Special Reports

Wedding reservations still being booked The gulf oil spill | Cancellations not a problem yet for Anna Maria

ANNA MARIA — While oil has devastated northern Gulf shores, it’s perceptions that concern those in the wedding industry on Anna Maria Island.

“Perception is peoples’ reality and it’s a hard thing to fight sometimes,” said Karen Hodge, spokeswoman for the popular wedding locations the Sandbar and Beachhouse restaurants on Anna Maria Island.

Images of oiled birds and streaming video of the gushing oil have done harm to the image of the entire Gulf, even when many beaches remain pristine. But with millions pouring into advertising initiatives, much of that damage has been mitigated for Anna Maria Island so far — at least for now.

Combined, the Sandbar and Beachhouse provide a location for between 25 and 33 percent of the 1,000 to 1,500 weddings that are held on Anna Maria Island every year, Hodge said.

Neither restaurant has had a wedding cancellation due to the April spill, which is a good sign for other tourist-based businesses on the island, she said. Weddings are the reservations usually canceled first, making them similar to a canary in a coal mine when it comes to gauging how the year is going.

In July the Chiles Group, which overseas both restaurants in addition to the Mar Vista restaurant on Longboat Key, has had six bookings for future weddings, which is about the same as last year.

Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Conventions and Visitors Bureau, sees the same scenario, having recently attended a meeting specifically for wedding-related industries.

“The impression that we have is that wedding businesses are holding steady for now and the real concern is the future,” she said.

Traditionally, summer beach brides and grooms headed to Anna Maria Island are coming from either Southeastern states or Europe. So far, these demographics have not been deterred by heavy media coverage of the oil spill, Haley said.

However, during the fall and winter months, beach weddings are usually booked by northerners, which presents a challenge when trying to make clear that many of Florida’s beaches remain open.

“People who are booking during the winter are from Chicago and Boston, those markets take a lot of money to reach,” she said. It’s unclear how much in marketing dollars will be needed to counteract negative European perceptions.

While overall it appears that the wedding industry is dodging the northern Gulf spill bullet, some businesses have seen cancellations and fewer phone calls.

Dale Remus, who owns Sarasota-based A Wedding Dream in Paradise and holds weddings at the Sandbar and Beachhouse, said he has had seven cancellations so far, though none of them were in the area. Several of the weddings were to be held in Destin, where cornflake-sized bits of oil had washed up.

While Remus will probably be able to recoup the revenue through BP, it’s the slowdown in calls that have him worried.

“There’s a concern that that lost income may be lost for ever,” he said.