NAPLES — The Easter Bunny hasn’t arrived.
It’s still the busy season and winter residents are still in town.
But Collier County officials already have launched a spring-summer tourism campaign. Ads are running online and on TV, targeting in-state travelers from Miami to Tampa and Orlando.
The campaign is reaching Florida residents within a two- to three-hour drive of Naples. This kind of marketing usually starts after Easter, but it’s getting an early jump because the tourism industry is suffering in a bad economy.
“The group/meeting bookings are definitely behind where they were last year. And that seems to be the bulk of the downturn for our market,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A new report by Smith Travel Research shows a 33.1 percent year-over-year drop in group business for hotels in the Naples-Marco Island metro area in January. The Fort Myers area saw a 20.1 percent drop, while Sarasota-Bradenton had a 44 percent decline _ the highest in the state for the nine metro areas included in the report. In the Florida Keys, business slowed by 34.4 percent.
In the first two months of the year, visitor numbers in Collier County dropped 8.1 percent, room nights shrunk by 10.8 percent and direct expenditures by tourists declined 12.1 percent, when compared to a year ago, according to the county’s tourism consultant, Tampa-based Research Data Services Inc.
In January, visitor numbers dropped 6.3 percent from the same month last year. They fell 9.7 percent in February.
“We are facing very tough economic times,” said Cedar Hames, president of Paradise Advertising & Marketing Inc. in St. Petersburg, which is handling the campaign. “We couldn’t just sit back and hope that we got through this economic crisis.”
Last month, the bureau launched a special promotional campaign in hopes of making up for some of the lost business this winter. It’s still running, even though the spring-summer campaign already is under way.
The winter campaign targets vacationers in the key markets of New York and Chicago. The hope is to lure more of those Northerners here to bolster visitation through April.
Usually, there’s little advertising done in January, February and March because they’re the busiest months of the tourist season, which starts to gear up in November and winds up in April.
“In the past we’ve always felt that the peak season, the winter season, would take care of itself. In this economy, you can’t rely on that. And in fact we know that it’s going to be much softer than it has been in the past,” Hames said.
TV and online advertisements have shown Northerners images of beaches and sunny weather, as they’ve been buried in snow.
“It’s a great story to tell, especially when it’s 10 degrees outside,” Hames said.
Both campaigns are focused on “value,” with hoteliers offering lower rates and other savings. The tag line is the same for both: “Paradise Priced Perfectly.”
It’s too soon to say just how effective the winter campaign has been, but it has brought more requests for information from the North, Wert said.
The first week of advertising delivered more than 3,047 visits to the Web page, MyParadiseSavings.com, including referrals from other sites. About 20 hotels and resorts are participating in the discount program.
Another Web site has been launched for the spring-summer campaign, which will run through the end of July. Deals can be found at myfloridasavings.com.
On the new site, Gulfcoast Inn Naples offers a two-night package for $199, with breakfast and a dinner for two through April 1. The price drops to $159 for the rest of the year.
The Olde Marco Island Inn & Suites offers a fourth night free and the Lemon Tree Inn in downtown Naples advertises rates starting at $89 a night for April 20 to May 31.
“The hoteliers are rallying around providing a good value,” Hames said.
The tourism bureau hasn’t tapped any emergency money for the two campaigns. However, it may not have enough money left to advertise in August or September, as it usually does.
“It’s kind of like you can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” Hames said. “So we decided that it would be better to take our chances in the late summer.”
A 4 percent charge on hotels and other short-term stays pays for tourism marketing. But if tourism is down, there will be less money to spend.
“Currently, we are projecting a 10 percent reduction in revenue and we based all these plans on receiving 10 percent less in tourist taxes this year,” Wert said.
Last year, the county collected nearly $14.6 million in tourist taxes. It may get less than $13 million this year based on the most recent projections.
A drop in revenues also means less money to support beach improvement projects, county museums and other attractions, and events, which all get money from the tourist tax.
“Dollars will be down a little bit because tourism isn’t as vibrant as it was last year,” said Donna Fiala, chairwoman of the Collier County Commission and the Tourist Development Council, the county’s tourism advisory board. “But we feel we can live within the budget if we are very conscientious and conservative.”
She’s impressed by the bureau’s proactive thinking.
“They have been spending the dollars wisely,” she said.
The updated media plan sets aside $1.4 million for domestic advertising this year. There’s another $270,000 for international promotions.
In May, the bureau will shift the focus to its traditional VIP program. Hotels and attractions will have individual offers of savings through the summer.
“We feel there will be a larger drive market than in the past,” said Hames, with Paradise.
That’s because more Floridians are likely to stay closer to home this summer to cut travel costs in these tough economic times.
This year, the tourism bureau is relying less on print advertising to get its message across. The focus is more online, where it’s easier to track results and there’s more exposure for less money.
“Let’s face it. If there is an interest that has gone online it has been tourism and travel,” said Hames, adding that people usually check the weather and search for special offers on the Internet before making vacation plans.
The bureau has canceled some of its print advertising for later in the year to stretch its dollars, Wert said.
International marketing is ongoing, too.
Last year, the bureau tapped emergency money to boost its international marketing efforts. Some of that money carried over to the first quarter of this year.
The focus has been on Europe and Canada.
Wert hopes international tourism will remain strong, making up for the slowdown in travel in the U.S. He recently attended an international travel trade show in Berlin and what he heard was promising.
The bureau has launched a new visitor guide for Germans, which has more pages and is more targeted to their needs.
The Germans, the Swiss and the Belgians often travel in the summer months because they have about six weeks off, Wert said.
“The U.S. is probably their best travel bargain,” he said. “If they are going to travel this year many of them will choose the U.S. and they love Florida. So we certainly hope to get a big chunk of that.”