Hotel vacancies down, rates up for spring break in Bradenton

MANATEE -- Coming to the Bradenton area for a spring break vacation? If so, be prepared to spend a lot on overnight lodging, if you can get it.

As peak seasons go, area hoteliers and tourism development officials say this one is busy. A good economy and snowstorms in the Northeast have made southwest Florida a more popular destination than usual, which means low vacancy and hefty overnight room rates.

How hefty? For the next few weeks, rates topping $300 a night are expected to be common at chain hotels -- even those nowhere near Manatee and Sarasota counties' beaches. Robert Ferguson, corporate director of sales for the Holiday Inn and the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Lakewood Ranch, said the highest weekend rates his two properties charge recently hit $329, well up from the yearlong average of $179. Weekday rates are at about $250 a night.

"We watch our competitors very closely and it just keeps going up and up," Ferguson said. "We're shaking our heads and saying 'wow.'"

Despite the price, vacancies are nearly nil. Ferguson said the two hotels are 95 to 100 percent occupied every night.

Lakewood Ranch is not an exception. Room rates have jumped in the month of March in Bradenton, University Park, downtown Sarasota and on the islands. Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said demand will probably push the average Manatee County rate for the month to $192, up from the yearlong $177 average.

"It's hard to find rooms

right now," he said. "Demand is going to run high until Easter. We'll still have a strong influx of visitation."

That rate is spread across a highly variable rental market. Eighty-five percent of the county's estimated 6,500 rental units are vacation rental apartments and single family homes. Such units typify the rentals available on Anna Maria Island, where vacation lodging can exceed standard hotels and motels in terms of amenities and price.

Anna Maria Island Vacation Resorts, a company that manages four boutique properties in Bradenton Beach, offers rentals ranging from hotel-style rooms to penthouse condos. David Teitelbaum, the company's president, said that entire range is showing only spotty vacancies into April. The area is popular, so much so vacationers plop down between $1,224 and $2,764 a week this time of year to stay at one of Teitelbaum's resorts, the Tortuga Inn. Prices at the other properties vary.

"We are always slammed this time of year," he said. "We have a lot of weekly business now."

Sarasota County is just as busy, but has more potential for volume business. The county boasts more than 15,000 lodging units, 5,200 are in hotels and motels. Lynn Hobeck Bates, communications manager for the county's tourism bureau, Visit Sarasota, didn't offer a guess as to what rentals were going for in March, but noted the average from March 2014 hit $213 a night.

"With spring training and spring break, March is the busiest month of the year for Sarasota County," she said.

The next few years may see the lodging market loosen up a bit. In Sarasota County, four new hotels are either being planned or are under construction, including a 116-room Homewood Suites on University Parkway near the new The Mall at University Town Center.

In Manatee County, little is under development, save a 37-unit boutique hotel in Anna Maria and an expansion and renovation at the Hilton Longboat Key Beachfront Resort. Falcione said more hotels are likely on the way, including one the CVB wants built at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto.

Falcione said the county's rental unit count could expand by 1,000 within the next three to five years.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

Related stories from Bradenton Herald