The roads are busier for a reason. It's season, and tourism is on the rise in Southwest Florida.
Hotels, restaurants and shops are doing more business than they were a year ago. More tourists are in town and they're spending more money.
In December, 122,000 visitors stayed in hotels and other vacation rentals in Collier County – up more than 15 percent from the same month a year ago. At the same time, visitor spending rose nearly 20 percent to $117.9 million in December, according to a report by Research Data Services Inc., a county consultant.
"People have more confidence in the economy. They seem to be spending money a little better. We are seeing that in the restaurants. We are seeing that really all over town. So I think that's a good sign," said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Last month, hotel occupancy increased 11 percent and the average daily rate rose more than 8 percent year-over-year in the county.
Visitor numbers are not yet out in Lee County for December. But hoteliers there have seen a jump in business too, especially over the past few months.
Last year, revenues rose 20 percent at the Lani Kai on Fort Myers Beach, said general manager Larry Puccia.
"If the weather is good here, we are going to be busy," he said. "The Lani Kai has been here for 33 years and it's all about the weather for us."
The upward trend in tourism here is being seen elsewhere in Florida and across the country in other tourist towns.
"The economy, although not tremendously strong, has stabilized," said Hunter H. Hansen, managing director of the Waldorf Astoria Naples off Seagate Drive and the Edgewater Beach Hotel, an all-suite hotel off Gulf Shore Boulevard in Naples.
"The sentiment has improved. People are traveling again. They are getting out of their house."
He said travel is hard for people to give up.
"It provides them with memories they will have for a long time, unlike buying a car where you have the thrill of driving it off the lot and it's kind of over," he said.
Both of his hotels are seeing more visitors this winter.
"Our advanced bookings are up nicely over last year," Hansen said. "There are more first-time guests coming in from Europe and there are more first-time guests coming in from the northern United States."
Collier County hadn't seen such a strong December for visitors since 2008. In part, Wert attributes the uptick to a fall marketing campaign that targeted other parts of Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as well as northern markets, such as New York.
"That's the first time we've really been able to do that," he said.
With a limited marketing budget, the county usually doesn't do a fall campaign and the winter campaign doesn't start until January. A surplus of marketing dollars left over from last fiscal year enabled the bureau to start its advertising earlier this year.
Last year, the county's tourism department had lower-than-expected expenses and revenues came in higher than projected. Visitation and tourism spending rose, generating about a 4 percent increase in tourist taxes over 2009-10.
The tourism bureau gets a share of the county's 4 percent tourist tax for marketing.
The county saw 1.490 million tourists last year, up 7.7 percent from 2010. In the fourth quarter of last year, visitation rose more than 11 percent, according to Research Data Services.
The economic impact from tourism in Collier last year grew to nearly $1.3 billion, up 10.6 percent from 2010.
Walter Klages, president of Research Data Services in Tampa, said there's no question the spike in tourism seen in Southwest Florida is the result of a recovery. However, he said, there's evidence the extra marketing done in Collier in November and December paid off, luring many first-time visitors.
In December, Collier had 49,410 visitors from other parts of Florida – up more than 17 percent from a year ago. Florida was the primary target in the fall campaign.
One of every three visitors in December came for the first time, up more than 30 percent from a year ago.
Europe continues to be a growing market for Collier, though there's no direct print or TV advertising done there. In December, the county attracted nearly 20,000 visitors from Europe, up nearly 30 percent from a year ago.
"People underestimate how powerful word-of-mouth is," Klages said. "When it comes to the European market, we just have a very positive world-of-mouth effect."
He said the increasing number of visitors from Europe shows Collier is delivering "a product that is superior."
"The European travelers are very demanding. And positive for us, of course, is they are spending more money. They are staying a longer time, but they are also fitting well into the environment," Klages said.
The "motivational package" that brings Europeans here are the beaches and the Everglades, he said.
This time of the year, most visitors are coming from the Northern, Midwestern and Southeastern U.S. to thaw out from the cold.
Two weeks ago, Collier's tourism bureau launched its winter ad campaign, targeting New York and Chicago. It includes digital billboards throughout the Chicago area, showing the temperature in the Naples area. In New York, subway commuters will see ads showing the area's sunny, white sand beaches, in contrast to their gloomy weather outside.Sue Soldan, general manager of The Inn of Naples on the west side of U.S. 41 in Park Shore, said she's noticed more northerners this year and that bookings for January are up substantially. She expects a stronger season.
"I don't know why they are traveling more, but they are definitely traveling more," she said, adding the good weather here may be one of the reasons.
Bruce Seigel, marketing director for The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples, said both the golf and beach-front resorts off Vanderbilt Beach Road had a "phenomenal" fourth quarter and business remains strong. Occupancy is up, but so is spending.
"Signs are strong and, with the luxury market that we have here, it's a great indicator that the economy is moving forward in a positive fashion," Seigel said.
Both leisure and corporate business is up at the resorts. Meetings are booked further in advance and those reservations are strong not just for this year, but for 2013 and 2014, Seigel said.
With business up, the employee count is up. Jobs have been added in every department at the two Ritz-Carltons. The resorts now have about 1,400 employees — 10 percent more than they had at this time last year.
Events such as the Naples Winter Wine Festival over the weekend and the upcoming Ace Group Classic golf tournament help to generate more business at the area's hotels, Seigel said.
It's not just the hotels that are busier. Linda Milligan, owner of Beach and Bay Vacations in Bonita Springs, said her vacation homes booked up earlier than ever this year. She has properties from Naples to Fort Myers Beach, but most are in and around Bonita Beach.
"I mean, I have been turning people away because I have everything booked," she said. "I went out to look for more properties. It's very difficult when you are in sales and you have nothing to sell."
Luckily, she found a few more properties to rent, through her connections.
The shops and restaurants along Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South in downtown Naples are bustling.
There are more than 200 businesses on Fifth Avenue South and the first-floor retail spaces are more than 95 percent leased, reflecting more optimism on the street, said Lou Vlasho, president of the Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District.
Skip Quillen, an owner of the Culinary Concepts restaurant group in Naples, which includes Chops City Grill and Pazzo!, described business as nothing short of phenomenal this season, especially at its downtown eateries.
"Fifth Avenue is definitely back," he said. "No doubt about it."
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden