Tourists still flocking, but spending less

ANNA MARIA ISLAND — Every year for the past 25, Mark Short and his family leave the suburbs of Detroit for a week and come to Anna Maria Island for a vacation.

Sometimes it’s for Easter week like this year, sometimes it’s in the summer.

Still, some things have changed.

For one, the Shorts now plan out everything they will spend for the week instead of just letting spontaneity rule.

And instead of spending the whole week at a rented condo or house at the beach, they now save money by spending half their vacation with either Short’s sister-in-law, Nancy Haller, or his father-in-law, Jim Tyrrell, both of Bradenton.

As the high tourist season draws to a close with Easter, initial numbers seem to reveal that tourists like the Short family flocked to Manatee and Sarasota county for the beach and leisure life at about the same rate as last year. But, like the Shorts, they were price conscious.

Occupancy levels for hotels and motels in Manatee County showed small incremental increases over last season, starting in December, said Jessica Grace, marketing and public relations director for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

But average daily rates — what hotels are reporting they have charged for a room for the night — came down in the area for the season, said Erin Duggan, communications director for the Sarasota County Area Convention Bureau.

“I think people still travel and want to get away, but I just think average daily rates are coming down due to competition,” Duggan said. “They know now how to go on the Internet and shop.

“If the hotels want those heads in their beds, they try to lure them with a decent nightly rate.”

March is the priciest month for hotels in Sarasota County, and Duggan recorded some $99 per night rates this season at very nice hotels that are usually $149 to $200 nightly, she said.

In Manatee County, this past January saw 53.6 percent occupancy in hotels typically serving tourists, Grace said.

Compare that with January 2009, when the occupancy figure was 54.3 percent.

“We were down by a fingernail over 2009,” Grace said.

In February 2009, Manatee County hotels were 70.3 percent filled and they were 72.3 percent filled this February — a 2 percent increase for 2010.

In March 2009, the best month for tourism in Manatee County, hotels were 80.5 percent booked, Grace said.

“We don’t have 2010 figures for March yet, but reports from hotels and restaurants seems to indicate that this March will bring numbers that are satisfying as well,” Grace said.

The numbers are holding steady, but spending habits are different this year, said Kathy O’Bryan, manager of Peach’s Restaurant on Holmes Beach.

“People are more apt now to go out for breakfast and skip the high-priced items for dinner,” O’Bryan said. “In other words, they are still spending their vacations here but spending their dollars differently.”

On Feb. 8, 2009, 220 came for breakfast at Peach’s on the beach. On the same day this year, 183 came, O’Bryan said.

On Jan. 22, 2009, 155 showed up for breakfast compared to 140 on the same day this year.

On March 14, 2009, 211 had breakfast on the beach at Peach’s while 213 came for breakfast this year.

“The numbers show we are not off that much,” O’Bryan said.

Coming to Anna Maria again was never a question, Short said. Neither was tightening things up.

“We tend to plan a lot further ahead now in terms of what we want,” said Short, a CPA who lives in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., with his wife, Pat, and daughters, Katie, 21, and Jennifer, 17.

“Our entertainment has changed,” Short added.

The family thought nothing of renting a boat for the day in past years, Short said.

Now, perhaps, it’s just relaxing on the beach, as Katie and Jennifer were doing Sunday, along with their friend, Aly Steele, of New York.

“The beaches here are the best,” Katie Short said.

Short also treats the Haller and Tyrrell families to dinner.

“Uncle Mark takes us to Sandbar Restaurant, Duffy’s Tavern and Beach House Restaurant, which is great,” Nancy Haller said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.