June 2021

We are now past Memorial Day and for the Northern Gulf Coast, we’re into the Peak Summer tourist season.  It’s the time when the visitors flock to the Gulf to have their traditional summer vacation. It means the highest prices, the most crowded beaches, the busiest roads, restaurants bulging with diners – well, you know how it goes.  We love the visitors, but for us locals it’s not the Prime season. Prime Season is from September to May with cooler weather and fewer crowds. As things are developing, we are getting more visitors in the Prime season and as I’ve said before, those tourists tend to spend more and do things other than sit on the beach.  In fact one of the CVBs in our area reports that credit card holding visitors tend to spend $225 each during October to May, but only $218 during April to September.  Multiply that difference between the number of visitors and it has a significant impact on our local economy. Not that sitting on the beach is all you can do during the summer months of course.  All the ‘adventures’ are available throughout the year.  If you get talking to visitors this summer you might want to mention that after they’ve had their first few days on the beach, they may like to try a dolphin cruise, or a fishing trip.  How about the kids trying snorkeling or paddle boarding? Those of us who live here are the experts so we really should help our visitors to experience what makes the Gulf Coast paradise.

I recently had some information provided by the Destin Fort Walton Beach CVB. For Okaloosa County alone 30% of jobs in the county are supported by visitor spending. As tourists visits begin to spread into the Prime season, that figure will increase.  Another statistic I got from Okaloosa County is that more than $305 million in state and local taxes are generated by visitor spending. That’s a staggering figure and one that’s reflected in the neighboring counties along the coast. Spending by tourists in Florida as a whole is the single reason we don’t have a state income tax, so it’s vital that our tourism across Florida recovers to pre pandemic levels. 

Talking of which, the numbers of domestic tourists (travel from within the USA alone) is growing rapidly again. That’s excellent news for our area but Florida as whole is very dependent on international tourism and that is still suffering badly.  Europeans in particular are unable to travel easily to our theme parks and attractions. Until the COVID pandemic is greatly reduced, they will be not able to travel. Vaccination levels in many parts of Europe are not matching those of the USA or the United Kingdom yet. Where as we, and to a certain extent the British, are relaxing restrictions on movement and interaction, other countries are a bit behind.  

It appears that those who are fully vaccinated are more likely to be able to move about, but those without vaccinations will not be as welcome in other countries.  The US won’t be letting tourists visit from countries with higher infection rates for some time and that’s bad news for our theme parks.

As for US residents wanting to travel overseas, we will have to prove we are vaccinated and virus free. That’s not an easy thing as we don’t have plans for an internationally recognized US vaccination certificate yet.  Such a thing is not necessary or desirable for domestic travel of course. As Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, pointed out – it would be totally unworkable.  However for international travel it’s very important.  

I remember as a young travel agent having to possess not just my passport, but a ‘yellow card’ or record of vaccinations, against a whole raft of diseases (yellow fever, cholera, typhus and smallpox) before I could travel to many countries.  It was just an accepted thing throughout my career. Regrettably, I think that’s going to have to come back if we are going to be able to get back to traveling worldwide, and indeed if we are to welcome all those foreign tourists back to our theme parks and attractions.

In the meantime, for us on the Northern Gulf Coast, out domestic visitors are returning strongly.  That’s very good news for all of us.

May 2021

Happy May!  We’re now well into Spring and heading for Summer. Can you believe it? Time for a quick update on how tourism is progressing here on the Northern Gulf Coast.

Talking to the hospitality folks here, things are going really well.  Hotels and vacation rentals are reporting very high occupancy levels, something that has been happening right the way through the winter and spring season.  ADR or Average Daily Rate, which is the prices for which hotel rooms and rentals sell, has remained high.  That means no discounting. If anything, rates are going up.  Future bookings are looking very good too.  That’s not only good news for hotel and property owners but great for those of us who work in the industry.  It means more job security and more permanent, rather than seasonal jobs.

The restaurants are also reporting good business. There are still some restrictions on how many diners restaurants can seat at a time (in some areas) but that does not seem to be hurting many businesses.  In fact some of my restaurant contacts are saying that visitors are actually spending more.

Companies dealing in tours and experiences are doing very well with many attractions and excursions having the level of bookings in April that they would normally expect in June.

Airlines flying into the area are showing excellent loads with some carriers replacing their smaller regional jets with larger sized aircraft.  Southwest Airlines, who are due to start flying into Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (The fastest growing airport in the country apparently) in May, have already increased their frequency from a number of their destinations.

One downside to this apparent success is that hotels, property management companies, restaurants and other parts of the industry are finding difficulty in recruiting enough employees.  That’s always a problem here of course, but it’s exacerbated this year for two reasons.  Firstly, some people who are normally what may called ‘casual’ have been receiving unemployment benefit due to the pandemic.  That will continue until September, and it seems that some of these folks are unwilling to work when they can draw benefit for staying at home.  More concerning is that some hospitality workers have found alternative employment during the pandemic and are now happy with their new careers.  This is a worldwide problem, not just here.  Good news for those of us in the industry is that employers are now offering high pay rates, hiring bonuses and other benefits.  If anyone is looking to break into the business, now is a good time to do it. It’s an ‘employees market’!

We recently we spent a weekend in New Orleans.  It was our first trip since getting our vaccines, and our first visit to the city since early 2020.  It was an interesting experience as it was also our first foray outside Florida since the beginning of the pandemic.  Certainly there was a different ‘vibe’ in New Orleans than here in The Sunshine State.  Mask wearing was much more prevalent than here – Louisiana and NOLA still have mask mandates, and they still have curfews (recently opened out to 1am in the city).  There appeared to be little resistance to mask wearing and no issues about social distancing according to my industry contacts.  As a result the city has opened up and it feels things may be getting back to normal, although ‘normal’ is a relative term of course.  Probably the biggest problem New Orleans has is that many hotels who closed at the start of the virus period have yet to reopen. This is resulting in high occupancy rates for the hotels that are in operation.  Although the events (Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest etc.) that normally cause very high rates and occupancy have not happened this year, things are looking up.  Jazz Fest 2021 has been rescheduled for October and bookings for Mardi Gras ‘22 are looking good.

It’s really encouraging to see such an upturn in the local tourism business.  The rest of the world is still suffering, and we’re not out of the woods here yet.  For Florida, the lack of international arrivals is damaging. We do need those overseas visitors – and indeed many people here want to travel overseas too.  However we will get there and locally things are looking good.

April 2021

Remember tourism before this pandemic?  One of the big topics across the world prior to 2020 was the concept of over tourism. Many destinations were suffering, if that’s the word, from more visitors than they wanted.  Our natural desire as humans is to travel, explore and visit new places.  The industry that’s been my career has found ever more efficient ways of moving people around and allowing more and more of us to roam.   The downside was that many areas, cities and classic destinations were experiencing sometimes destructive levels of visitation. Well, COVID put an end to that.  Cities shut; resorts closed.  Cruise vessels were put at anchor and airlines, when they were able to fly, reverted to cargo flights.

An upside has been that nature has had the opportunity to claim back places she had been driven from.  The canals of Venice have become clear and reports of dolphins  swimming in the lagoon have been made.  Residents of places like Amsterdam in the Netherlands had been seeing a huge increase in short term rentals, effectively removing available housing from locals.  With the reduction in visitors they have begun to claim their city back.  The Florida Keys have been spared huge cruise ships.  It’s the same the world over.

Of course the drop in the economic benefits of tourism has been in may cases, catastrophic.  Places that rely on visitors have seen their incomes devastated.  Jobs have been lost, and it may take years to recover – if ever.

However, with the increasing availability of vaccines the world is beginning to look at what happens after the virus.  That may be some way off though, as the distribution of vaccines is patchy throughout the world.  Some countries are (even the USA) are seeing still increasing levels of infection.  Australia and New Zealand, although they have suffered less than some countries, are saying their borders will be closed to foreign tourists until 2022.  Qantas, the Australian national airline is not expecting to be flying intercontinental routes until the end of this year and maybe not until next year.

Plans are being made by many destinations to review their tourism policies either to reverse over-tourism, or to change the way they handle visitation.

Referring to the Florida Keys again, the locals have voted to restrict the size of cruise liners that visit.  They would prefer smaller ships, with fewer passengers, but who stay for a number of days.  These visitors would potentially spend more in the local economy.  The previous mega-ships would stay in port for one day with the passengers eating and spending on board.  Although the locals want to restrict the size of ships, the Florida Government are not so sure and want to revert to previous policies. It remains to be seen who will prevail. If they do have smaller ships the actual cost of the cruise ticket will rise too. Less passengers but higher spending visitors.

Venice, again, has decreed that the huge cruise liners are not welcome in the waters of the lagoon that overlooks St Mark’s Square.  The locals and tourist authorities do not want to see the vista of the iconic city impacted by what are effectively floating cities.

Even here on the Northern Gulf Coast things are changing. Some of our local tourism authorities have started implementing very different marketing plans than existed in the past. They want to spread the influx of visitors across the year, not just in the summer months.  They are trying to encourage guests to engage in more activities rather than just staying on the beach. One local CVB is promoting ‘little adventures’ to get families paddle boarding, fishing, scuba diving and exploring.

Of course this also has the ripple effect of encouraging visitors to spend more.  As someone commented to me the other day “would you prefer 1000 visitors each spending $1, or two visitors each spending $500?”.  

So, the new mantra for tourism may well be rather than marketing their destinations to tourists, they will look to engage in tourism stewardship. The aim being to satisfy locals as well as visitors to their mutual benefit. 

Hopefully there will be a silver lining to the pandemic cloud as far as tourism is concerned.  We can only keep our fingers crossed.

March 2021

March is Women’s History Month in the USA and indeed in many other countries.  International Women’s Day is March 8th. It marks the contribution made to history and contemporary society by women.  So what has the effect been on the tourism industry?

Having been in the travel, tourism and hospitality business for a long time I can testify that the contributions of my female colleagues, bosses and mentors has been staggering. Certainly during my time there have been few, if any, barriers to women achieving their career roles.  That extends across travel agencies, tour operators, airlines, shipping companies, travel technology…the list is almost endless.  

The reason for this is simple. Not only are my female coworkers so good at the business of tourism, but our customers are often driven by the decisions of the women in the family.

As a young travel agent, one of my customers was the travel club of a large U.S. airbase in Great Britain.  I had to visit the base and arrange the family travel of the airmen and airwomen stationed there.  The families would come in and inevitably, regardless of the rank or sex of the serving member, it was the woman who made the decisions of when, where and how the whole family traveled.   The same applied in civilian life. The decision makers, when it came to booking family vacations were inevitable the mothers.

That hasn’t changed over the years. Indeed recent research by some of our local Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus and tourist boards have recognized that the most influential customers are the ‘ Millennial Moms’.  It is their decisions that drive the purchases and trends in our industry.

In writing this month’s article I have been trying to think of particular women in senior positions to illustrate the contribution of women to the business.  In some industries it’s easy to find examples of female leadership, only because their are few.  My problem in applying this to tourism and hospitality is that women occupy so many positions at every level that it’s very difficult to identify individuals.  I know as many female heads of tourist boards as I do males.  In our local area the head of Visit Florida is a woman, the head of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is a woman, the head of the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Tourist Development Department is a woman, and the same applies to a number of other CVBs along the coast.  I know many hotel GMs and CEOs who are female. The hospitality industry has a very high number of woman leaders, be that running hotels, hotel chains and restaurants.

Airlines have women in every sector and at every level. Yes, back sixty or seventy years ago airlines were male dominated but I don’t believe they are now. Wholly female aircrews are not unusual, although wholly male crews are!  Women’s influence and guidance extends across the airline industry.

As I mentioned above, when making policy regarding to whom tourism marketing should be directed, the industry looks to women – the decision makers in most families.

I’ve worked with many wonderful people – both women and men – in my career and all have brought different skills and sensitivities to their roles.  All are vital to achieve the right ‘balance’. In choosing who is best for the job, we must look at everything a person brings to a job.  

Strangely enough it’s true to say that, in tourism and hospitality, the best man for the job is most often, a woman.

February 2021

Last month I was reminiscing about how we booked flights when I first started working in the travel and tourism business some 50 years ago. I promised that I’d tell you about booking hotels and tours back then.  Of course with no on-line systems in those days and no internet to check hotel reviews and photos, we were left to our own experiences.  That’s fine if you’d visited the hotel in question but if you’d never been there, we had to fall back on big hotel books. These were inevitably out of date the moment we got them, and to be honest who knows how long they’d been on the office shelf.

If we were lucky the hotel in question had a sales office or representive that we could call to mak bookings.  However, if that wasn’t the case it was necessary to either send a Telex or teletype and wait for a reply or – imagine the excitement- actually phone the hotel.  For accommodation in another country that meant getting permission from ‘The Boss’ to make an overseas phone call.  Then we hoped that the hotel had someone who spoke our language. So often we got by with strange conversations in multiple languages always hoping that we all shared the correct information.

In the early ‘80s fax machines started to be introduced.  In our agency, we thought we’d buy a fax, but didn’t know if any of our overseas contacts had faxes themselves.  Luckily the fax spread quickly in the travel world, so the need to make long distance calls diminished. Forty years later the fax has virtually disappeared thank goodness  and making reservations has changed beyond all recognition.

Finding tours was also a process fraught with difficulty.  Many of us had contacts with overseas representatives who handled bookings on our behalf, otherwise we would have had big problems.

Remember guide books?  Every trip that we planned to take involved buying a reputable book (or indeed multiple books) which told us where to stay, what to do, eat and buy and when we actually got to our destination.  Inevitably they were years old and everything had changed. But what a leap of faith they were and how they made travel so exotic.  Indeed every destination was hugely different from where we lived. Travel was a wonderful adventure.  These days of course we can check everything before we travel, make bookings on line and all the information we get is up to date.  In many cases the hotels, tours and stores we visit on our travels are very similar to those in our own home town. Travel is much less of challenge than it was, although with the current  pandemic there are a whole raft of new challenges.

Travel is still exciting and gives us the chance to meet new cultures, new people and gain new insights.  It’s said travel broadens the mind and I think that’s true no matter if you’re traveling to the other side of the world or just to the town next to your own.

I can’t wait to start traveling again.  Hopefully that will not be too far in the future and in the meantime we all have a lot of planning to do. Now, where are my guide books…………

January 2021

For a Christmas present my wife gave me some travel books, but with a twist.  These are about what it was like to travel during the 1930s, 1950s and ‘60s. I find these fascinating trying to imagine what tourism was like a few decades ago.  It got me thinking about how things have changed in the time since I joined the business.  I must stress that I’m no where near old enough to remember those decades from a work point of view! However, I do recall the travel business of the 1970s well enough.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s tourism world wide was really taking off. We had the jet age and the ability to travel was open to a much greater number of people.  It was not just the wealthy who could travel.

As a young travel agent I was in the front line of booking people’s vacations.  We now take it for granted that we either visit a travel consultant who books everything using on line systems or we just use our own computers and cell phones to research and book our trips. Fifty years ago only the airlines had computers to manage their bookings, and access was restricted to their own staff (although the first American Airlines ‘SABRE’ computer terminal was installed in a travel agency in 1966). For us travel clerks the first job in booking a tourist’s journey was to look in one of two books that were published every month. The Official Airline Guide or OAG and the ABC Airways Guide.  These were huge books listing all the air services around the world, the days and times they operated and which airlines flew the routes.  With the OAG you looked up the city the traveler to which the wanted to go and then checked if there was a flight, or connections from where they were starting. The ABC was the other way round – look up the start point and and then look at the destination to which you could fly.

Having found your flight or flights and checked that they flew on the day you wanted, plus when they arrive, bearing in mind that with international flights you oft times landed on a day after you left. Even, when crossing the international dateline, landing the day before you left or two days later. Some people could find they missed a whole day traveling.

Next step was to call the airline on the phone and reserve the seats.  In many cases that involved multiple calls to different carriers, some of whom had computer reservation systems, but many did not, relying on sending messages back to their head offices to ‘request’ bookings.  They invariable used a Telex or Teletype system (a sort of electric typewriter that connected via special telephone line). This means that a seat request may be waiting days for confirmation.

Once the itinerary was finalized, we had to work out the fare. This could be as simple as just looking up the fare in a book, but frequently with a multi stop journey, it involved a major fare calculation. That process could fill a book all of its own, believe me.  It was major to a young and numerically challenged travel agent.

Lastly, we had to hand write the tickets. We had stocks of tickets for all the airlines with we worked. There was certainly both an art and a science to writing tickets and we all had to take courses in how to do it correctly.  I recently found some of my training tickets I wrote back then. It was a different age.  We’ve come a long way with  instant reservations on your phone, no physical tickets and boarding passes on your phone or watch.  

That only covers booking the flight!  The joys of finding and reserving hotels and tours was a whole different and complex process.  Maybe next month?

December 2020

With Christmas and the New Year approaching, I think it’s time for a little ‘end of the year’ story or a Christmas Carol…….

Once upon a time, in the old days, as the days got shorter and winter storms piled snow around the door, those in the travel and tourism industry reflected on the past year and looked forward to the next twelve months.  Well, you can tell this is a fairy tale as haven’t had any significant snow on the northern Gulf Coast in recent memory! Also although the days do get slightly shorter here compared with the summer, we still normally get long, bright, sunny and warm days right through the holiday period. A definite upside to living in Paradise.

The Ghost of Tourism Christmas Past has thankfully decided not to make an appearance in this tale.  To be honest the Ghost has decided that looking back is just too depressing, even for him, so has decided to give things a miss.

The Ghost of Tourism Christmas Present is here though, and appears to be in a confused mood. As I mentioned last month, tourism here on the Gulf of Mexico has been rather better than we dared hope for back in the early part of 2020.  The numbers of travelers who still want to make the journey to our area have held up remarkably well.  It’s true that things have changed, but we are hosting many people who want socially distanced vacations and families that want to do home schooling in our area. Indeed those able to work from home are able to temporarily move their home, to our home.

Traveling currently requires adaptations to ensure your safety as well as other’s. The rise in vacations to places that can be reached in a day – probably by driving – and staying in suitably safe accommodations has worked well for our area. 

It’s not so great for international tourism, which has taken a bit hit over the past ten or eleven months.  Most of us can’t just jump on a jet to overseas destinations currently and equally the numbers of international guests have been severely restricted. Although the theme parks of Central Florida are open, they’re not receiving the quantity of visitors they want or need.

Likewise although some Snowbirds will make it to us this year, many more (particularly the Canadians) will just either not be able to get here, or will out of an abundance of caution decide to give this season a pass.

Which brings us to the Ghost of Tourism Christmas future.  This particular specter also has a mixed story to tell.  The recent emergence of a collection of vaccines should make people more willing to travel in 2021. Airlines are making plans to start ramping up services. Even international tourists should start returning.  Hotels and rental accommodations have learnt much in the past months and are able to offer safe and welcoming places for people to stay.

Travel for business may take longer to recover as many companies have found benefits from employees working remotely, telecommuting and using technology for meetings. However that gives us leisure tourists more opportunities to snap up good deals.

We may not see the sort of Spring Break vacations that have happened in past years with huge numbers of young travelers, but again there’s an opportunity for families to take safe spring breaks instead.

There is much to be optimistic about for travel, tourism and hospitality in the coming year.  It’s going to be ‘different’ than it has been in the past, but the Christmas and New Year break still gives us the opportunity to start planning.  Let’s all concentrate on where we’re going to be going in the coming year when we feel able to do so.

2020 is nearly in the past and I think that’s something for which we can all be grateful.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

November 2020

It’s November and therefore time for Thanksgiving. From a tourism point of view you may ask what do we have to be thankful for this year, but without too much deep thinking I can think of many things.

Up here on the Northern Gulf Coast, we did have an initial lock down for the pandemic which caused much suffering within the tourism and hospitality industry. However, after the gradual opening up of the area, visitors reassessed their travel plans and many decided that rather than travel far afield, a road trip or short flight to our area was just what they needed.  The result was a surprisingly good summer season for many hotels, vacation rentals, restaurants and attractions.  

The rise in home schooling and working from home has encouraged an extension of our traditional tourist seasons.  Some of my contacts have experienced almost record levels of business for September and October.  Forward bookings look good too.

When business is normally good, many companies tend to keep doing what they’ve always done, working on the ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ principal. The result can be that we don’t always look at ways to improve, or don’t look for alternative ways of operating.  Maybe we also ignore the chance to diversify our businesses or look for new markets or customers.  Certainly the events of 2020 have served as an incentive to examine all these options.  It’s unfortunately true that some companies have been unable to take advantage of such opportunities, but believe me an equal number, maybe more, have made significant changes.  It may take a while for the benefits to be fully realized, but I’m sure they will come.

Looking at specific examples we’ve seen the pause in conference business has resulted in hotels converting (perhaps temporarily) business centers and conference rooms into individual ‘vacation working’ or home schooling areas.  Restaurants have expanded outdoor seating areas. They’ve also introduced e-menus that diners can access on their phones by scanning a bar code.  That has resulted in savings of not having to print menus as well as the ability to update quickly and allow customers to order in advance.

Airlines have brought forward the replacement of older, less efficient airplanes with modern environmentally friendly planes that are able to fly long distances, point to point, rather than going via hub airports.  That’s all good for the the planet and the traveler.

Tourists have realized that using a travel agent or travel advisor can offer some benefits to doing it all yourself.  I know that my friends in that part of the business have suffered during the pandemic and indeed for some years previously, but many are reporting significant upticks in business.

From my own point of view, I’ve used the current pause in travel to look back on travel shows on TV, re-read favorite travel books and plan for the future. I hope you have had that chance too.  Travel is not just about the destination. It’s about the journey and that includes the planning. It also includes looking back on past trips to decide what you enjoyed, what you didn’t, what worked and what you’d change next trip. That’s all for which to be thankful.

The original Pilgrims gave thanks for their first year here in The Americas. Not because that year had been easy – it certainly was not easy. But they gave thanks for the good things. Thankful for what they’d learned and how they planned to progress.  Thanksgiving is a rare holiday. It gives an opportunity to consider the silver linings that exist in the majority of clouds.

Happy Thanksgiving.

October 2020

I’ve been looking back on the Let’s Talk Tourism articles for the past two and a half years to see what I’ve written about, partially because I don’t want want to repeat myself (as if I would!) and also to see what has changed.  In that time we’ve shared the history of tourism, how those of us in the industry used to do things, trends, what’s been happening locally, nationally and internationally, and a little bit of crystal ball gazing.

We’ve come to the end of the Summer season here on the Northern Gulf Coast and as we head into Autumn I think it’s worth dusting off that crystal ball again and think what’s going to happen  from a tourism point of view. Actually the whole concept of Autumn is a pretty localized concept for us tourist people.  South Florida and the Southwest for example simply have a dry or a wet season, as do most of the tropics. In South Asia they actually have six seasons! Of course in the Southern Hemisphere they are moving out of winter and into spring.

Anyway, let’s see if we can clear the clouds in the crystal ball.

Locally we are seeing, as I mentioned last month, an extension of our visitor’s season. We see a continued slight drop in peak, summer, season traffic. people are continuing to visit through the autumn months which we tend to look at as the Prime Season with slightly lower temperatures and low humidity.  Winter is the Gulf Coast’s time for Snowbirds, but that may be different this year.  Canadians, traditionally a big part of the Snowbird migration will be unable to visit due to the pandemic restrictions. Many senior visitors from the northern states of the USA may also be reticent to visit as they also react to the dangers of COVID.

Slightly wider afield the theme parks of Central Florida are open and restrictions on visitation has been recently lifted, however a large portion of their visitors come from overseas, and they are unable to visit currently due to travel restrictions. A friend of mine recently visited Disney World and reported that it was a great time to go!  There were no crowds or lines and everyone was practicing social distancing. His family had a really good vacation.

This time last year I was discussing the phenomenon of Over Tourism and the impact it was having on many tourism dependent destinations. Well, I guess that problem has been solved at least temporarily.  It has given locations an opportunity to reflect, reset and plan for the future.  I hear from many areas that they are now setting up future ways to handle fewer tourists, providing the visitors with a better experience yet still maximizing their economic benefit.

The concept of resetting businesses has affected the airlines of course and we’ve seen the retirement of older, less efficient aircraft and their replacement with modern environmentally friendlier planes. The same appears to be happening to the cruise business and many older cruise ships have been withdrawn.

Surprisingly the same is happening to hotels. The recent years have seen an incredible growth in the number of hotels around the world, but many will now close their doors for good as they adapt to the new levels of demand. Of course some of this is driven by an understandable wish by tourists to distance themselves from crowds and stay in vacation rentals, homes and villas.

I’ve said it before, being an essentially optimistic tourism guy, that there are silver linings to all clouds. If we emerge from this particular crisis with less crowded vacation seasons, more efficient and environmentally friendly methods of transport, fewer but better accommodation provision and happier locals and visitors then that is a good thing.

The autumn mists are clouding my crystal ball now, so farewell until next month!

September 2020

It has, to use an understatement, been a very strange year for tourism.  Certainly International tourism has taken a severe hit from the global pandemic.  That applies to incoming visitation to the USA from overseas, as well as outbound tourism.  My contacts tell me that even the movement of leisure travelers within the country has been severely affected as I’m sure you’ve heard from news stories.  Although theme parks in Florida have reopened, it appears that the number of visitors has severely declined.

It’s not all bad news however, particularly for our area of the Northern Gulf Coast.  I’m honored to be a council member on one of the Tourist Development Councils here so can report on how the summer has progressed.

Without doubt the early part of the summer season – April and May – were not at all good as the area was on lock down.  Beaches, hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants opened in June and that was a lifeline for many of our hospitality companies and their employees. Although bars were closed again, many hospitality companies adapted well to the new situation.

Visitor numbers appear to have been high for the counties from Franklin all the way through to Escambia.  I understand that South Alabama have experienced similar results.  Some counties appear to have done better than others of course, but results show that hotels and vacation rentals have managed to maintain occupancy and importantly, have not had to discount.  The restaurants have also reported high occupancy in the tourist areas, although they have had to restrict numbers dining to adhere to social distancing.  My contacts in the activities sector who provide fishing trips, rental of watercraft, admissions to attractions etc., have reported a very good summer.  The fact that schools stayed out of session longer than normal has also extended the season.  

It appears that many tourists who would normally travel further afield have considered that the Northern Gulf Coast has been a convenient, economical and safe place to vacation.  The fact that our area is drivable from many areas of the South East has meant that something like 80% of the visitors have taken that option.

Bookings for the fall are also holding up pretty well although the convention and group business has been severely hit.  These latter sectors are vital for the industry, but there are signs that rebooking may be happening for 2021.

Of course it’s not all good news.  Many companies have suffered and that has resulted in layoffs and furloughs of employees, which is tragic on many levels. 

Having a year when few things are ‘normal’ in the hospitality and tourism business does allow time for a great deal of re-evaluation by both companies and the destination marketing organizations like the CVBs and tourist boards.  Indeed, it’s essential.  I know from personal experience that it has provided the impetus for changes to how to attract tourists, what sort of tourists are needed and what activities should be provided in the future.  The enforced ‘pause and evaluation’ will I think, allow for our local tourism to change tactics to improve matters for both our residents, visitors and the employees.  We may well see a change to the old patterns of visitation with an expansion of the seasons, tourists choosing to engage in more ecotourism, outdoor activities,  family friendly and family safe pastimes.

Let’s hope that there are silver linings to this particular cloud.