Collier County's tourism industry bounces back quicker than expected from pandemic

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Collier County's tourism industry has bounced back quicker than expected from the coronavirus pandemic.

At least, when it comes to the transient — or leisure — market.

That's reflected in the county's latest visitor statistics from its consultant Tampa-based Research Data Services, shared Monday at a Tourist Development Council meeting.

A small group of Bottlenose Dolphins jump in the wake produced by the Manatee II on Chokoloskee Bay during an ecological boat tour in Everglades National Park in 2011. Wildlife tourism, is a $19 billion-a-year business along the Gulf of Mexico and settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill should focus on restoring ecologically sensitive areas to keep the industry thriving.

In March, all metrics turned to positive, compared to the same month a year ago — when the World Trade Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

"It's so nice to be reporting positive numbers," said Anne Wittine, director of data analysis for Research Data Services.

Here's what the year-over-year improvement looked like last month: 

  • Visitors: 230,200, up nearly 62%
  • Room nights booked: 282,800, up more than 70%
  • Economic impact: $363,568,000, up almost 93%

Even more telling are some of the side-by-side looks at occupancy and rates, not only when held up to last year, but to where they stood before the pandemic turned the travel industry upside down worldwide.

In the case of the average daily rate, the county's increased to $413.27 in March, up by more than 20% from $342.11 a year ago — and up by almost 15% from $359.90 in 2019.

Occupancy surged by more than 77% over the year to 87.5% last month, edging closer to the more solid rate of 91.6% seen in 2019.

Lee County reports quarterly, not monthly data. Data for the first quarter won't be out until May, so it's not yet clear how its tourism industry is faring.

Greg Norman fields questions from the crowd during a clinic in 2015 at Tiburon. This year's Family Clinic, among other similar events, will not take place due to not having fans because of the coronavirus pandemic. The clinic is sponsored by Collier County's tourism bureau.

A comeback

Collier County saw a record year for tourism in 2019, so comparisons to then are viewed as that much more impressive as the industry makes a comeback.

The county continues to see a higher than usual number of visitors hailing from Florida, a trend spurred by COVID-19. 

Since the outbreak, more tourists have stayed closer to home and driven to their destinations, rather than flying, to avoid crowds and reduce their exposure to the virus. 

In March, the county saw 66,988 visitors from Florida. That was up by nearly 57% from a year ago, reflecting market shifts.

"Even in March, we found those core visitors that have supported us all the way through are still coming, and still coming in big numbers," Wittine said.

Indeed, March visitation from state residents was 21.4% higher this year than in 2019.

Other key markets in the United States are picking up as the recovery takes hold in Collier.

These regions showed huge improvements in visitation numbers last month, when compared to a year ago:

  • Southeast: 20,027, +98.1%
  • Northeast: 75,736, +80.9%
  • Midwest: 54,788, +131.8%

Those higher numbers reflect several factors, a greater willingness to fly, due to a growing number of vaccinations — as well as a pent-up demand from visitors who are venturing out again, following forced or voluntary lockdowns, Wittine said.

As further evidence of those trends, she said, the county had nearly twice the number of visitors from markets west of the Mississippi in March, when compared to a year ago. That includes California, where lockdowns have been much more heavy handed, due to the severity of cases.

Domestic travelers are driving the turnaround, as visitation from Canada and Europe is still too small to measure, due to travel restrictions and limited flights.

At the start of 2021, a recovery like this one wasn't expected to happen in Collier until late this year, or early next year.

An observation tower, seen from the entry boardwalk, offers broad views including an osprey nest with sitting birds at Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.

Beating the competition

Collier's tourism industry isn't just recovering sooner than expected, but more quickly than most of its competitors in Florida.

Pointing to statistics from tourism research firm STR, Wittine noted the Naples area — or county — saw a 125% increase in its hotel occupancy rate for transient, or short-stay leisure travelers, in March, when compared to last year. That put it first for the highest percentage increase among its competitive set, which includes markets such as Clearwater, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Palm Beach, Miami and the Keys.

The STR data — which includes all of the major hotel brands — also shows Collier had the highest year-over-year increase in its average daily rate for leisure travelers among its rivals in March. That rate rose by more than 30% to $418.05.

Only the Keys had a higher rate — at $456.61.

Comparing 2021 to 2019, Wittine said only the Naples area and the Keys saw positive increases in their revenue per available room in March.

The revenue per available room is derived by multiplying a hotel's average daily room rate by its occupancy rate. 

While there are many positives, the local tourism industry still faces some tough challenges.

One of those challenges is luring back group business, which has been much slower to recover, with most in-person meetings and events postponed or cancelled outright since the pandemic.

STR data shows occupancy for groups in the Naples area at just 5.6% in March, down more than 53% from a year ago.

The U.S. Open Pickleball Championships wrapped up with the pro doubles finals at East Naples Community Park on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

Now hiring

Another big challenge for the industry? As it gears up again, area hoteliers are struggling to fill open positions. 

The pandemic forced the industry — one of Collier's largest — to shed thousands of jobs. The jobs have come back faster than the workers, Wittine said.

"In Collier, we have some properties that say they could have had more rooms in the market and could have sold them if they could have had the staff to be able to serve those visitors," she said. "So, that is definitely an issue the industry is seeing as we move forward in this recovery." 

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, members of the Tourist Development Council reveled in all of the good news.

Naples City Councilman Mike McCabe, who sits on the advisory board, said there are just "piles and piles" of great news in the latest statistics.

"We are accelerating rapidly," he said.

Although they lag behind, the county's tourist tax collections are showing improvement as a result. A chunk of the 5% tax, charged on overnight stays, is used for tourism marketing, and that's seen as crucial as the county works to stay ahead of the competition. 

For the fiscal year that started in October, tax collections are down 17% over the year, but the gap is narrowing, said Jack Wert, the county's tourism director.

"We are making progress," he said. "Slowly, but surely."