Tourism records fall in 2021 fiscal year, county’s Tourist Development Council members learn

Total economic impact from visitors’ stays estimated at close to $3.3 billion

This is the estimated economic impact of tourism in Sarasota County in the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Not only were tourism statistics for Sarasota County up in the 2021 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2021, but many of the figures also exceeded corresponding numbers for the record-setting 2019 fiscal year, representatives of a Tallahassee-based research firm have reported to Sarasota County’s Tourist Development Council (TDC).

During a Jan. 13 presentation, Phillip Downs, one of the principals of Downs & St. Germain Research, pointed out that, in the 2021 fiscal year, visitors spent $2,041,562,900 on accommodations, restaurants, groceries, transportation, attractions, entertainment and shopping. Not only was that up 50.4%, compared to the total for the 2020 fiscal year, he said, but it was 9% higher than the figure for the 2019 fiscal year, before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

All the key metrics” that Downs & St. German tracks for the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County, “hit record levels” in the 2021 fiscal year, he stressed.

Downs told the TDC members, “It’s easy to imagine that money that visitors spend [going] into the pockets of everybody in Sarasota County.” Thanks to what he called the “multiplier effect,” the funds do not just pay the salaries of employees at restaurants, hotels and museums, for examples; money also ends up in the pockets of doctors, lawyers and bus drivers, among other examples.

Visitor spending in the 2021 fiscal year generated a total county economic impact of $3,286,916,300, Downs continued. That figure was 46.7% higher than the total for the 2020 fiscal year and 6% above the figure for the 2019 fiscal year.

Downs noted that the county also saw “a healthy increase” in the number of visitors in FY 2021. That total was 2,899,600, which was up 28.5%, compared to the FY 2020 figure and 4% above the record number in FY 2019.

Further, Downs said, those visitors generated $2,945,020 in spending for accommodations, which marked a 33.8% increase over the FY 2020 figure and a 4% uptick over the FY 2019 total.

These are lodging statistics for the 2021 fiscal year. ‘RevPAR’ represents the amount of revenue from each room rented. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Owners and managers of hotels and other accommodations held the line on their rates, Downs explained, which is not what usually happens in difficult times. “It’s easier to lower the rate” during such periods, he added. Yet, in FY 2021, the average daily room rate was $194.83, which was 23.3% higher than the FY 2020 average and 15% above the 2019 average. As a result of the owners’ and managers’ decisions, Downs said, the Tourist Development Tax also achieved a new record by the end of the 2021 fiscal year: It surpassed $31 million.

“It’s amazing that we’re $31 million in [Tourist Development Tax] dollars in a year that’s rivaling the Depression for having a fistful of problems,” County Commissioner Nancy Detert, who chairs the Tourist Development Council, pointed out.

(The 5% Tourist Development Tax is charged on accommodations rented for six months or less time.)

Phillip Downs addresses the TDC members on Jan. 13. News Leader image

Downs also explained that, because of precautions government officials implemented in 2020 to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, far fewer people traveled. By the beginning of the 2021 fiscal year — on Oct. 1, 2020 — they had money saved, he continued, “and they felt safe enough to go out.”

He reminded the TDC members that these records in the past fiscal year were set in spite of the fact that closed borders prevented the traditional travel of Europeans and Canadians to the United States.

The surge in tourism in Sarasota County could last another three to nine months, he added. However, he said, at some point, it will be necessary for Visit Sarasota County’s marketing to bring people back to the community.

“It’s been surprising that we are sort of the safety belt,” Commissioner Detert, noted. “We’re the lucky winners of the ‘COVID Contest,’ I think.”

Jobs and wages

Among other data Downs presented to the advisory council members, he pointed out that tourism spending supported 34,700 jobs in the county, which was up 37.2% for FY 2021, compared to the data for FY 2020. Altogether, he said, wages and salaries in the tourism industry in the county added up to $784,505,800, which was a 57.2% increase over the sum for the 2020 fiscal year. That jobs figure was a new record, as well, he pointed out.

Labor shortages did drive up wages, he said.

In response to a question from new TDC member Barbara Langdon, a North Port city commissioner, Joseph St. Germain, Downs’ partner in the research firm, acknowledged that the staff problem with which businesses have contended “does affect people’s vacations.” However, he added, the company does not dive into such details.

Still, St. Germain said, based on the data that Downs & St. Germain had recorded for Sarasota County during the 2021 fiscal year, “You did a good job” dealing with those shortages.

In fact, Downs noted, he and St. Germain presented a similar fiscal year report to a client in a northern U.S. state earlier in the week. The visitor satisfaction numbers in that report were lower by 10% to 15%, Downs said, adding that labor shortages in that location “are just killing them.”

Downs also reported that, for every 84 visitors to Sarasota County in the past fiscal year, one new county job was created. Further, he pointed out that visitors to the county save each household $669 a year in state and local taxes. Moreover, for every $1 that Visit Sarasota County spent on marketing in FY 2021, $199 in visitor spending was generated.

This chart shows the direct visitor spending in the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

As for the lodging statistics: the average occupancy rate rose to 66.1%, up 25.4%, compared to the FY 2020 figure; and the average revenue per available room was $128.73, a 54.6% increase over the FY 2020 amount.

Details about the visitors

Following Downs’ remarks, St. Germain, offered the TDC members details about the people who spent all that tourism-related money in the county during the past fiscal year.

“One thing that kind of struck me,” St. Germain said, was the fact that “we saw a lot more family vacations” in FY 2021. That held true for Southwest Florida destinations in general, he pointed out. Moreover, he continued, “Once you get ’em here the first time, the more likely they’ll come back.”

Of the FY 2021 visitors, he noted, 46% had been to the county on a previous trip; another 39% of them came because of a recommendation they had received.

This chart shows visitors’ top reasons for coming to Sarasota County. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

As for how they planned their trips, he continued: More than one out of three used websites, and the top one was TripAdvisor (30%), followed by social media posts of friends and family members (21%) and the Visit Sarasota County website (19%).

“The biggest jump we saw,” compared to the data for FY 2020, St. German noted, was in the number of people using TripAdvisor.

As for the reasons visitors cited for coming to the county, these were the top four:

  • Relaxing and unwinding — 54%.
  • Visiting friends and relatives — 37%.
  • Family vacation — 33%. “That’s a huge jump,” St. Germain pointed out.
  • Nature — 16%. In FY 2020, he said, that figure was close to 30%. “A lot of people just looked for wide-open spaces [in the past fiscal year].”

Another 2% came for a sporting event, St. German added.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported consistently in 2020 on research showing that the coronavirus was less likely to be transmitted to people in outdoor settings.

In regard to how visitors arrived in the county, he pointed out that, for the first time ever, the firm found a higher percentage of people who flew into the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) than Tampa. The figure for SRQ was 27%, compared to 9% for Tampa.

This chart shows the percentages of visitors from specific parts of the nation. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

And from what locations did those visitors come in the 2021 fiscal year? Altogether, St. Germain reported, 99% of them were from other parts of the United States. Further, he continued, while the “Northeast has always been very popular for Sarasota,” the majority of visitors to the county in the 2021 fiscal year — 28% — were from the Midwest; the figure for the Northeast was 26%. Another 25% were from other communities in Florida.

People were just ready to get out of Minnesota and Wisconsin, St. Germain told the TDC members.

Still, he noted, New York City accounted for 7% of all the visitors to Sarasota County, leading the way among all locations of origin.

The Tampa area represented 5% of visitors, with Chicago and Orlando tied for 4% and Atlanta accounting for 3%.

These are the top markets from which visitors traveled to Sarasota County. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

TDC Vice Chair Norman Schimmel of Sarasota told Downs and St. Germain, “I think we are going to be invaded by people from Atlanta, Mississippi and Georgia” this year for Spring Training games of the Atlanta Braves, who won the 2021 World Series.

The Braves conduct Spring Training at CoolToday Park near North Port and Venice.

Schimmel added, “God willing,” the numbers of visitors from those states where the Braves have a great following well could exceed Spring Training tourism figures for the county from years past.

Among other data, St. Germain noted that the size of parties rose in the 2021 fiscal year, with the average at 3.2 people. Again, he stressed, that reflected the increase in the number of families who came to Sarasota County. Indeed, he said, 34% of the visitors were traveling in family groups, while 43% were couples.

The average age of a visitor in FY 2021 was 49, and 81% were Caucasian or white. The median household income was $108,800, St. Germain noted.

Further, he reported, 32% of the visitors stayed in hotels, 27% stayed with friends or relatives, 26% used vacation rentals, and 13% traveled to their second homes in the community.

Additionally, he pointed out, the average “length of stay was longer [in FY 2021]”: 7.2 nights, and 18% of the visitors were in the county for the first time.

The latter figure, he noted, has been “trending up” since the 2019 fiscal year.

This chart provides information about tourism and wages in the county. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Altogether, St. Germain added, 40% of the visitors the firm’s researchers interviewed said they had been to the county more than 10 times.

The following were the top activities for those visitors while they were in Sarasota County, he continued:

  • Going to the beach — 78%.
  • Dining out — 64%.
  • Relaxing — 62%. St. Germain explained that “Beach” and “Relaxing” were “synonymous for a lot of visitors.”
  • Visiting friends and family members — 46%.
  • Shopping — 41%.
  • Spending time out in nature — 34%.
  • Enjoying family time — 32%.

Finally, he pointed to the positive reports from visitors about their time in Sarasota County, with 97% saying they were satisfied; 91% affirming they would recommend the county to friends; and 94% planning a return visit. “These numbers are wonderful,” St. German added.

He and Downs had told all of their clients that if tourism remained stable in the 2021 fiscal year, St. Germain pointed out, then their clients should consider that a positive outcome. Therefore, with figures having gone up for Sarasota County, he said, he wanted to offer his congratulations to county leaders.