Blue skies ahead? Marco Island hotels, merchants see positive signs for 2013

Island businesspeople say they expect a strong season and year for Marco. Lance Shearer/Eagle Correspondent

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Island businesspeople say they expect a strong season and year for Marco. Lance Shearer/Eagle Correspondent

— Businesspeople are always looking for signs to indicate which way the economy is heading. To hear them tell it, the signs Marco Island merchants are seeing right now are dollar signs.

One leading indicator was obvious to anyone driving the island's streets over the Christmas holiday season. The road congestion index, how all of a sudden it takes longer to get anywhere due to the influx of traffic, served as a strong informal guide that the snowbirds are back in force.

Winter visitors, both snowbirds living in their own seasonal homes and short-term hotel guests, are key to the local economy, so a good place to start with assessing economic activity is with the large resort hotels. Mac Chaudhry, general manager of the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa, said he sees the strong resurgence in business activity seen last year continuing and increasing in 2013.

"Our booking pace is significantly higher than last year," he said. "Both group business and transient (private guest) bookings are strong. The combination of bad weather up north and the good word of better economic conditions than last year are helping us."

Not only bookings, but also average daily rate, a key measure for hotels, are climbing, said Chaudhry. "People are willing to pay higher prices. We are getting a higher room rate compared to last year."

Prospects for 2013 also look good to Bob Pfeffer, director of sales and marketing at the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, but the Marriott is up against unprecedented first quarter numbers from last year, he said.

"In 2012, we got off to an incredible start. We had a record-breaking first quarter. This year, we were not able to capture the same level of group business. We're hoping to make up some of that with leisure business."

With big conventions booking up to five years ahead, Pfeffer said the area is still dealing with fallout from the BP oil spill. The hotel has enough convention business locked in for the fourth quarter to predict that things will only get better.

"We will finish with a record-breaking, strong fourth quarter," said Pfeffer. "Advance bookings for spring break are way ahead. And we had a great Christmas week."

The Marriott is continuing to court islanders, with their Paradise Club members eligible for an exclusive "Big Game at the Beach" package combining discounted room rates with a Super Bowl beach party.

Retailers also expressed optimism for the new year. Joyce McFarland, co-owner with her husband Bob of Marco Island Clothing in the Shops of Marco, sees an upbeat attitude on the island, which she ties to the resurgent real estate market.

"When real estate picks up, everything else follows. Customers are more confident, ready to spend," she said. "2012 was a turnaround year for us. We really felt things turning around. Going forward, I think that's just going to continue."

Overall, 2012 sales were up 6.7 percent over 2011, with profit margins higher as well, said McFarland. She projected sales increases this year could climb to double digits. Marco Island Clothing has been quite aggressive in their buying, taking on inventory for the season, and the fashion industry is providing attractive new product lines, she said.

"Manufacturers are pushing the envelope, too, with different looks, and more exciting trends." In down times, she said, designers also retrench, hesitating to take bold new directions, but that has changed. And McFarland, a leader in the "shop Marco first" effort among local merchants, said customers will find one of a kind looks at a variety of island boutiques.

"Our island shops are unique. Malls are all the same, cookie cutters. Everybody here tries to find their own niche," said McFarland. "We rarely overlap."

Nancy Carrington, owner of Marco Island Florist and incoming president of the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, was also bullish. Her business, she said, is "a need, but also kind of a novelty.

"Business has been up steadily this year. People are happy to spend money, not quite as discount driven," she said. "The climate looks very bright for the coming year."

The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau provides the big picture. Through November, said JoNell Modys, CVB public relations and communications manager, visitors to the county were up 5.8 percent year over year, and the hotels' average daily rate was up 6.4 percent. Direct tourism spending, at $876, 335, 800, and total economic impact of visitors, at over $1.3 billion, were both up 11.5 percent over the previous year. And in November, Marco Island hotels garnered 20 percent of all tourist development tax revenue collected.

"We're hearing that group advance bookings are definitely ahead of a year ago," said Jack Wert, executive director of the CVB. "The summer numbers look even better, largely based on our international travelers. They come at the right time of the year," he added, when other economic activity is at a low ebb. "Our area has been in a recovery, and it's poised to continue."

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Comments » 1

26yearsonmarco writes:

Hey Danny, you may have a Wacko hanging around your place named Herr Dummkopffffffff.

He should be easy to spot because he has OBAMEE tattooed on his forehead.

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