|By David Bauerlein, The Florida
Times-Union, JacksonvilleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 30, 2008 - Jacksonville hoteliers don't need to look at the stock market or monthly Commerce Department reports to know the economy is in trouble.
They can count the number of heads on pillows. Hotel occupancy is down by about 6 percent this year, speakers said Wednesday at Visit Jacksonville's annual meeting on the state of the city's tourism industry.
"Next year is going to be a very, very challenging year," said Scott Stuckey, the incoming chairman of Visit Jacksonville's board of directors.
Stuckey, the general manager of the Omni Jacksonville Hotel, told about 200 people at the Florida Theatre that Jacksonville can blunt the impact of a worsening economy by continuing to aggressively market the city. He said that will require appealing to visitors within a three-hour drive .
He said discounts for companies that choose Jacksonville for conferences will help attract those business travelers. He added Jacksonville needs to remain a cruise port because those passengers spend money on lodging and meals before and after their voyages.
Outgoing board chairman Madeline Scales-Taylor said Jacksonville also must build on marketing the city for medical tourism, capitalizing on the presence of hospitals.
Even the keynote speaker selection for Destination Outlook 2008 showed how the overall economy is affecting Jacksonville's tourism industry.
Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida, said he thinks the nation will suffer a "mild to moderate recession." He said Florida, hit hard by the housing downturn, probably won't see recovery "take root" until late 2009 or early 2010.
The annual occupancy rate through July was 65 percent for Jacksonville, about a 6 percent drop from the previous year. The average room rate was $82.04, slightly higher than the $80.18 rate the previous year.
One measure that has been positive for Visit Jacksonville is its sales department booked 200,000 room nights during the fiscal year that ended in September, a record amount. The previous year, Visit Jacksonville booked 191,700 room nights. The increase in bookings was matched by growth in visits to Visit Jacksonville's revamped Web page .
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