Collier County tourism numbers show a grim May. Why tourism officials are cautiously optimistic
The latest visitor statistics for Collier County are grim.
Numbers released Monday showed the severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism, one of the county's leading industries, with nearly 100,000 fewer visitors in May.
But tourism officials said they are an improvement from April, so there's reason for cautious optimism, with the economy opening back up in Florida.
Similar statistics aren't available in Lee County, but its tourism industry is also suffering from the impacts of the pandemic. The next report — done quarterly — won't be out for a few months.
The latest monthly report for Collier County from Tampa-based Research Data Services was shared during Monday's Tourist Development Council.
Collier saw a more than 66% drop in visitation in May, when compared to the same month last year.
The county reported 49,300 visitors staying in hotels or other vacation rentals last month, down from 146,400 a year ago.
Meanwhile, visitor spending fell by nearly 67% last month year over year — to less than $62 million from more than $188 million.
Occupancy came in at just 25.6% last month, with some of the county's resorts and hotels still closed — or seeing little to no business due to COVID-19, said Ann Wittine, director of data analysis for Research Data Services.
Why some restaurants have stayed closed: With lowered capacity and safety concerns, some SWFL restaurants choose to keep dining rooms closed amid pandemic
However, she pointed out that occupancy had improved markedly since April, when it stood at a mere 8.2%.
The average daily rate also improved in May, growing to $190.77, up from $173.98 the previous month, which Wittine described as a good sign.
Once prices drop, she said, it can be difficult to build them back up again.
In a survey, Research Data Services found that 40% of Collier's hotels and resorts were either closed or had no occupancy in April. That compared to 15% in May, when the state began easing its coronavirus-related restrictions, which encouraged Floridians to stay at home and closed or severely limited the operations of nonessential businesses for weeks.
While hotels were treated as essential businesses under the governor's order, many hoteliers in Collier County and across Southwest Florida interpreted it to mean they couldn't or shouldn't take any new reservations, while others shut down because business became so slow that it didn't make economic sense to keep the doors open.
While there were moves in the right direction, Collier tourism director Jack Wert said "one month doesn't make a trend," so he's feeling "cautiously optimistic right now," especially as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow in Southwest Florida — and statewide.
"We really need to see what effect on June numbers we might get from this uptick in the number of cases in Florida," he said.
On Monday, the state reached a grim milestone, hitting and surpassing 100,000, with nearly 3,000 new coronavirus cases reported.
The pandemic hasn't just stopped people from taking vacations, it's also led to cancellations of group meetings and events.
A separate report by tourism research firm STR showed how the coronavirus pandemic has hurt the groups and meetings business across Florida, especially in Southwest Florida.
In May, the occupancy for group business fell by 98.5% in Collier County — or the Naples area — and by 97.2% in the Fort Myers area — or Lee County — year over year. Competitive markets in Florida also saw huge declines, including Sarasota-Bradenton, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
Will tourism rebound?: Tourists will return to Southwest Florida, but it will never be the same
Research Data Services also shared year-to-date statistics, for January through May, for Collier, showing the wider impacts from COVID-19 on the county.
Here's what the metrics look like for the first five months of this year, compared to the same months a year ago:
- 633,000 visitors, down 32.6%
- 821,300 room nights booked, down 31.9%
- $809,713,100 in total spending, down 36.6%
Another report by STR shows occupancy falling by 49 percent for the months of January to May in Collier year over year — and an even bigger drop in Lee County at 53.8%
Although Lee County's next report on visitor statistics won't be out for a few months, the most recent one for January through March, showed how a possible record quarter was ambushed by COVID-19, causing double-digit drops in visitor numbers, room nights booked and total tourism spending.
Lee and Collier have both launched phased marketing campaigns to help the tourism industry recover, but they're taking their messaging slow and easy.
Lee County has moved from the waiting to the ready phase, with plans to roll out a "Know the Feeling" marketing campaign over the next few weeks.
"It aims to provide vacation inspiration, as well as invoke feelings of hope and positivity for travelers looking to get away as the pandemic's effects begin to subside," said Timothy Engstrom, a county spokesman, via email.
In the campaign, he said, potential visitors will be reminded of the area's appeal — and desire to have them back when they're ready and feel safe to travel.
In late March, Collier launched a "soft messaging" campaign, primarily targeting drive markets in Florida — markets where visitors are likely to drive, rather than fly to Southwest Florida for a vacation — such as Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando and West Palm Beach. The digital campaign includes several videos, including one called "Let's Dine Out," encouraging locals and visitors alike to eat out (or at least order out for curb-side pick or delivery).
In early July, Collier will launch the second phase of its digital-only recovery campaign, designed to show how the destination has been preparing for the safe return of visitors to the area — also known as the Paradise Coast.
No emergency dollars have been tapped for special advertising or marketing yet in Lee or Collier counties to deal with the severe impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, but it may reach that point soon.
"We would anticipate the board of county commissioners considering additional marketing dollars when it makes sense and provides a good return on the investment," Engstrom said.
Flea markets see customers flee: After reopening to fewer customers, flea market vendors worry about sustaining business during pandemic
In Collier, Wert said, there are plans to ask county commissioners for $500,000 in emergency marketing dollars in mid-July to help pay for the second phase of the recovery campaign, which is expected to run until September.
Typically, both counties see more visitors coming from other parts of Florida in the summer. They expect to see more of that happening — and fewer visitors from out of state or out of the country than usual — over the coming months because of coronavirus fears and restrictions on travel that still exist elsewhere in the United States and abroad.
Southwest Florida International Airport has taken a big blow from the pandemic, due to travel restrictions and the slump in travel demand, leading to scores of empty seats on airplanes. Some startling statistics were shared at Monday's Tourist Development Council meeting.
In April, 53,379 passengers traveled through the airport — compared to more than 1.1 million in the same month a year ago.
Will jobs rebound?: Third-quarter jobs outlook gets grimmer for Cape Coral, Fort Myers
Numbers did improve in May, growing to a little over 143,000, but that was down from more than 725,000 passengers seen in the same month last year.
"All airlines are operating with the exception of the international carriers," said Victoria Moreland, a spokeswoman for the Fort Myers Airport, via email. "No flights are permitted transborder so Air Canada and WestJet are not flying to RSW and no flights from Germany, so Eurowings is not operating."
On Monday, the Lee County Port Authority, which owns and operates the airport, introduced the Stay Safe — RSW Cares About You program to spread the word about what it's doing to keep tourists, employees and other airport visitors safe.
Some of the most noticeable changes? The addition of hand sanitizer stations, social distancing signage, announcements and floor markers throughout the terminal and plexiglass shields at counters and other customer touchpoints.
"The Lee County Port Authority has always been committed to serving travelers with high standards of cleanliness, well-being and care, and now, more than ever, we are working with our airlines and business partners to develop enhanced standards for airport operations," said Ben Siegel, the authority's acting executive director, in a statement.