BRADENTON -- Like David Hasselhoff, Manatee County has quite the following in Germany.
The Bradenton area is seeing more German visitors than British guests, creating new opportunities for the region as it boasts record tourism. And tourism officials are offering the Germans a friendly "danke schoen."
"The German-speaking market is growing more rapidly at this point," said Walter Klages of Tampa-based Data Research Services, a consultant for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Visitors from continental Europe, which predominately includes the German-speaking countries, had a 30.6 percent increase last year from 2012, representing the highest jump among domestic and international markets. The German market includes Germany, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland.
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Overall, 37,200 visitors from continental Europe stayed in the Bradenton area compared to 36,530 visitors from the United Kingdom and Ireland, according to figures released last week in celebration of National Tourism Week.
The European tourists were just some of the estimated 2.8 million visitors who came to Manatee County in 2013, which is up 1.5 percent from 2012, according to Klages' data. Those numbers for German
visitors are expected to continue to increase before reaching market saturation. The share of the continental market is hovering around 40 percent for Manatee County.
"At this point, our market penetration and our share of that market is still growing at an increasing rate," Klages said.
German tourists stay longer, many are investing in real estate here and others shop 'till they drop.
"Some of them come here with an empty suitcase and really load up at the Ellenton Premium outlet mall," says Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The CVB includes several German-speaking staff members to help attract German business and tourists here. Vera Sommer, a marketing manager for the CVB, is based in Germany. Ever since working with her over a year ago, her connections with European tour operators have filled a gap, Falcione said.
"To be successful in the European market, if you don't have the relationships between the tour operators and the short-term rental companies in your community, you're going to struggle to see growth there," he said.
Plenty of vacation
It's no wonder why Germans like coming to Florida -- they have the time. German workers enjoy six weeks' paid vacation, Sommer said, so they get to enjoy traveling for much longer. And Germans would rather spend their money on a nice vacation instead of a new car.
"It gives you time to explore abroad. If you travel on a 10-hour flight like I did yesterday, you don't want to stay for three days. You want to stay for 10 days," Sommer said.
Those types of visits have pushed up the average length of stay for tourists, to 7.2 nights, Falcione said, which is above the statewide average of 4.1 nights.
Germans travel typically three to four weeks abroad, starting in one destination, like Miami, and making their way over to New Orleans by the way of Anna Maria.
"The personality of a continental European traveler is what I call a wanderer," Klages said. "They have a tendency to explore."
The cultural differences of what Germans like in a vacation isn't too different from anyone else, loving seafood and sun. The weather in Germany helps, too.
"If you live in that kind of climate for nine months, you can't wait to see the sun again," Klages said. "They are sun and beach travelers."
Sommer is only one of the CVB's so-called secret weapons to recruit tourism business here, by being based in Germany. Tourism officials, including those who speak fluent German, also visit a travel conference in Germany each year to book tours to the Bradenton area.
A new tool this year should help, too. Discover America, the federal government's tourism component for international visitors, will broadcast videos online in German, highlighting Anna Maria, IMG Academy, East Manatee and other locales.
Talking with more than 40 tour operators, the staff found that the Bradenton area and its beaches had a huge advantage as Germans prefer to skip Central Florida and its theme parks.
"It became very obvious that Florida beach destinations, particularly on the Gulf side, were an exceptional value and seen and perceived as exceptional values by both markets," in the UK and continental Europe, Klages said.
Even the basic hotels here are cheaper and are of higher quality than a run-of-the-mill motel in a Spanish resort, which could easily cost $200 a night, he added.
As with most tourists, the goal is to have visitors buy real estate or start a business here, Falcione said. A federal government program allows international visitors to get a three-year work visa if they invest $500,000 or more in an U.S. business.
"With all these visitors here, there is an opportunity for someone to say, 'I'm 65, so I'll go to Florida because I like it there, and I'll start a business,'" Sommer said.
Sommer points to Anna Maria Island business Just 4Fun as a German tourist success story. The business was recognized as the 2014 Small Business of the Year from the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce and rents boats, kayaks, kites, bikes and surf boards.
"They came here, they liked it here, they were in the tourism industry and they decided to live here," Sommer said. "They own real estate, they rent out real estate-holiday vacation homes and condos. They give good tips to the German travelers."
Joe Praetor, owner of Just4Fun, visited Anna Maria for the first time in 1985 while on business. His boss lived on Anna Maria, allowing him to spend some time on the white beaches.
"I got back to Germany and told my wife, 'The day we retire, we will go to that place,'" he said.
After several stops here for vacation, Praetor bought a home in 2002 on Tidy Island, and started building homes here, leading to his other business: Florida Dreams Realty, renting out vacation homes to Europeans. He started Just4Fun to get a work visa, too, to stay here as well.
"The people living in Germany want to invest here," Praetor said. "They are happy to talk to someone who talks in their mother language and can process things by the book in the U.S."
Sure, Anna Maria is beautiful enough to buy and rent property here, but it's what's going on in Europe that influences investment here.
"There is a real big concern about the euro in Europe," Praetor said. "The currency, it's a big political thing, but the people who have cash are all afraid they will lose their cash because they're having trouble with the euro."
To combat that, Europeans invest in another country that uses another currency.
"It's a safe investment, it's real estate and you get a big return on the investment because we rent those places," Praetor said.
They're not just buying small homes, either. In April, a German investor, Joachim Frank of Illerkirchberg bought a Holmes Beach fourplex for $2 million.
Frank is just one of the estimated 5,201 Germans who own a second home on Florida's Gulf Coast, second to the United Kingdom with 6,786, according to 2010 tax collector data, the most recent available.
Experts at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport are also watching real estate trends involving German tourists.
These international flights are big business for airlines, emphasizing why it's important for the airport to take time sifting through housing data. SRQ currently has no direct European flights, but it's something they're pursuing.
"The international flights and the tickets have a higher yield than the domestic," said Mark Stuckey, vice president of special projects at SRQ. "It's important for the airlines; it's more profitability."
The 2010 housing data used by SRQ shows that there are 168 German-owned homes in Manatee and 361 in Sarasota. That's on top of 160 second homes in Manatee owned by those in the German-speaking region and 362 in Sarasota.
Stuckey is resuming a project from his predecessor, poring through spreadsheets from the tax collector's offices in Manatee and Sarasota to see all the Germans who are getting tax bills for property here.
Numbers may be skewed because foreign buyers can form limited liability companies to purchase the properties, hiding the origin of the buyer, Stuckey said. For instance, the German investor who bought that Holmes Beach fourplex formed a Miami-based company to buy the property, but his home address is listed deeper in the business filings, making it difficult for airport officials to track.
Lee County has the highest number of German-owned second homes on the Gulf Coast with 3,178, thanks in part to Southwest Florida International Airport having the only nonstop German service on Florida's west coast via Air Berlin since 1994.
"They start there and work their way up to Sarasota," Stuckey said. "We're starting to get the spill factor."
The airport figures that its catchment area -- which also includes 677 German-owned homes in Charlotte County -- to attract Germans represents 16.7 percent of those homes, and could be more.
Still, Germans are starting to find their way through SRQ.
For the first time, German passengers surpassed UK tourists for No. 2, behind Canadians, for international tourists, Stuckey said during an April Tourism Development Council meeting. The federal Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics restricts the release of international passenger data, releasing specific data to the public only with a detailed application concerning disclosure of data.
It's not a big deal to Europeans to have a nonstop flight, Sommer said.
"Out of Germany, there are several hundred connections a week to get to this area," she said. "You can fly out of Germany on Delta five times a day and connect to Atlanta to Sarasota, through Pittsburgh, through New York, through Chicago."
SRQ is also working with carriers like Delta to line up connections through Atlanta, and other carriers through their hubs, so Europeans can arrive here in the late afternoon, Stuckey said.
"Sometimes all it takes is a 15-minute change and it makes it possible to connect all the international flights," Stuckey said.
As long as they can come here in one day, Europeans are fine with that service, Sommer said.
SRQ officials are working on attracting a German charter service with hopes of landing service. Its customs facility is being expanded to process up to 300 international passengers in a peak hour to handle larger planes from Europe. The $2.3 million project is expected to start construction in June, targeting for a December completion to attract January flights for peak tourist season.
Reason to celebrate
The Bradenton area has plenty to offer Germans, says Brigitte Porwol, director of marketing of The SunState Post -- a Venice-based publication that serves as the largest German language newspaper in Southwest Florida.
"Bradenton itself provides museums and a lot of attractions, which the Germans like," Porwol said.
Whether it's the spas, the shopping, or the beautiful beaches or even German markets, it's a home away from home.
"Don't forget the great restaurants and wonderful wide range of tasty food offerings from all over the world," she said. "You'll find almost anything here."