NAPLES — The Fourth of July weekend will be a bang-up holiday for hoteliers in Southwest Florida.
Like in years past, many hotels won’t have a room to spare, but some have been forced to offer special rates and discounts to fill up this year because of incorrect perceptions about BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The beaches are clean and there’s no oil anywhere near Southwest Florida, but many people, even in Florida, don’t know it.
“I actually spoke to a woman in Miami who asked if we had oil on our beach,” said Marcia Mandel, general manager of the Marco Island Lakeside Inn. “I just couldn’t believe that someone could be that close and not know.”
Her 19-room inn, two miles from the beach, has seen business drop since April when the Deep Horizon oil rig exploded, causing the spill that has dominated national headlines for more than two months.
“The calls just stopped totally,” Mandel said. “A whole day could go by and I would get one call, instead of 20.”
Her inn submitted a loss claim with BP, which is pending. Other local hotels and resorts may be forced to do the same because advance bookings have slowed so much.
Business was off 60 percent from the end of April to the end of May at Mandel’s inn. It was off 38 percent in June.
The inn is full this weekend, but it offered lower rates and special discounts to get that business, Mandel said.
At the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, rooms will be filled and it will be a “fantastic” weekend, said Bob Pfeffer, the sales and marketing director. But he admits that BP’s oil spill has hurt business at his resort, too.
Up until last week, the Marco Island Marriott still had “quite a bit of availability” on Sunday night. With an offer of $99 a night to local residents on Sunday and Monday, the resort now expects to sell out those nights, too.
“That was really a lifesaver to do that,” Pfeffer said. “We figured it was great to get the locals here. That is something we have been trying to do now for a while.”
Bookings for groups and meetings are looking strong for July, but vacationers have been slower to reserve rooms this summer at the Gulf-front resort, he said.
“Leisure calls are definitely down,” Pfeffer said. “We figured we were about 15 percent down in call volume. That is certainly how we get our business most of the time. People call.”
The good news is that the resort hasn’t had any cancellations related to the oil spill. It appears that cancellations haven’t been a huge problem in Collier or Lee counties.
“There are very few cancellations. However, we do know that the advance bookings call volume is down considerably. The concern is that July, August and September visitation in fact could be down,” said Jack Wert, Collier County’s tourism director and executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In Lee County, 23 cancellations have been reported related to the oil spill, accounting for about $27,510 in lost revenues.
Statistics released this week showed visitation was up 5 percent this year through the end of May in Collier County, compared to the same months in 2009. Lee County’s visitation and occupancy numbers for May won’t be released until later this month.
At a Collier County Tourist Development Council meeting Monday, two hoteliers who sit on the board said more emergency dollars are needed to beef up marketing to deal with the negative effects of the oil spill.
“I would tell you that we need to be very visible in the marketing efforts,” said Rick Medwedeff, a TDC member and general manager of the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort.
“We are dealing with a significant oil spill perception issue, not a reality issue,” he said. “But nonetheless it is a significant impact to the business. Beach resorts that I know in this community are already impacted dramatically.”
At the meeting, TDC board member Clark Hill, general manager of the Hilton Naples, said his leisure bookings were ahead of last year until the third week in April.
“I’m seeing a substantial decline in advance bookings at the hotel,” he said. “And I’m not the only inland property that is seeing that – and it’s major.”
After the meeting, he said his hotel has been forced to offer lower rates because room demand has slowed since the oil spill. Advance bookings have declined by about 30 percent since April, Hill said.
He said the spill has likely scared off tourists from Europe and Canada, which are big markets for his hotel.
“As far as this weekend, we have plenty of rooms to sell,” Hill said. “Our occupancy will be at least 30 percent lower than it was for the Fourth of July weekend last year.”
Medwedeff told other TDC members he would be developing his own BP claim.
TDC members asked Wert to do more research on the oil’s impact on the local tourism industry and to look at whether a claim should be submitted to BP to get emergency dollars for more marketing in Collier County.
The bureau is out of emergency reserves after starting its marketing campaign earlier this year. There has been a shift to a year-round campaign with the economy so bad and competition so fierce from other destinations.
The money used for marketing comes from a 4 percent tax the county charges on hotel and other short-term stays. The bureau got an extra $1 million for marketing this year.
Within Florida, Collier County’s summer campaign focuses on value. Outside of Florida, it carries a message that the beaches are clean. The county also is tagging on to Visit Florida ads, which show that its beaches are oil-free.
The bureau is developing a Web-based promotion called “the paradise promise,” which is meant to reassure travelers that they’ll have a great experience. It will highlight some of the offers local hotels are making because of the oil spill, including 24-hour cancellation policies with no penalty and free stays if oil reaches the county’s beaches.
The bureau itself doesn’t have anything to claim unless tourist tax revenues drop, which hasn’t happened yet, Wert said.
Some hotels have been affected by the spill more than others.
Business at the two Ritz-Carltons in Naples remains strong, in part because they don’t attract a lot of international business, which is thought to be down in part because of the oil spill.
On Thursday, the two Ritz-Carltons, with 745 rooms, were nearly sold out for the weekend. Rates are about the same as last year. A 24-hour cancellation policy with no penalty has been reintroduced, in part to deal with concerns about the oil reaching Southwest Florida.
Jason Parsons, general manager of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, said his resort hasn’t seen a big impact from the BP spill and will be full this weekend. The resort is offering a “clean beach guarantee,” which promises guests a refund if the beaches need to be closed or cleaned because of oil.
“We are optimistic folks at the Naples Beach Hotel,” Parsons said. “We feel as though everything is going to work out OK.”
Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, spoke to several Lee hoteliers who expect to be full this weekend.
“What we are seeing is really late bookings,” she said. “I think people are holding off making their decisions because they want to know what the beach conditions are going to be.”
The bureau has launched an aggressive campaign to combat the negative publicity about the oil spill. The bureau recently filmed nine 30-second TV spots as part of a “Still Pristine” campaign to reassure visitors that oil hasn’t reached this coastline. The national spots are expected to reach about 18 million TV viewers, Pigott said.
The bureau has received $500,000 from BP for emergency advertising. It asked for $1 million.
“Obviously getting the word out that we have not been impacted by this oil is very important,” Pigott said. “It’s critical.”