Usually Sarasota Manatee has an idea of ​​what the seasonal business will be like this time of year. The beaches are full, the travel plans are already booked and those who are not here are dreaming of their upcoming vacation to Siesta Key or Anna Maria Island.

But this year the answer to the question “What will the season be like?” is not so clear.

After the COVID-19 hit, the booking window for new trips to Manatee County narrowed dramatically, Anne Wittine, director of data analytics for Research Data Services in Tampa, told Manatee County’s Tourist Development Council on Feb.1. Travelers who came largely from within driving distance booked last minute trips – literally days before their arrival date.

Towards the end of 2020, Wittine said, the window began to lengthen, and more people were booking trips eight to 30 days in advance. But that’s still a lot less lead time than would be expected at this point in a normal year.

“Nobody tells us they’ll see reservations more than 30 days later,” Wittine told council members. “It’s hard to say what the season is like, even now.”

Contradicting signs

Winter time in Sarasota and Manatee counties is when a steady influx of tourists comes to the area to escape the colder climates in the Northeast and Midwest. And while indicators such as traffic continue St. Armands Circle and a seemingly busy downtown area on the weekends seems to suggest more seasonal business, to what extent this is not clear.

Visitors to Siesta Key stop to read the menu at the Hub Baja Grill on Ocean Boulevard.  on Friday afternoon in Siesta Key Village.

In late December, more than 90% of hoteliers said the booking pace for the season was slower than last year, said Virginia Haley, President of Visit Sarasota County. For the final three months of 2020, five of the top ten visitor origins markets in the region were cities in Florida.

And there is even ongoing skepticism about travel among Floridians. Over two-thirds of Floridians canceled or postponed their travel plans in 2020, less than half are comfortable in a hotel, and about a third say they are comfortable on a commercial flight, according to AAA. Fortunately for Sarasota and Manatee counties, 83% of Floridians said they were most comfortable in their personal vehicle.

In Manatee County, 83% of visitors in May were from Florida. But until December it was almost evenly divided: 51% of the visitors were Florida and 49% were from abroad.

“The out-of-state markets are returning,” Wittine told the Tourist Development Council. “That is an encouraging sign.”

Manatee County’s visitor numbers fell 4.7% in December and the economic impact of tourism fell 6.3%, Wittine said. January numbers are expected to rise from December onwards, but still lower than January 2020.

Outdoor attraction

The Sarasota-Manatee area has the advantage of being an outdoor recreational destination where people can walk around outside and stay in their vacation homes if they so choose. Visiting here seems safer for the average tourist than, say, Orlando, where a large part of the visit is going to a theme park and potentially dealing with crowds.

With the introduction of the two-shot vaccines for COVID-19, people may be reluctant to leave their home states and come here for fear of losing their place, Haley said.

“I would think tourism would shift a bit more towards people from the north, but the problem is that when you come back you still have all these rules and regulations regarding quarantine,” she said. “If you got your first vaccine and you live in Cincinnati, you won’t be going anywhere. If you’re on the waiting list to get the vaccine, people don’t want to travel until they get the vaccine. They don’t want to miss their chance. ”

More access

There have been some bright spots, however – especially at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Even if passenger numbers lag behind the record growth seen in early 2020, the airport continues to announce new flights and even new airlines to service the facility. Southwest Airlines was scheduled to serve Sarasota-Bradenton starting Sunday with flights to Baltimore, Nashville, Houston and Chicago. It will begin service four more goals March.

Only 16% of people who traveled to Sarasota County from October through December did so by air, Haley said, but for the first time, the number of people who flew direct to Sarasota-Bradenton exceeded those who opted for international Tampa Airport.

“Of those that flown, SRQ had 39% and Tampa had 38%. This is the first time that SRQ is the number 1 airport of choice for our visitors, ”said Haley. “These new flights really have a huge advantage for SRQ. It’s a great sales tool for us. You are right here at the finish and do not have to drive. ”

The US hotel business continues to have problems. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, consumer confidence in hotels depends on the prevalence of the vaccine.

According to the study, 11% say they will be comfortable in a hotel if vaccines are available to the public. Twenty percent said they would be comfortable in a hotel if the majority of Americans had been vaccinated, and 17 percent said they would stay in a hotel after receiving the vaccines in person.

Hotels have been doing well – well, in fact – on weekends in Sarasota County since COVID began, Haley told Sarasota Tiger Bay Club on February 4. However, the days of the week were slow, and this made it difficult to obtain adequate staffing.

“To this day, you see a crazy uneven wave,” she said. “I had to find one of our big hotel GMs. I couldn’t put her on her cell so I called the hotel reception and guess who answered. ”

Sporty boost

During this time, local sports tourism was a salvation. Nathan Benderson Park will host the US Olympic Rowing Trials February 22-26, the US Olympic Canoeing and Kayaking Trials in March, and several other events this year including the NCAA Women’s Rowing Championship.

Both districts are expected to receive more national recognition later this month when the PGA Tour World Golf Championship – Mexico Championship The event will take place February 25-28 at the Concession Golf Club at Lakewood Ranch. The golf event that Tiger Woods has won in recent years will not be open to the general public, but the international fame that comes with it is likely to increase interest in visiting the area.

Visit Sarasota County also used money it received through federal CARES law – with permission from the County Commissioners – to create videos showing Sarasota County as a safe place for group events, including weddings and religious outings, sporting events, and business meetings. These group events are usually booked several years in advance.

And it’s important to look ahead and be ready to take on the corporate tourism business, a sector that currently largely doesn’t exist, data from the American Hotel & Lodging Association shows.

“Since we started this process in late November, we quickly completed it in December and are now really starting some really cool sales plans to get these videos into the hands of those who can book deals now. Erin Duggan, vice president of Visit Sarasota County, told the Tourist Development Council on Feb.11.