Spring break tourism returns with a vengeance

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By Hannah Wallace

Siesta Key tourism needed a win, and Spring Break 2021 delivered.

As southwest Florida experienced idyllic spring weather (and minimal coronavirus restrictions), visitors swarmed down from the Midwest and Northeast for the traditional spring vacation period. Groups flocked to Siesta Key Beach and strolled in droves along Ocean Boulevard, gathering around sidewalk tables for margaritas and fried grouper bites.

Perhaps the most noticeable distinctions between this spring break and years past were the prominent facemasks as well as the enhanced appreciation and cordiality expressed by guests. Rental property owners and restaurant managers welcomed the crowds, even as these businesses worked through the continuing problems caused by COVID-19.

“I think there is a bit of caution, but people are eager to get out and have fun,” said the Daiquiri Deck’s Russell Matthes from its Village location. “I’ve noticed a difference in people’s demeanor. They’re a little more hospitable. I think they understand what our staff are going through, that they’re on the front lines. And we’ve seen our guests being really understanding.”

Matthes notes that, in coronavirus times, Daiquiri Deck benefits from being an open-air restaurant. And like many Village restaurants, the Deck was able to add sidewalk tables due to temporary-use permits.

Next door, Siesta Key Oyster Bar, with 90% of its seating outside, has been operating at full capacity — including four new sidewalk tables added in 2020.

For the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office, this year’s spring break was more or less business as usual. The office allocated the usual spring break resources to its Siesta Key substation — including mounted patrols and traffic units — and handled a typical number of calls, according to Major Brian Woodring. In light of the ongoing pandemic, the SSO also produced a spring break media campaign emphasizing the importance of personal responsibility and encouraging everyone to adhere to CDC guidelines.

And while final numbers won’t be available until later in the year, Erin Duggan of Visit Sarasota estimated that most area accommodations were booked at about 90 percent occupancy for the spring.

“We are hearing from our hotel partners that March has been busy,” she said. “Things ‘look’ and ‘feel’ full.”

In fact, rather than a historic drop-off in tourism, as was experienced during last year’s spring break, this year’s visitorship soared to new heights. Sarasota Bradenton International Airport posted a record-breaking March, handling 277,590 passengers for the month — an all-time high for the airport and an 81% increase beyond traffic in March 2020. Evidence suggests many of those visitors headed straight to Siesta Key.

At Siesta Key Oyster Bar, the increased volume was palpable.

“It was crazy. That’s the only way I can put it,” said SKOB general manager Kristin Hale. “Sales-wise, we have just blown it out of the park. It is unreal, even compared to 2019. And Easter was early this year. We stayed even busier for an additional week than we would have in the past.”

After a full year of pandemic precautions, hospitality insiders have dubbed this season’s surge in tourism “revenge travel,” according to Dave Pilkey of Tropical Sands Accommodations. Its employees oversee around 600 rental units on the Key, all of which were fully booked through April; they’ve had to turn people away during spring break.

“There was obviously some pent-up demand, but it’s exceeded any of our expectations,” he said.

The busy spring season was especially sweet considering how unpredictable business has been during COVID-19. Back in January, many Siesta business leaders had no idea what to expect.

“We weren’t sure when the vaccine was coming out, we weren’t sure if we’d have another shutdown, and we weren’t sure if people were going to be comfortable going out again,” said Matthes of his outlook in January.

Pilkey began fielding massive cancellations in November, and the dropouts continued through mid-January. Tropical Sands typically sees a lot of month-long, oversees bookings during spring, and Canadians usually account for about 14 percent of stays. This year, pandemic travel restrictions caused those non-U.S. visitors to stay home. In January, when Pilkey normally expects to be fully booked through spring break, Tropical Sands still had 1,200 open weeks.

But American tourists have made up the difference and then some. In late January, the newly available accommodations began to be snatched up by people in search of shorter stays, like young families who can only vacation for a week rather than a month or more.

Another potential factor in this year’s tourism boom is one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic: more people working remotely.

This spring, there were likely out-of-town visitors who didn’t even have to take time off — or as much time off — to stay on the Key.

“People can just bring their laptops and work from the beach,” said Hale.

Still, coronavirus-related obstacles continue to present problems for Siesta businesses. Disruptions in the supply chain continuously affect restaurant operations: Deliveries are late because of a shortage of drivers, or some items are simply unavailable for long periods of time.

The sometimes overwhelming numbers of visitors have taxed hospitality staff, too. Hale and Matthes have both struggled with staff shortages. They speculate that fear of coronavirus, changes in profession during pandemic shutdowns, and outside financial support from unemployment and stimulus checks led to a scarcity of restaurant professionals to hire during the surge.

And with more visitors staying for shorter periods of time, the booking offices and cleaning staff for local hotels and rental properties have been working overtime to keep up with the higher guest turnover.

Ultimately, this year’s spring break has left Siesta Key businesses with a sense of cautious optimism.

While Tropical Sands continues to see increased bookings through June and July, restaurant managers are concerned that the decrease in international travel — usually a staple of Siesta Key’s summer — will continue to impact their bottom line.

“We’re hoping that summer’s strong for domestic travel,” said Matthes. “I’m going back and forth. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. We’re thankful for the customers and guests who have come down. We’re proceeding with caution.”

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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