Tourism numbers show Manatee's having a strong summer

MANATEE -- Somebody forgot to tell the tourism industry summer has arrived.

Visitation trends in Manatee are keeping pace with the record-breaking numbers statewide this year -- maintaining growth throughout the second quarter, when tourism spending historically begins to taper.

Hotel and restaurant operators even are seeing that traffic build into August -- a month that traditionally signals the peak of summer's slow season.

The improvements come at a time when many visitors are opting to take trips closer to home to avoid the hassle of air travel and save a buck or two. That bodes well for Manatee, where four of the top 10 feeder markets are within the Sunshine State.

"Usually we have a chance to make repairs and touch up stuff when it's slow," said David Teitelbaum, who operates four resorts on Anna Maria Island. "Now those months are booking up, so we have to work at night."

From April to June, Manatee County hosted 132,900 visitors, a 9.4 percent increase from the same three months a year ago, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

If present trends continue during the second half, 2012 will be the best year on record for tourism in Manatee.

The trips in the second quarter alone led to $81.4 million in direct expenditures and a total economic impact of $128.6 million -- both double-digit gains from 2011.

During that time, hotel occupancy rose 6 percent from

2011, while average room rates also climbed slightly to $140.10.

"It's been a good summer," said area restaurateur Ed Chiles. "If you talk to anyone on the island, they will tell you the same thing."

That spells good news beyond just the hospitality industry.

Improvements in tourism benefit county coffers through heightened tourist development taxes, a levy placed on all short-term room stays that's used for visitor marketing and recreational facility enhancements, among others.

Tourist development taxes, or bed taxes, grew 12 percent in Manatee in the second quarter to $2.07 million. In Sarasota County, bed taxes collections also increased a matching 12 percent to reach $3.33 million, records show.

Visitors in the second quarter came largely from markets within driving distance, and nearly half of Manatee's tourists also live in Florida or the greater Southeast.

"There's a lot of pent up travel demand still, and given the economy, people are just trying to get out and let go," said Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Our destination does that very well. We're seeing good things for the rest of summer."

The positive momentum spread across the state. Just more than 22 million visitors came to Florida in the second quarter, an increase of 1.3 percent over the same time last year, according to Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing corporation.

Taxable sales from tourism and recreation were up 8.8 percent from the prior year, with $31.5 billion reported from January through May, the latest figures available.

Direct travel-related employment in Florida also rose to 1.04 million positions, adding 11,300 jobs since this time a year ago -- the sector's largest employment total since first quarter of 2008.

"People are sick and tired of being sick and tired," Visit Florida President and CEO Chris Thompson told the Herald. "Travel is one of those things that's held up even in the worst of times. Although we're not out of the woods yet, people see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Many visitors are taking trips closer to home and shortening their stays. That means bypassing flights to the Caribbean in favor of interstate drives to a Florida beach town.

The trend plays right into the hands of tourism businesses in coastal Manatee, which thrive on repeat guests and visitors from areas like Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers and even Sarasota.

"We had more people eat in our Sarasota area restaurants this summer than ever before," said Chris Tomasso, chief marketing officer for Lakewood Ranch-based First Watch Restaurants. "People are treating themselves a little, whether it's a hotel, dining or 'staycation,' and we're seeing the benefit of that."

To capture the opportunity, many resorts are offering discounts to Floridians in August and September.

The Republican National Convention in Tampa later this month also will give hotels inland a boost.

"We're having the best August ever in the resort's history," said Sandra Rios, director of communications for Longboat Key Club and Resort. "People see the value in staying local, they're exploring their own back yard and rediscovering the beaches right at home."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.