Collier tourism breaks record for third straight month — are local Floridians to thank?

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News
  • Collier County continues to be one of the leaders in its competitive set in Florida, based on its occupancy and average daily rate.
  • The only bad news is that the tourism industry in Collier is struggling to find employees as businesses gear up to meet higher demand.

Olympians aren't the only ones setting records.

Collier County saw another record month for tourism in June — and it continues to hold strong against its competitors in Florida. 

The Tourist Development Council heard the good news at its monthly meeting Monday, delivered by county consultant Tampa-based Research Data Services. 

The county saw 173,200 visitors staying in its hotels and other vacation rentals in June, up by nearly 50% from 2020 — and an increase of more than 16% from 2019.

Collier experienced record tourism in 2019, so any increase from then is viewed as all that more impressive.

The county has seen three straight months of record-setting visitor numbers. 

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In 2020, tourism took a big hit from the coronavirus pandemic, so the latest numbers once again reflect how far Collier County's leisure and hospitality industry has traveled on its road to recovery.

Here's a look at more of the county's telling numbers for June, compared to the same month last year, when the COVID-19 crisis raged:

  • Room nights booked: 203,200, up 55.5%
  • Visitor spending: $221,777,600, up 84.2%
  • Occupancy: 73%, up 78%
  • Average daily rate: $307.38, up 39.7%

All of those numbers topped 2019.

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.

Similar data is not available for Lee County, as its statistics are reported quarterly, not monthly.

'This is not the new normal'

In June, traffic at Southwest Florida International Airport also set a record.

The airport drew a total of 893,377 passengers, up by more than 253% from 237,706 in 2020 and by more than 43% from 586,319 in 2019, further demonstrating a spike in demand for the region.

"This isn't a normal June. This is not the new normal. This is the pent-up demand that we've seen and the comfort that people are feeling with traveling based on vaccinations picking up," Anne Wittine, the research firm's director of data analysis, told the tourism council.

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The higher-than-usual numbers, she said, include vacationers who would have come months sooner if they had been vaccinated — or if they had felt safer about travel back then.

While visitors from other parts of Florida have led the recovery, the pendulum is starting to swing, with the robust return of more travelers from the county's other primary feeder markets within the United States, including the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest.

"Local Floridians have supported us through all of this. They are still coming," Wittine said.

In June, the county saw 108,770 visitors from Florida, up 16.2% from a year ago and a nearly 49% increase from 2019. 

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

The larger number is attributed to several factors, including a successful marketing campaign targeted at Floridians, particularly in South Florida, which is "bearing fruit," Wittine said.

The uptick in visitation from other parts of the country demonstrates a willingness and desire by Americans to travel farther from home, she said, now that more of them are vaccinated against COVID-19. 

In the first half of the year, Collier saw 1,066,800 visitors, up 42.5% from 2020, but still down 2% from the record number in 2019. 

Here's how some of the other metrics looked for January through June in the county:

  • Room nights booked: More than 1.4 million, up 47.1% from 2020 and an increase of 0.4% from 2019
  • Visitor spending: More than $1.54 million, up 66% from 2020 and an increase of 7.3% from 2019
Dominick Dimolfetta, a tour guide with Segway Tours of Naples, takes a photo of the Patel family, tourists from Ocala, Fla., during a stop at the Naples Pier in August 2016.

'Transient travel continues to be very strong'

Based on a separate report by research firm STR, Wittine said Collier continues to be one of the leaders in its competitive set in Florida, based on its occupancy and average daily rate. 

In Research Data Service's surveys of lodging owners and managers, the firm has heard July has turned out to be every bit as busy as June — and based upon advance reservations the rest of the summer looks strong, now that booking windows have lengthened.

The pent-up demand is so strong that for many Americans it appears one trip won't be enough to make up for lost time, another positive for Collier County — and Southwest Florida.

Collier County has done an amazing job in focusing its marketing and advertising efforts on transient — or leisure — travelers, Wittine said.

"Transient travel continues to be very strong," she said. "That is the spearhead of this recovery."

Group travel is starting to see a "slow uptick," she said, which will benefit the county going forward.

Other good news? European and Canadian visitation is expected to return in the coming months, with the anticipated lifting of government restrictions on travel.

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'Competition in 2022 will be fierce'

The only bad news is that the tourism industry here is struggling to find employees as they gear back up to meet higher demand. It reflects a national trend, which is worrisome, Wittine said.

Vacation travelers are wanting, demand and expecting something special with their first or second trip since the pandemic hit. That could be more difficult to deliver if the industry can't find the number of employees it needs to go the extra mile and provide exceptional service, Wittine said.

With a light drizzle and wind, visitors fish and stroll the Naples Pier on Sunday, November 8, 2020.

Councilman Clark Hill, general manager of Hilton Naples, said finding enough workers is a "big, big challenge," and it's disappointing. The industry, he said, is unsure how to resolve the issue, but it could drive up wages, making the jobs more attractive.

Looking at the satisfaction rates from her firm's surveys, Wittine assured Hill that the destination continues to have a high satisfaction rate. It stood at 97.5% in June, with nearly 90 percent of respondents saying they planned to return — and nearly 93% saying they'd recommend it to others.

Looking ahead, Paul Beirnes, Collier County's new tourism director, said marketing is going to be more critical than ever, as other areas play catch up — and more destinations open up to travelers, giving them more choices.

"Competition in 2022 will be fierce," he said. "Everybody's piggy bank and every destination has been really raided over the last year. So they're going to come out very, very hard."

As a result, he added, marketing is going to be even more critical and the county will have to be very strategic in how it's placed to keep ahead of the competition.