|By Dana Sanchez, The Bradenton Herald, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 1, 2004 - BRADENTON, FLA. -- Island hoteliers report wildly varying scenarios in October and November occupancy rates.
Some experienced numbers that were down -- "horrible" in the words of one manager. Others reported little difference from last year. And a few posted increases.
"I've had some say it looks dismal and others say they're doing great. It's all over the board," said Susan Estler, who handles public relations for the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Unlike mainland hotels, which continued to enjoy higher-than-usual occupancy from hurricane relief workers for the third month in a row, island resorts generally did not experience the boom.
Anna Maria Island occupancy was 47.1 percent in October, down 2.7 percent from last year, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Island and countywide figures for November were not yet available.
By comparison to the islands, mainland hotels saw occupancy increase 13.6 percent to 72.5 percent. Overall occupancy was 60.6 percent.
Some island resort owners say they are grateful just to be in business, and feel they benefited from the misfortune of other areas hit by this summer's hurricanes, including Lee and Charlotte counties, Palm Beach and Destin.
More than 90 percent of Lee County accommodations and attractions are back up and running, according to Lee Rose, communications manager for Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
Visitors to Lee County decreased 24 percent in September over the previous year following Hurricane Charley. Visitor spending was down 20 percent, Lee said. October figures are not yet available.
Though Lee County hotels report bookings are filling up for the season, there is reason for concern about next summer, Lee said.
"Not only for our destination, but for other areas of Florida," he said. "The entire state is dealing with a perception that the entire state has been wiped out and that's not the case."
Visitors normally staying in Punta Gorda or Sanibel accounted for at least 5 percent of business at Tropic Isle, A Seaside Inn in Bradenton Beach in the past two months.
That wasn't much consolation. For the first time since 1994, manager Danny Canniff said business has been down.
October occupancy was 40 percent, down from 68 percent last year. November was worse, with 38 percent occupancy, down from 55 percent last year.
"There's never been a month that we were down, but the last three months have been horrible," Canniff said.
Canniff was disheartened by a few visitors who vowed never to return to Florida -- mainly older people who couldn't handle the evacuations, power outages and inability to reach their families.
"It was so overwhelming that they wouldn't want to take the chance again," he said.
Occupancy at Siam Garden Resort in Anna Maria rose from 40 percent to 52 percent in October. November saw a increase from 44 percent to 50 percent.
Owner Kent Davis said he owes his good fortune to a pent-up demand for vacations following the storms and an exchange rate that favors European travelers.
"We have loyal guests who seem to come back pretty frequently," Davis said.
The fluctuations seen by island hotels, rather than being hurricane-related, could be part of the normal ebb and flow of doing business, said Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton CVB.
"I don't think it portrays anything wrong with the area," White said.
Longer-established bases of returning customers and individual marketing and advertising efforts could affect occupancy levels from one resort to another, he said.
Gayle Luper, owner of Bungalow Beach Resort in Bradenton Beach, was thankful for a rebound in October and November, following a devastating September.
But she encouraged callers who normally visit Lee and Charlotte counties to call hotels there first before booking elsewhere.
"Sometimes they'll assume that hotels in that area are not functioning," Luper said. "I know how we would feel if we had been hit in this area."
Ashok Sawe, owner of Palm Tree Villas in Holmes Beach, said he was thankful despite slight decreases in October and November occupancy.
"October, November and December have turned out to be worse than last year and I don't know if I can attribute all of that to the hurricanes," he said.
But the resort is fully booked for the season, which runs from mid-January through April, thanks to a strong repeat clientele.
"Nobody has canceled for the winter because of the past hurricanes," Ashok said.
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