SURVIVAL MODE: The coronavirus pandemic has forced the hospitality industry to think about how to better serve its customers.
The weather starts cooling, the traffic starts congesting and before we know it, season is here again. It’s the one constant in Southwest Florida: There will be a season. But beyond that, this year’s season is a big unknown.
The region will be dealing with the lingering effects of the coronavirus and the economic downturn that came with it. So much of what causes Southwest Florida to thrive are among the things that have been hit hardest—restaurants, the arts, retail, tourism.
The future is unclear, but here are five things to keep in mind as we enter season.
Expect fewer tourists
Coronavirus arrived during the peak of season. State shutdowns of bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses started in mid-March, and airline traffic into the state went into a tailspin during what is typically the most crowded month at Southwest Florida International Airport. This year, traffic in March was down 30% from February. Occupancy rates in Collier County dropped more than 40% in March compared to the previous year, according to the Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Just how many fewer visitors we’ll have this season is hard to tell. However, some of Southwest Florida’s usual guests wouldn’t be able to come even if they wanted to: In Collier County, for example, about 20% of visitors are from overseas, but flight restrictions have seriously curtailed international travel. Conferences make up 30% of visitors—but large gatherings have been put on hold.
We haven’t lived through something quite like this before, with the effects of a pandemic and a potentially deep recession hitting us at once. But if it’s any consolation, after the effects of the Great Recession started to be felt in 2008, visitor numbers dropped in Lee and Collier counties the next year, then rebounded. By 2011, total visitor counts had already exceeded pre-recession numbers in Southwest Florida.
Experts say it’s difficult to project the length and depth of a potential tourism lull this time. One thing to monitor: Disney World. Business consultant Karl Gibbons of Third Eye Management in Naples noted just how much of a driving force Disney is for the entire state. The resort attracts 58 million guests per year (in normal times). A bad year for Disney has a trickle-down effect on the state. If Disney has sluggish ticket sales, or has to shut down again, it could be a harbinger for the rest of Florida. “All eyes are on the mouse,” he says.
Get used to a new way to dine
Dinner out became dinner in. Southwest Florida’s normally vibrant restaurant scene is going to look a little different. “Restaurants have had to show a lot of resolve,” says restaurant consultant and Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week President Guy Clarke. “They’ve had to shift their sales model overnight.”
The shutdown hit the industry hard. It wasn’t just the lack of customers; it was the fact that restaurants were prepared for peak season. Many had tens of thousands of dollars worth of inventory that was suddenly going to waste. Many establishments started selling what they had on hand: You could order a burger to-go and buy six heads of lettuce and a dozen tomatoes with it.
If anything, the lockdown showed that they had to get creative to survive. The biggest change that’s now become commonplace are the different ways you can get food. Curb-side delivery had been rising in popularity and suddenly became a must-have for restaurants. The same with delivery services—although Clarke said those are a two-edged sword for many restaurants. Grubhub and its ilk often take a deep cut into restaurants’ profit margin on a meal. But these apps have a convenient, online system that puts the restaurants’ menus right in front of potential customers’ faces. As customers get used to ordering delivery, Clarke says that restaurants that don’t have convenient ways to order online will fall behind.
Indeed, when this is over, there simply won’t be as many restaurants as there once were. Even if Paycheck Protection Program loans acted as buoys, it’s unlikely many places will survive through a bad summer and a slow season. Clarke wouldn’t be surprised if 30% of restaurants close in Southwest Florida. “The hospitality industry has been shattered,” he says.
The news isn’t entirely terrible, though: Restaurants have also started thinking of out-of-the-box offerings, such as selling cases of wine and cocktail kits, or hosting online cooking classes. He expects many of these to become common even after the pandemic ends. Ultimately, it’s forced the industry to think about how to better serve its customers. “There’s been a lot of bad that’s happened,” Clarke says. “But there’s also been a lot of good to come out of this.”
Take a new view of the arts
Just like restaurants, the arts community quickly had to change to survive. Virtual classes and streaming concerts started replacing in-person events. Socially distant theater became a thing, with companies put- ting performances online for a price.
Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers asked a question when determining what to do, said Executive Director Lydia Black: How can we bring people together when everyone is forced to be apart? The organization started virtual classes and online trivia nights. It utilized its 10-acre campus for pop-up outdoor exhibits. Its popular weekly farmers market added a drive-through option where guests could order produce online and then pick it up at a later date. Some of these ideas have become essential during quarantine and will live beyond the pandemic, Black said. For example, their virtual classes proved to be a popular way for their seasonal residents to stay in touch, and the pop-up exhibits brought excitement to their outdoor space. “What happened is that we found out that we weren’t using our resources to their full strengths,” she says.
Usually, by mid-summer, Black will have mapped out the alliance’s schedule for basically a year out. That’s not the case this year. It’s become a week-to-week, month-to-month operation. Many theater companies and concert venues are in a similar position. Most have pushed back their upcoming seasons until the late fall or winter. Southwest Florida Event Center in Bonita Springs closed permanently in the spring, the owners citing their doubts about being able to bounce back after the pandemic.
To help the arts community survive, the alliance has spearheaded the Arts are Vital grants, awarding $500 to Lee County artists and $5,000 to arts organizations. But depending on how long the pandemic lasts, Black recognizes the money will be far from enough. “It is a struggle,” she says. “When this passes, we won’t just go back to normal.”
Prepare for a new wave of retail
Big changes were already happening in the world of retail … and then coronavirus hit. “This is coming at a time during the biggest pivot perhaps in the history of the industry,” says business consultant Karl Gibbons.
Internet shopping was starting to hollow out the traditional retail sectors. Now, the bottom is falling out. “Big box stores and the shopping mall are done. This is the final nail in the coffin,” he says.
We’re already starting to see this recently in Southwest Florida. Pier 1 Imports is liquidating and closing stores, including five in Southwest Florida; Nordstrom is closing stores nationwide including its place at Waterside Shops, and local JCPenney stores are in trouble after the company filed for bankruptcy.
Gibbons said the next wave of retail will be niche, customized and boutique. This may come with customer-oriented service such as curbside pickup (which Nordstrom actually implemented this spring), appointment-only shopping and stronger digital purchasing options. Shopping malls that survive will evolve into cultural centers; not just a spot to buy shoes and clothes, but a gathering place for the community with entertainment, dining and kids’ activities.
Retail-tainment, or eater-tainment depending on your preferred buzzword, was also poised to be the next big thing. In Southwest Florida, dine-in movie theater CineBistro was under construction in Coastland Center mall in Naples and dine-in driving range TopGolf was planned in Fort Myers. But the pandemic put plans on hold for both. Gibbons is still optimistic on both and establishments like them, such as Chuck E. Cheese and Dave & Busters, which have also hit hard times. “It’s a perfect example of where the market is going,” he says. “But we have to get COVID under control. It all has to do with customer confidence.”
Fundraising will be out of the ballroom
Typically, Southwest Florida would host more than 300 fundraising balls and galas during season. These soirées culminate with hundreds of well-heeled patrons packing a ballroom to give thousands or millions to a good cause. Of course, most of that won’t be happening this year.
Many of the fall events have either been pushed back or canceled. This provides a challenge for charities to find alternative ways to raise money that are just as impactful in a monetary sense. Keep in mind, the need is still there—even more so. For example, The Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida reported a 40% increase in demand for food in July. Benefit organizers are brainstorming new events, whether online or in small groups. Marc Collins, a Fort Myers resident known for his work organizing fundraisers, helped Florida Repertory Theatre quickly turn its annual gala into an online event in late March. It raised more than $500,000, which would have been a success for an in-person event. “That was in the beginning of this thing. I’m not sure if anyone has had the same success since,” he says. “Seeing and interacting and not being able to do that is going to be a big challenge. I don’t know if that’s even possible to replace that.”
Naples philanthropist Shelly Stayer says she doesn’t expect a serious drop-off this season. Most people who donate have a set allotment they give each year. Whether they donate at a big event or just mail a check won’t affect the amount.
“I think it will be equal, if not better, for fundraising,” she says. “Most people give because they’re passionate about the cause. Not having large social gatherings will not affect the donations, I don’t think.”
So, in that sense, maybe this season won’t be that different after all.