RNC spikes visitation to Manatee in August

MANATEE -- The record-breaking summer for tourism continued in Manatee in August, lead by an influx of travellers attending the Republican National Convention.

But the spillover from the four-day political bonanza in Tampa wasn't enough to lift the numbers to where they stood during busier times of the year.

Looking back, tourism-related businesses expressed varying views on the RNC's local stimulus, but most agreed even the slightest help in the dog days of summer could mean momentum into fall.

With local tourism spending already breaking post-recession highs, the solid totals in August only solidified confident expectations for peak season.

"The mainland properties had some good success from the RNC all the way down to University Parkway, and we had some good sports business at the same time and an influx in European visitors," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "When you add all of that together, it equals a pretty good month for one that's usually flat."

An estimated 37,500 visitors came to the Bradenton-Anna Maria area in August, a 9.6 percent increase from the same time last year.

Those trips lead to $15.05 million in direct expenditures and total economic impact of $23.8 million --

both 15 percent gains from a year ago, according to the visitors bureau.

During the month, occupancy rose to 56.1 percent at an average daily room rate of $126. Visitors also spent more while here, with a total base vacation budget of $1,205 for the average six-day stay, records show.

June through September are typically when tourism hits its summer lull, with activity picking back up for the return of snowbirds after Thanksgiving.

Through eight months, visitation in Manatee is now 9.2 percent ahead of 2011, the best year for local tourism on record.

"Yes, the economy is tough, but getting away during these times is really good for people," said David Teitelbaum, who operates four resorts on Anna Maria Island. "They get a chance to relax and pull off a week or weekend."

This year, the industry got a little help.

The 89,300 room nights booked in Manatee in August were benefited by at least 12,800 nightly reservations tied to the RNC.

During the four-day event from Aug. 27-30, some 3,200 rooms were occupied each night from convention visitors -- more than half of the 6,200 rooms in the county's short-term rental pool, according to the tourism bureau.

That contributed $1.6 million in hotelier spending alone.

Just more than 12 percent of visitors in August said they were here for a business-related trip, compared to almost none the month prior. Without the RNC, the sector would have likely taken a loss, records show.

But spending fanned by the GOP convention still did not live up to expectations in the eyes of many.

Even with the event's added hotel impact, it wasn't enough to keep pace with July -- another historically slow month -- when 119,500 total room nights were sold at a higher $135 premium.

"There was a little bit of a push, and we had some people stay here that couldn't get a room in Tampa, but it wasn't significant," said Stephanie Ferrer, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Area business operators attribute the convention's lackluster outcome to Tropical Storm Isaac.

Although the storm didn't produce much damage, fears of its potential shortened trips, forced RNC-goers to stay closer to the venue and push most of the spill-over to areas north of Tampa that kept dry.

"We had almost no impact," said David Murdoch, front office manager of the 73-room Ramada Limited in Ellenton. "The overflow was keeping north a little more than we had hoped."

Aside from the RNC, the largest increase in new visitation in August stemmed from Europe, which comprised 12.2 percent of the market share, a 22 percent jump from August 2011.

The majority of those trips came from the United Kingdom and Germany, which cater to the non-peak times of the year.

As consumer confidence in Florida improves and oil prices fall, forecasters predict interstate travel also will pick up in the fourth-quarter -- especially for Thanksgiving and Christmas getaways.

That bodes well for Manatee, where nearly 60 percent of visitors in August came by driving.

"There's been a lot of pent up demand from the last several years with people who may not have been able to travel due to a job loss," said Jessica Brady, spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South. "People are still looking for more value-oriented vacations instead of those exotic $7,000 trips somewhere."

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