COLLIER COUNTY — With more groups and businesses tightening their wallets, Collier County saw tourism slow again in March.
Visitor numbers dropped 4 percent last month. There were 183,400 of them, down from 191,000 in March 2008, according to Tampa-based Research Data Services Inc.
It could have been much worse.
Occupancy fell 36.8 percent for “business and conference travel.” However, visitors traveling for family and fun helped make up for much of that loss, with overall occupancy down 5.1 percent in the county.
“Certainly we are concerned when we see declines. I haven’t seen the comparative data with competing destinations. But my guess is we are doing better than most,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In February, visitor numbers declined nearly 10 percent in Collier. In January, they were down 6.3 percent from a year ago.
The bureau’s decision to launch the spring-summer marketing campaign six weeks early may have helped boost tourism last month. The campaign, which traditionally starts after Easter, targets Florida residents.
Travel from within the state was up 15.3 percent. Collier saw 48,234 visitors from other parts of Florida in March, up from 41,829 a year ago.
“I think that is a trend we are going to see more of, as we go further into the year here,” Wert said.
But there is a lot of competition from other areas in Florida that are also focusing on in-state travelers.
Last month, visitation from the Southeast rose 0.8 percent in the county. But all other markets detailed in the report saw declines.
Canadian visitation dropped off the most — by 28.9 percent. Visitors from the Midwest fell 19.1 percent. European travel declined 8.8 percent from a year ago.
Travel from the Midwest is likely down more because it’s such an industrial area and has been hard hit by the recession, Wert said. “The auto industry has certainly been a heavy factor there,” he said.
This year, the bureau has also run a special winter campaign targeting vacationers in the key markets of New York and Chicago in hopes of bolstering visitation in season. The campaign has focused on value.
The average daily rate fell 16.9 percent in March. It was a little more than $241 a night, down from about $290 a year ago.
Room nights were down 2.1 percent. Visitors filled 243,950 rooms, down from 249,150 in the same month a year ago.
Direct expenditures from visitors in March fell 11.5 percent to $122,483,700, down from $138,330,200 a year ago.
Repeat visitation was up. Nearly 64 percent of visitors in March reported staying in the county before.
More visitors drove here, reflecting the draw from “close-by markets,” the report by Research Data Services states.
Hunter Hansen, managing director for the Naples Grande Beach Resort and the Edgewater Beach Hotel, said the statistics reflect what he’s seeing.
“Major groups and companies are not booking business as much as they did last year,” he said. “That business has been a little more quiet. However, we have seen an increase in the leisure customers. That customer is mostly coming from the east coast of Florida, and from the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando area.”
The Edgewater, which attracts vacationers and not business travelers, had a busy month in March. With a slight price reduction, occupancy was about the same as last year, Hansen said.
He’s noticed fewer travelers from Europe and Canada this year with the strengthening of the U.S. dollar.
The tourism bureau’s value-oriented campaigns are making a difference, Hansen said.
“The marketing efforts are very positive for us,” he said.