Island tourism defying the trend
At a time when the national economy is still in a recession and tourism nationally and at many Florida destinations is down as much as 20 percent, Anna Maria Island is bucking the trend.
Accommodation occupancy on the Island was up in July and expected to be better this August than last year. And at least one restaurant owner’s business is booming.
“Our country is in its worst recession in years, yet Anna Maria Island is defying the odds,” said restaurant owner Ed Chiles.
Chiles, who owns the Sandbar Restaurant in Anna Maria, the Mar Vista on Longboat Key, and the BeachHouse in Bradenton Beach, said he’s not surprised that the Island is doing well, while destinations such as Orlando are suffering.
“People realize the value they get here, and what they get. They no longer want the Ritz-Carlton or the Marriott. They want the real Florida at a decent price and value and that’s what they get on the Island.
“It’s been an amazing summer,” he said. All three restaurants did a “phenomenal business,” he said, and indications are the fall and winter season will continue that trend.
National and international publicity about the Island is having its effect, he said, and the wedding business, virtually unknown on the Island a few years ago, has grown to become a market segment of its own that’s bringing in visitors with disposable incomes.
“It’s good business for everyone on the Island,” he said.
Manatee County Tourist Development Council member David Teitelbaum, who owns the SeaSide, Tradewinds and Tortuga resorts in Bradenton Beach, agreed that the wedding industry has really aided the Island economy.
He also observed that Island tourism this past summer has been boosted by the Florida market, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of all Island visitors.
“Times are tough nationally,” said Teitelbaum.
“The Island has been very lucky. Nationwide, tourism is down, but Anna Maria Island has survived because this is the real Florida and very convenient for people from Orlando and Tampa. They can drive here in a few hours. We’re seeing more and more bookings from those areas.”
And, while September might be considered a “breather” month before the winter season, many accommodation and property managers are reporting that reservations are ahead of last year at this time.
“It’s looking very good,” said Angela Rodocker of the BridgeWalk Resort on Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach.
“We had a very good August and September is ahead of last year. I’m very optimistic. And don’t forget our European visitors. They will be here in September and October.”
Likewise for the vacation rental market, said Susan Brinson of Anna Maria Island Accommodations.
“We’re ahead of last September and we’ve already gotten some good reservations for October and November. It’s true that September is traditionally the slowest month of the year, but people are still coming. We are definitely busier than last year at this time,” she said.
With September looking bright for the Island, it comes on the heels of August, which might have set a record for Island tourism.
“I expect the August occupancy figures to be very good,” said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman.
“We’ve had no complaints. The first half of August was great. Everyone was booked. There was no drop-off in business. The families were back,” she said.
When Florida public schools reopened in late August, however, the market slowed somewhat, she said.
But the start of the winter season is just around the corner.
“We’ll start seeing familiar people in early to mid-October,” Brockman said. “It will be good to see them return.”
She agreed that visitors from Florida are “discovering” the Island, particularly during the summer months.
A recent survey for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that 28.4 percent of visitors to the Island are from Florida, and the number of Florida visitors is increasing in every BACVB survey.
“We’re getting a tremendous number of visitors from Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Lakeland,” Brockman said.
But one segment of the visitor market is really booming, and that is weddings.
Rodocker said a few years ago, the resort did not even market to weddings, there were so few of them.
“Now, it’s a different story,” she said.
“We’ve gotten so many wedding parties that we market BridgeWalk to brides and grooms. And it’s working. The wedding business is really helping us and benefits the entire Island.”
Teitelbaum also sees the wedding market expanding on the Island.
From maybe 100 weddings annually a few years ago, Teitelbaum estimated that there will be more than 700 Island weddings in 2009, and the figure could top 1,000 in 2010.
And wedding parties plan ahead.
“We’re getting a lot of bookings for weddings in January and early February and that’s unusual,” he said. “January is normally very slow, but not this coming year.”
Teitelbaum credited the success of the annual wedding festival with the increase in bookings for January and February.
The next festival is Feb. 28 and Teitelbaum expects more than 1,000 people to attend. The 2009 event drew about 750 people.”
“I think the Island is now a very hot market for weddings, especially for couples from Florida,” he said.
Anna Maria Island has been featured as a vacation destination in a number of national media stories the past year and wedding Web sites and publications have praised its amenities and scenery.
“It’s all been good for the Island,” said Teitelbaum, “but the wedding market looks like it’s becoming a key segment of our business. And weddings benefit everybody.”
Chiles said the increase in weddings surely has helped the Island through the economic hard times.
“Our wedding numbers continue to go up, as have everyone else’s. The weddings keep a lot of people in business and I’m positive we are going to have a great winter season and the wedding parties will be a significant portion of that business.”
Chiles said as long as the Island maintains its old Florida look, the wedding parties will keep coming.
“We have what nobody else in Florida has,” he said. “We’ve got the real Florida.”