96% of those who did visit reported being very satisfied or satisfied, Visit Sarasota County research shows
Although tourism in Sarasota County in the 2020 fiscal year resulted in $2,240,061,000 in economic impact, that was a drop of 28% from the figure for the previous fiscal year, as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Joseph St. Germain, president and partner of the Downs & St. Germain Research firm in Tallahassee, told members of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) that his firm’s data, compiled for the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County (VSC), was based on interviews with about 2,500 visitors in the county this year.
Still, he said, the economic impact is “a very large number.”
Moreover, St. Germain pointed to figures reflecting how visitors perceived their time in the county. Ninety-six percent, he said, reported being very satisfied or satisfied, and 91% plan a return visit. Given the challenges of this year, St. Germain added, these numbers “are fantastic …”
Out of the $2.2 billion in economic impact, he continued during a Dec. 10 presentation, $1,357,612,700 was the total direct spending of visitors in the county between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30 of this year.
All of his numbers were “going to be down,” St. Germain noted, “because we had a year that started out normal, if not up,” and then the first COVID-19 cases appeared in Florida in early March.
From 2014 through 2019, he continued, the number of visitors each fiscal year grew. In 2014, according to a slide he showed the TDC members, the visitor count was 2,031,200. Last year, it climbed to 2,796,580. For the fiscal year that recently ended, the figure was 2,257,200, which was a 19.3% decline from that FY 2019 number.
The figures represent the number of tourists who stayed in paid accommodations, as well as those who stayed with friends or family members and those who came for the day but did not spend the night, St. Germain pointed out.
He noted that the 2020 fiscal year total was comparable to the 2015 figure: 2,311,100.
And just how did those visitors spend their money in the county? About 69% of the funds — $352,725,200 — went for accommodations, St. Germain added. In second place, restaurants benefited from $336,471,500, and another $255,220,300 reflected shopping, according to a slide he showed the advisory board.
People who pay to stay in accommodations traditionally spend the largest amount of money in the county, he noted. Their total expenditures added up to $945,333,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, according to another slide. Conversely, “day trippers” spent $43,257,400, he added.
“I don’t want to belittle the day trippers,” St. Germain told the TDC members. “It’s just a smaller part” of the overall total.
In terms of what tourism means for Sarasota County, St. Germain pointed out that, on average, one visitor in paid accommodations provides $978 to the county’s economy — “almost $1,000,” he emphasized.
International visitors — “when those existed,” he added — referencing an earlier comment by a member of the VSC staff — typically spend more. Losing them as a result of the pandemic, he said, has had more of an impact on the figures this year.
With this type of presentation, he continued, people often will ask, “What does this mean to me as a Sarasota County resident?” It means that tourism in the county in the 2020 fiscal year paid for 19,000 jobs and provided $499,136,700 in wages, St. Germain told the board members.
He also emphasized the level of those figures, “despite the downtick due to COVID.”
Ninety visitors equals one job in the county, he noted.
Furthermore, he said, visitors save Sarasota County residents $590 per household.
If someone has attended a Spring Training game at the Baltimore Orioles’ or Atlanta Braves’ facilities in the county, St. Germain noted, that person “can just look out at the crowd to see jobs.”
The results of marketing
He added that 43% of visitors reported having noticed messages marketing the county, and 73% of them were influenced by those messages. The latter figure, he pointed out, “is a significantly high percentage.”
Additionally, St. Germain said, every dollar Visit Sarasota County spent on advertising in the 2020 fiscal year resulted in $515 in visitor spending.
Then St. Germain turned to results of his firm’s visitor tracking data for the county. Why do visitors come? The firm’s research showed that 58% want to relax and unwind, activities they often associate with trips to the beach, he told the TDC members. His firm, he continued, which works with other counties, has seen that number “actually go up during COVID,” because people are even more eager to find a way to reduce their stress.
Other reasons for visiting Sarasota County, he noted, are to visit friends and relatives (41% of the answers); to enjoy nature and the environment (28%); and shopping (17%).
How did people reach the county in FY 2020? Seventy-four percent of them drove, while 11% flew into Tampa International Airport, and 10% arrived at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
And from where did they come? The majority, St. Germain pointed out, were Florida residents — 28%. Another 23% were from the Northeast, while 17% were from the Midwest and 16% were from the Southeast.
“We had a higher percentage from Florida than we normally do,” he told the board members. That was another factor of the pandemic, he indicated.
Altogether, St. Germain continued, 37% of the visitors came from 10 markets. New York City was the top one, as shown in a slide, producing 6.3% of the travelers to Sarasota County. The Tampa area accounted for 6.2% of the visitors, while the number from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area made up 3.2% of the total.
Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, told the TDC members that he lives on Siesta Key. Referring to the number of visitors from South Florida, he pointed out, “I can tell you, most of the summer, it felt like we were in Little Miami. I’ve never seen that many Latin visitors [before] in the Village.”
They create a certain atmosphere, he added.
“They have a lot of different bathing suits, [too],” County Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, eliciting a laugh from Shirley.
Detert has replaced Commissioner Charles Hines as the chair of the TDC; Hines had to step down from the commission in November because of term limits.
The ‘average tourist’ and loss of the Canadians during the pandemic
The data from the Downs & St. Germain interviews also showed that the average tourist in the 2020 fiscal year was 50 and had a median household income of $119,780. Further, the average visitor spent 6.7 nights in the county, and the average size of the travel party was 2.8 people.
Sixteen percent of the visitors in FY 2020 came to Sarasota for the first time, he noted. During the pandemic, he explained, his firm has found that most travelers want to go to places they have visited in the past where they felt safe.
When Commissioner Detert asked St. Germain about the loss of Canadian visitors, he deferred to Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County.
Haley said she had figures for October showing “the incredible shift” in Canadian travel plans because of the pandemic. The figure for that month, Haley continued, put the drop in the number of Canadian visitors at 79%.
Conversely, Haley continued, the figure for visitors from other parts of Florida who came to the county in October was up 42%, compared to the figure for October 2019. “It’s a huge drop in the Canadian [count],” Haley added.
A Nov. 24 article written by John Haughey for The Center Square points out that approximately 1 million Canadians typically spend up to six months in Florida each year and contribute about $6.5 billion to the state’s economy. However, Haughey added, it was likely Canada would extend its ban on non-essential, cross-border traffic until at least March.