planners and others about the virtues of traveling here.
The tourism agency sponsored Wallenda's local training for his Grand Canyon high-wire walk in June, and in return he agreed to a pair of tourism promotion trips. The second will be in London in March.
“He's done events for us before,” Haley said. “He's great at promoting the area.”
The trip comes as the Midwest is experiencing yet another monster blast of frigid air that could result in the lowest temperatures so far this winter in some communities.
The temperature plunge is slated to rival the bitter days earlier this month, according to AccuWeather.com reports, and bring threats of school closings, frostbite, hypothermia, frozen pipes and water main breaks.
Minneapolis, Chicago and other Midwestern communities expected two days of subzero highs Monday and today. Overnight lows will drop to 20 below zero or lower from North Dakota to the western suburbs of Chicago.
For Southwest Florida tourism, the severe cold snap that gripped much of the country in December played a “small factor” in the higher tourism numbers, Haley said, adding it may pay off later.
“Generally, that weather drives a travel decision a month or two out,” she said.
In all, Sarasota County hosted 95,500 visitors in December, a nearly 11 percent increase over 2012.
They spent $79.45 million, or nearly 15 percent more than one year earlier.
The total economic impact was measured at $150.79 million, a 14.7 percent gain.
The record occupancy rate of 61.2 percent was up from 56.3 percent the previous year. RevPAR — or revenue per available room, a key performance measure — was $95.37, an increase of 15.5 percent.
Florida followed the Midwest as the origin of visitors to Sarasota County with 21,390, a 6.8 percent annual increase. The Northeast provided 19,480, an 8 percent gain. Canada was up by 30 percent, though the total number was modest at 4,490.
Revenue was up 18 percent in December from the same month in 2012 at the Fairfield Inn & Suites and the Holiday Inn, both at Lakewood Ranch, said Rob Ferguson, corporate director of sales.
Both properties were nearly sold out during the two weeks of the soccer tournaments.
“It was a little crazy for a while, but very enjoyable,” he said. “A lot of kids and energy, and we also did well on the food and beverage side. Most of the restaurants in the area did very well as well.”
Source: Sarasota herald Tribune
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