Peter Greenberg, who is nicknamed the “Travel Detective” and covers the travel industry for CBS News, recently visited Fort Myers and surrounding parts of Lee County for a forthcoming TV segment.
The Lee County government paid Greenberg $95,000 as part of the Visitor & Convention Bureau’s efforts to promote tourism. The funds to pay Greenberg came from the VCB’s budget, which is funded by Tourist Development taxes—taxes from rental cars and hotel nights.
The agreement includes Greenberg producing a 10- to 12-minute segment that will air in the spring of 2023 on the PBS series “The Travel Detective.” The program also will be available on Amazon Prime and Apple TV. It includes a segment on the nationally syndicated CBS radio show “Eye on Travel,” a one-hour Facebook Live session from Lee County and a keynote address by Greenberg at the annual tourism outlook event Nov. 10 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs.
While in town, the veteran travel reporter met with WINK News anchor Chris Cifatte to discuss the visit and what he learned.
The goal, Greenberg said, was to visit parts of the county that did not appear in travel guide books.
Greenberg also gave some tips for booking travel so the general public could save some money. He said this fall should see some great deals on airfare prices; fuel prices are dropping, but so is demand for travel.
Travel demand is dropping, Greenberg said, because of continued inflation and because many travelers are paying off credit card debt related to post-pandemic “revenge travel.”
Here’s a transcript of the interview between Cifatte and Greenberg. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Cifatte: Tell me about your week. You’ve had quite a week.
Greenberg: I’ve been coming to Fort Myers now for 25 to 30 years. But this is an opportunity to see a different Fort Myers. One that’s not in the guide books necessarily or the brochures. The subject of our pieces is called the hidden gems. So, our mantra is no gift shop, no tour busses, no brochures, no guide books. But accessible, immersive experiences that people can do. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
Cifatte: And that’s different than what a lot of people do when they come to Florida. They’re going to the beach or to Disney World.
Greenberg: The problem with resort vacations is that people never leave the resort. They go there, they park themselves, they take a piña colada, and they’re there. No disrespect to the beaches. You’ve got great beaches. But let’s go off the shoreline and see what else there is to see.
Cifatte: What are the couple of things that stood out in your mind that you saw this week?
Greenberg: The one that we liked the most, really, was the slough. I mean, you get there, you’re going to get wet. But you’re going to learn a lot. And you know, I’m an East Coast guy. I thought it was a swamp. It’s not. There’s a difference. A swamp is stagnant water; a slough is water that moves.
Cifatte: So, if you’re trying to tell somebody about our area in a couple of sentences, what would you tell him?
Greenberg: The first thing I would do, and I’m biased about this one because I own a boat, is I get on a boat and get out there and see some of the other islands. And not just the usual suspects. It doesn’t have to be Sanibel, right? There are so many other places you can just pull up, drop an anchor and walk ashore and picnic.
Cifatte: We’ve had a couple of months here at our airport where the travel numbers have been down 20%, which we’re not used to this year because the numbers had been going up and up. You have a guess as to why?
Greenberg: Here’s the issue, and it’s going to be very difficult for the airports to handle this: The airlines were over-scheduled; and they were understaffed; and the flights they were using were no longer economically viable. They were smaller jets, and that’s why American Airlines parked 100 of them. Their claim was we don’t have enough pilots to fly them. Well, that was only part of the story.
The other part of the story is you’d have to have that plane 95% full to break even with fuel prices the way they were. So, you’re going to see city after city in this country lose service. By the end of next month, Toledo, Ohio, will have no service to American, United or Delta. The airport will be a ghost town. And the question you have to ask is, if you want to get to Toledo to see friends and relatives, or do you want to do business in Toledo, how are you going to do it? And if you live in Toledo, how are you going to get out? So, you need to reassess the aircraft types that are flying to RSW to be able to figure out what the future is.
Cifatte: All those issues in those feeder markets could impact us here.
Greenberg: Absolutely. Look, there’s cause and effect. There are economic consequences to every decision that’s made. And when the accountants are running the asylum, we’re all crazy. That’s what’s happening right now. They’re looking at the numbers, and they’re not adding up.
What they don’t understand, is that travel is the No. 1 industry in the world. It’s responsible for one out of every 10 jobs. And before the pandemic, one of every five new jobs. So, for a tourist-dependent location like this, you can’t mess around with airlift. Because if you lose the airlift, it’s not about the drive to market anymore. I mean, you’re going to get that, but you want people from California to visit. You want people from Nevada. You want people from Nebraska. But there are no nonstop flights from Nebraska, so you’re going to have to connect.
So, you may have to look at some of the new airlines, like Breeze or Avelo, that are starting to go to underserved cities nonstop without going through Atlanta or Charlotte. That’s what’s going to save you.
Cifatte: Do you think that these flight passenger numbers will come back up at RSW?
Greenberg: The demand is really going to come back next year. And the reason for that is this: Americans this summer decided we’re so determined to travel, we’re going to travel at any cost. Emphasis on the words “at any cost.” So, they traveled, they paid a lot of money, and those credit card bills just came in. And they’re sitting there with sticker shock, and they’re looking at how much they paid for that flight. So, they’re making a determination that right now they’re not flying for the rest of the year.
So, the fourth quarter for airlines will be a disaster. Prices are going to go off a cliff. If you’re a smart traveler, and a strategic traveler, and you have any money left in your bank account, now’s the time to travel between September and December, with the exception of those four days over Thanksgiving. But other than that, it’s a buyer’s market starting Sept. 8. It will all come back next year, barring any other variants.
Cifatte: So, strategically, if I’m looking to take a trip later on this year, holidays aside, do I wait a little while and let the prices go down a little more? Are they going down? Now?
Greenberg: The prices are 27% less than they were in May. In another 10 days, they will be another 20% less. That’s when you strike.
Cifatte: Ten days from now? Mark it on the calendar. What do you see on current travel trends overall? Post-pandemic? Are people changing the way they travel?
Greenberg: There’s been a history to this—when you go back to after 9/11 or after the economic debacle in 2008, 2009 and during the pandemic. Americans, they tend to travel in family groups because they have a Last Supper mentality about travel. If we don’t go now, we’re never going to go. Let’s get everybody to go. Let’s get grandparents to pay for it. But let’s get everybody to go. And that’s what happens. But that part happened already. Now, everybody can go back to their old patterns of traveling in small groups or with their friends or significant other.
Cifatte: Inflation, in general, is that keeping people from traveling?
Greenberg: It’s this perfect storm. Even though gas prices are coming down a little bit, they’re still pretty high. You have airline fares, which are going up. You have inflation, which means goods and services are going up. And then you have hotel rates that are 34% higher now than they were in 2019 and delivering half the service, because they don’t have the staff either. So, we’re going to have to settle out after Sept. 8, not because they’re doing anything different, but because the numbers will change. Fewer people will be traveling.
Cifatte: Anything else I’m missing that I should have asked you?
Greenberg: Never book online. Almost everybody watching us right now makes their travel reservations online. It’s a huge mistake because you’re not seeing the whole inventory. You’re only seeing a biased reflection of what the travel provider is making available to that one online travel agency. You’re doing it because it’s expedient. You want to look at it for research. But to buy it based on that? Guess what? You’re making a big mistake. Talk to a travel agent or travel adviser, the airline or the travel provider directly. I know it’s tough to get them on the phone, but call at 2 in the morning, not at 8 in the morning or 5 in the afternoon. Have that conversation, because what they’re seeing on their screen is not what you’re seeing on yours.
Cifatte: Even if you’re booking directly on a travel site or a hotel site?
Greenberg: Absolutely. I’ll give you an example. I wanted to go from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Every airline flies that, right? American, United, Delta, Alaska, Southwest, they’re all going to Hawaii. And you’ll see some of them on the screen. They’re not inexpensive flights, because everybody’s a honeymoon couple. But I called the airline. In this case, it was American. And I just talked to a human being. I said, is there another way to do it? She said, “I got an idea.” Now, the airfare quoted online Los Angeles to Hawaii. Honolulu was $800 round-trip coach. I paid $400. How did I do it? She figured it out when she flew me out of Phoenix to Honolulu. Look at the map. But it was cheaper. It only cost you an hour and a half longer. And I saved $400. I could have done Las Vegas-Honolulu. I could have gone Sacramento-Honolulu. But if you just want to do Los Angeles-Honolulu, get out your wallet. Who’s going to tell you that online? There are a lot of secret flights out there. People don’t even know about the secret flights.