Blizzard aside, warm northern winter causes slow start to tourist season in Manatee

Beachgoers soak up the sun on Tuesday afternoon at Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island.
Beachgoers soak up the sun on Tuesday afternoon at Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island.

Unseasonable winter weather pleased northern U.S. residents this year, but the Bradenton area’s tourism industry isn’t feeling quite so warm about it.

Hoteliers and the area’s tourism bureau, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said warm winter weather across the Midwest and Eastern United States caused a slow start to this year’s tourism season.

The busiest time of year for hotels, restaurants and attractions starts in October and slows around April, typically after the Easter holiday.

The unexpected warm spell ended this week as a blizzard tore across the Midwest and Eastern states, delaying and canceling dozens of flights at Tampa International Airport and Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

For industries relying on tourism, cold snaps and storms up north are a double-edged sword.

“We want it to be cold up there but not so cold the airports close,” said Rob Ferguson, director of sales for the Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn & Suites in Lakewood Ranch.

With spring break and spring training, Ferguson said the two properties are booked through March.

“And the beginning of April is starting to look pretty solid,” he said.

Tourist taxes collected in January by the Manatee County Tax Collector’s Office reflect the trend hoteliers speak of. In January this year, tourists generated $1.24 million in net taxes compared to last year’s $1.46 million.

Crowds in town to see spring training baseball games help keep the hotels full, Ferguson said. The Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn & Suites in Lakewood Ranch employ different marketing strategies during dips in tourist season, he said, such as providing tour groups with lower room rates than typical for this time of year.

The downtown Bradenton Hampton Inn & Suites has seen similar trends. The hotel’s director of sales and marketing, Kelly Ann Dixon, said she’s observed a shorter booking window in the past two years.

“We have had people walk in from Europe and not have a room yet. People book so late now,” Dixon said. “And we may have 15 rooms to sell today, but we know we will sell out.”

The Hampton Inn sees a decent mix of spring training fans, corporate business travelers and families taking a trip for spring break, she said.

The Bradenton area sells best to older couples and families, while destinations like Panama City and Miami Beach appeal to college students on spring break, said Kelly Clark, director of communications for the Bradenton Area CVB.

“We’ve seen a little uptick with multi-generational travel,” Clark said. “It’s become trendy in the tourism industry. It’s something that seems to be more popular. Since we’re not a spring break-type destination, we’re a more laid-back place to vacation, that’s something that those types of visitors are looking for.”

Janelle O’Dea: 941-745-7095, @jayohday