Island tourism slowly rebounds from hurricanes
After suffering through the cancellations brought by four hurricane strikes in Florida during August and September, Island accommodations and restaurants are gradually reporting a return of reservations and winter visitors.
"The season has already started," said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Ann Brockman. "I haven't gotten any feedback from our members that visitors haven't returned."
Brockman said while a few accommodation properties lost reservations during the hurricanes, a number of them picked up rental nights from the large influx of cleanup workers on the Island after those storms.
She also noted that the chamber's Web site had 19,109 hits in October from people looking for Island information. There were also 1,767 e-mail requests for accommodation information.
According to figures from the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Anna Maria Island occpupancy during August was just 43.2 percent compared with 47.1 percent for August 2003, and 32.2 percent this past September against 36.9 percent for the same month in 2003. For the first nine months of 2004, however, Island occupany is 5.2 percent ahead of last year at the same time with the fall season still to come.
And 2003 was the best year for tourism to the Bradenton area and Anna Maria Island since prior the terrorist attacks on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001, said Susan Estler of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"We had a slight hiccup on the Island because of the hurricanes, but mainland properties did well during that period because people were coming here to get out of the way of the storms," Estler observed. "Now, many properties are reporting a steady return of winter visitors and from overseas. We're cautiously optimistic that this season should be even better than last year."
That's a thought echoed by Mike Norman of Mike Norman Real Estate in Holmes Beach.
The long-term vacation rental market for the winter season is "going great," said Norman. "Rentals are doing very well and we're above last year. Our winter visitors are returning."
But the Island winter tourist season also has a short-term rental market, and it seems those visitors like to wait until the last minute before making a reservation.
Kent Davis of the Siam Garden Resort in Anna Maria said the jury is still out on short-term winter visitors because people aren't booking far ahead as they did formerly.
"People aren't booking well in advance like they used to, but they seem to be coming to the Island," he said. "We've had a lot of walk-in traffic lately," including a number of visitors from Great Britain and Europe.
Surprisingly, the Thanksgiving weekend has not yet sold out, but Davis said that given the trend toward late bookings and walk-in traffic, he'd be surprised if the resort did not sell out.
Marge Moran at the Surfside Econolodge Resort and Club Bamboo condominiums in Bradenton Beach said weekends have been very busy lately, but weekday traffic in October was a little slow compared to last year.
"But we've been very busy lately," she added. Moran agreed that visitors don't seem to book far in advance, but prefer to wait until a week or two before traveling.
That's good if the rooms are available, but anyone thinking about the Island for a Thanksgiving holiday better book a room soon. "Thanksgiving is going to be a sellout for us and the Island," Moran predicted.
Many restaurants on the Island are already experiencing a "sellout," primarily from European visitors, said Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar and Beach House restaurants on Anna Maria Island and the Mar Vista on Longboat Key.
"October was a tremendous turn-around for us from the hurricanes of September," noted Chiles. "Business came back quicker than expected and this October was better than last year. We're getting a lot of European visitors because of the exchange rate. Plus, we've had great weather the past few weeks."
Damon Presswood of Ooh La La! Bistro in Holmes Beach said he's seen a return of winter diners to his restaurant, in addition to regular Islanders and those from the mainland.
"Obviously, everyone was hurt by the hurricanes, but business was brisk in October and November has picked up nicely. We're probably a little ahead of last year at this time. It's good to see the regular diners return," he said.
Chiles said that many European customers have told him how much they enjoy the Island because of its quiet, laid-back lifestyle and charm.
That's the "Old Florida" ambiance of Anna Maria Island that Estler and the CVB market to visitors, including Europeans.
"We're not for everyone and we don't want to be. We don't offer the man-made attractions of Orlando or the South Beach lifestyle of Miami, or the high-rise hotels and night life of other Florida beaches," he said. "People come here precisely because we're not like other places."