A Missing Piece

How a lack of international and group visitors affects the local tourism market.

Typically, the summer months bring European tourists to Southwest Florida. And that influx of British families sunning on our beaches or German visitors wildlife-watching at local parks and preserves provides a tourism boost at a traditionally slower time of the year.

But in 2020, those foreign visitors couldn’t travel to Southwest Florida because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that means they weren’t spending money at hotels, restaurants, shops and other local businesses.

“International visitors typically stay longer and spend more,” says Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. “It’s a big commitment, just like when we take an international trip. You plan for that, and typically you have a lot of activities planned. So the extra tourism spend is usually a little higher.” Most international travelers to Southwest Florida come from Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. The Europeans come most frequently during the summer into the fall, while the Canadians are often snowbirds.

When they’re not able to visit our area, it affects more than just the obvious tourism-related businesses. Tourism tax revenues fund capital improvement and beach renourishment projects and grants for local arts organizations. Sales tax revenues support local government budgets. When international travelers aren’t contributing to these coffers, it has a trickle-down effect.

Tourism spending also spreads into all kinds of other local businesses. “When a hotelier pays its employee, then that employee goes to Publix and Publix pays its employees,” says Pigott. “It multiplies throughout the community. Plus, hotels have to have insurance, carpeting, landscaping services: It applies to people you might not think are in ‘the tourism business,’ but they’re providing some sort of business service that is directly related to the tourism industry.”

Everyone’s in a holding pattern when it comes to international travel, waiting to see how the pandemic plays out and its effects on travel restrictions currently in place. It might not be until summer 2021 before we see a steady stream of international visitors in these parts.

But fortunately, these visitors are eager to return to Southwest Florida. “Florida is kind of a magical place for international travelers,” says Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. “So if those visitors do come back to the United States, chances are they’re coming to Florida.”

Wert has heard from his international representatives that European travelers are optimistically booking flights for 2021. “That tells me there is pent-up demand to come to Southwest Florida when everything opens up again,” he says. “And when things do reopen, many people will already have their reservations ready to go, so it’s not going to be as slow of a restart.”

International tourists aren’t the only visitors Southwest Florida has been missing. Meetings and group travel have also taken a hit because of the pandemic. A lot of that travel also typically took place during the summer or the spring and fall shoulder seasons, again bringing visitors to the area at slower times.

The good news is that many meeting planners have rescheduled planned 2020eventsinthearea, rather than canceling them altogether. The bad news is that those business travelers aren’t spending money in the area right now.

“Group meeting attendees tend to eat all of their meals out,” says Wert. “They’re out in the market quite a bit after their meetings. Meeting attendees often extend their stay and become leisure visitors, and more and more of them are traveling with their families.”

RETURN RESERVATIONS: European travelers are optimistically booking flights for 2021, says Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau.

A lack of group business doesn’t just hurt hotels with meeting space or the restaurants nearby. “It’s also extra business for all the ancillary services that are associated with meetings, whether that’s ground transportation or AV services, so those are impacted negatively, as well,” says Jennifer Huber, public relations manager for the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau.

The size of the meetings and group market varies locally. Wert puts it at about 30% of Collier County’s visitation. But in Lee and Charlotte counties, just 2% of visitors in 2019 said a business conference or meeting was their reason for visiting.

The meetings and group travel sector probably won’t bounce back locally until the second quarter of 2021. A recent survey conducted by the Florida Society of Association Executives, for example, found that 53% of respondents weren’t planning on booking in-person meetings until 2021, with 24% waiting until 2022.

“We have to accept the reality of the situation, and the reality is that business travel probably will be more slow to recover than leisure travel,” says Pigott. “The hard part about this is we’re in the middle of this crisis, and we’re starting to have that feeling that it’s never going to end. But it will end, and we will come out from this. And this continues to be an extra-special place to visit.”

In the meantime, local tourism officials are working to maintain the relationships they’ve already established with meeting planners and international travelers. “We’re not stopping our marketing messaging, but we’re changing our message a good deal,” says Wert. “It’s soft messaging that says when you’re ready to travel again, we’re going to be ready for you.”

Images Courtesy Pure Florida; Courtesy Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau