COLLIER COUNTY — The theme song from the smash-hit movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” blared as hundreds of tourism leaders gathered to celebrate their industry in Collier County.
On Wednesday, a crowd of nearly 200 packed into Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in North Naples to celebrate tourism and its “treasures,” the people and places behind the industry. The luncheon sold out, with a record crowd for the annual event that coincides with National Tourism Week.
Tourism may be down, but spirits were up. The bureau gave out more than a dozen awards recognizing tourism employees, hotels and other supporters. The theme was “Our Greatest Treasure,” and the restaurant was decked out like a pirate ship.
At a press conference, Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau, gave a detailed report about the state of tourism. He hit on the highlights from last year, discussed the first quarter results and his outlook for the rest of the year.
“This past year certainly has been a time of change in how we all do business,” Wert said. “Certainly a time of concern.”
Though the industry has been hard hit by a bad economy, he said it’s a time for optimism and a time to find more ways for the bureau and the industry to do business together.
Here are some of the highlights for tourism last year in Collier County and how it compares to 2007:
n There were 1.4 million visitors, up 1.4 percent.
n The economic impact was $1.25 billion, up 5.7 percent.
n Tourist tax revenue was $14.5 million, down 0.3 percent.
n There was a $665 tax savings per household because of tourism, up 2.5 percent.
The tax savings alone is a good reason to “go kiss a tourist,” Wert said.
The international market boosted tourism last year, helping to make up for lost business in the U.S. Visitation was up 38.8 percent from Germany and it was up 29.2 percent from the United Kingdom, compared to 2007.
Seeing the increased visitation from Germany and the United Kingdom, the bureau has added full-time representatives in both areas, which has spurred greater interest among tour operators. “Suddenly we were a player,” Wert said.
A new survey shows that 40.8 percent of visitors last year enjoyed nature activities, 15 percent participated in cultural activities and 34 percent were attracted by the county’s clean environment. More than 80 percent of visitors who took part in the survey said they planned to return here.
The market took a turn in the first quarter of this year in Collier. The number of visitors is down 6.6 percent from a year ago. But visitors coming from within the state are up 15.3 percent, with Miami-Fort Lauderdale leading the way, Wert said.
International visitation was still up 4.6 percent in the quarter, compared to last year. Visitation from Germany rose 22.5 percent, but the United Kingdom brought 2.8 percent fewer tourists as the economy there took a bad turn.
Opportunity markets — markets that the bureau hasn’t traditionally gone after — saw a 12 percent gain in the quarter. That was in part due to more online and cable advertising in those months that reached a broader market, Wert said.
The bureau has reached more people by getting information on Web sites such as kayak.com and sidestep.com.
Most of the decline seen in the first quarter is related to a drop in the groups and meetings business. Negative publicity surrounding faltering banks and other financial institutions has put the spotlight on their spending, Wert said.
“Suddenly going to meetings was bad,” he said.
With the decline in the corporate business, the bureau did its first-ever peak season marketing campaign, which began in February and carried a value message to Northern and Midwestern markets. The bureau also decided to move up its in-state campaign to encourage more visitation in the first quarter. The campaign will run through mid-June. It has resulted in 13,000 unique Web site visits, with more than 3,000 click-throughs to hotel offers on a special Web site, myfloridasavings.com.
“If the deal is good, you are probably going to get the business,” Wert said.
On May 1, the bureau launched its VIP savings card, offering other discounts at hotels and attractions through Dec. 15.
“People really seem to be looking for a good deal,” Wert said.
In a survey of visitors, 48 percent said the economy has affected their travel plans.
The couples’ market is good, and additions such as a new children’s museum in North Naples should help, Wert said.
“We are really becoming a family destination,” he said.
For the rest of the year, Wert remains optimistic. While tourism won’t be as good as the industry would like it to be, it will still be OK, he said.
This year, he expects international visitation to be up 25 percent and domestic travel to decline 10 to 15 percent. Revenues from the 4 percent tax on hotels and other short-term stays are expected to be down 10 to 15 percent.
Still, Wert encouraged hoteliers and other tourism supporters attending the event to “paint a rosy picture.” There are other destinations in Florida that are suffering a lot more.
“Let’s find a little bit of that sunshine,” he said.