Season in Sarasota-Manatee nears its end - News - Sarasota Herald-Tribune - Sarasota, FL / Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Florida: Season in Sarasota-Manatee nears its end

After last year’s red tide bloom, service industry grateful for a robust rebound

Season is ending in Sarasota-Manatee, and several businesses along the Gulf Coast said that, despite last year’s struggles, it was a good one.

At Siesta Key Oyster Bar, the busy season typically starts around Feb. 15. But this year, it arrived in full force Feb. 1, owner Beth Owen-Cipielewski said.

“It caught us off guard for a couple of days — it definitely started earlier than usual — but we’re still going strong,” she said. “Thank you Lord, thank you Lord, thank God, that’s all I can say.”

Last year’s red tide bloom devastated not only marine life in the region — it also hurt restaurants, hotels, vacation rentals, water sport equipment sellers and other businesses that rely on the quality of Gulf waters to boost their bottom line.

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The impact of the algal bloom is reflected in collections of the tourist development tax, a 5% levy generated on short-term vacation rentals, including hotels and motels, and a measure of the health of the tourism industry. Tourist development tax collections in Sarasota County had fallen every month since August compared with the same month the year before, until February, when collections were up for the first time since last July.

Sarasota County brought in about $2,933,317 in bed tax revenue in February, an increase from $2,890,693 the year before.

In Manatee County, bed tax collections were down in August, September and October, but they’ve been increasing year-over-year since November. Manatee brought in $1,813,504 in bed tax revenue in February, up from $1,640,165 in the same month the year before.

Despite a slow January where hotel occupancy, room rates, revenue per available room and visitorship were all down compared to the same month the year before, Sarasota County saw a 3.6% percent increase in visitation in February, although hotel occupancy for that month remained basically flat compared to February 2018.

The average daily room rate in Sarasota also went down by slightly more than 4%, which Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley said had to do with all the new hotel inventory that came on line last year.

To encourage tourism from the Midwest, Visit Sarasota worked with a local public relations firm in Ohio to pitch stories about Sarasota and the new Allegiant Air flights to Midwestern destinations from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport at the end of January. They combined that with traditional advertising and a glass truck with sand, beach chairs and beach balls in the back that drove around promoting Sarasota County — partially during an uncharacteristically cold few days when an icy polar vortex gripped much of the nation.

As a result, tourism from the Midwest has increased this October through February, compared with the same time period in the fiscal year before. All other markets for the same time period were down.

“It’s kind of nice to see the payoff of a campaign like that,” Haley said.

In Manatee County, occupancy was basically flat in February compared with the same month the year before. The average daily room rate was up by 1%, and revenue per available room was also nearly flat, increasing less than 1% from February 2018. All of Manatee’s visitor origin markets except Canada and Europe were up in February, including the Southeast (23.2% increase), the Midwest (11.3% increase) and Florida (13.2% increase).

Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that tourism businesses in Manatee County are satisfied with the amount of business they got during season. He said he expects tourist development tax collections from March to be strong.

“We’re seeing strong reservations through the rest of this month, and May looks satisfying at this point. We’re focusing on blitzing the drive market so we can have a good summer season,” Falcione said, referring to people who live within driving distance who could vacation here.

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