A miracle would be dandy. But just a little luck would do for now, say local sellers of fun, sun and surf.
A stubborn, suffocating red tide and all the unpleasantness it brings has forced them to endure a summer slump and lower winter visitor expectations. They need the light to change from red to green — and soon.
The change of luck could start with an end to oxygen-depleted marine life piling up on Southwest Florida beaches from Naples to Clearwater. That would take a let-up in the algae blooms responsible for all the trouble. And with some luck, the red tide that lingered for months before it began showing up off Charlotte and Sarasota counties in June could continue to recede.
Any sort of turnaround would cheer up the real estate pros, hoteliers and restaurant owners who have had far fewer visitors buying their services, lodging and food.
August visitation was especially brutal in Sarasota County, according to Virginia Haley, executive director of Visit Sarasota County. Visitor numbers dropped by 6.3 percent and hotel occupancy by 16.3 percent to a woeful 50.9 percent. Average rates for the rooms hoteliers did sell fell 11.1 percent to $128.27.
Tourism development tax collections in the two counties also tell a tale of woe. The miserable August visitor count translated to a $229,638 decline in collections on short-term rentals compared to same month the previous year, according to Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office.
By comparison, July collections were positively positive, even though off $10,528 from the previous July.
In Charlotte County, bed tax collections show May as a monster month, with $957,411. The months that followed ended with totals far below that mark, with June at $297,354, July $211,546, August $310,560 and September $247,088.
Once it comes, the turnaround will require a deft marketing touch, advised Haley.
“The way you communicate with visitors after an event like this is very delicate,” she said.
Don’t proclaim everything is fine now. “What that tells the consumer is you had a problem,” Haley said.
Likewise, the visitor marketing professionals in Charlotte County will have to create a new post-red tide strategy after deciding to cease further promotions for the beaches during the bloom. “We don’t want to encourage people to come to that part of the county under those conditions,” said Sean Doherty, interim director of the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau.
Doing so, Doherty added, “Doesn’t do us any good as far as repeat visitors.”
Instead of location, the focus has been on fun and interesting places to go, Doherty said.
That makes sense to Lois Croft, southwest director of the Florida Lodging and Restaurant Association, whose members include hotels and restaurants from Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties. “We try not to say ‘don’t come,’ since there are a million other things you can do besides go to the beach,” Croft said.’
Still, pulling away from Gulf-side promotions has left little the CVB can do to counter fact-free information about red tide and its causes, Doherty said. “One thing that’s really hurt us is the misinformation that has been out there.”
He said he is especially bothered by what he says are false claims regarding masses of blue-green algae causing or contributing to red tide. The blue-green algae, known locally as “the guacamole” and “the green slime”, has shown up two of the past three summers as discharges of nutrient-rich freshwater from Lake Okeechobee flow down the Caloosahatchee River. The slime has chocked oxygen from the waterway and intersecting canals on its way into the Gulf at Fort Myers. Its 2017 arrival came after Hurricane Irma’s rains washed 1,000 metric tons of phosphorus-laden water from agricultural lands and communities into the lake, leading to emergency discharges into the Caloosahatchee on the west and St. Lucie Waterway on the east, The Associated Press reported.
Doherty’s worry is the perception that the red tide is a nearly-every-year thing just like the toxin-filled algae the cyanobacteria blooms bring.
Steve Murawski, a marine science professor at the University of South Florida, said in an AP report that it’s an open scientific question whether the freshwater algae blooms and red tide have any connections. “If you’ve got large nitrogen discharges, you could actually be fueling both the harmful algal bloom and the discharge of the blue-green algae. It’s an area of very active concern,” he said.
In an interview the week she retired as head of Charlotte County’s CVB, Lorah Steiner said visitor promotion efforts will have some ground to make up post red tide. “When we come out of red tide we are going to have to pull from our reserves,” Steiner said, referring to a $1 million-plus rainy-day fund built up over the last several years.
Not only will more CVB money have to go into regaining lost ground, funding for the overall operation of the tourism agency will come from a dwindling pot. This is because the 5 percent tourism development tax collected on short-term lodging is the Charlotte CVB’s primary funding source. And that source has shrunk as hotel occupancy rates have declined.
Some help will come from a $77,000 post- red tide grant from Visit Florida, the state’s visitor promotion entity.
Sarasota County received nearly $100,000 from the same relief fund. It’s money that could come in real handy once the coast is clear.
Charlotte’s hospitality sector has been “a tale of two cities,” said Doherty, who headed overall marketing at the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau before taking over as interim director upon the retirement of Steiner.
Visitors, he said, may be “coming over to this end of the county to get away from it,” added the Murdock-based Doherty.
The shifted promotional priorities have not fully freed eastern Charlotte markets such as Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte from the commercial distress associated with red tide. Both had strong May hotel occupancy based on bed tax collections of $169,578 for Punta Gorda and $176,975, according to the Charlotte County Tax Collector’s Office. Occupancy drop-offs sank Punta Gorda’s June collections to $72,848 and Port Charlotte’s to $65,498.
Punta Gorda monthly collections haven’t surpassed $57,000 since, while Port Charlotte’s haven’t climbed above $49,000.
Of the beach markets of Manasota Key, Englewood and Boca Grande, Manasota Key has fared the best, but still got walloped with a decline to $54,000 in June after a May high of $166,511. Manasota Key hasn’t surpassed $62,000 since.
Any spare sympathy should go to Englewood Beach and Boca Grande.
Englewood Beach rolled up collections of $57,872 in May but hasn’t exceeded $15,000 in any month since. Boca Grande boasted collections of $130,082 in May but the closest it’s come to that since is $35,132. Two other summer months — July and September — fell below $17,000.
Can the Charlotte CVB be resourceful and nimble enough to get the beach back into play?
“Absolutely,” Doherty said.
“We’ve already had discussions about adjusting our message back to” beach promotions.
Doherty expects uniform timing among Southwest Florida’s red tide counties in the marketing approach funded by the Visit Florida emergency grants. “We want to do it all at the same time,” he said.
“We’ve got to get our mojo back.”