Nov. 09–Sarasota County now has numbers showing just how terrible the red tide toll has been.
–Hotel occupancy in September plummeted to 39.9 percent, the lowest since reliable records began to be collected in 2005. That figure was 61.9 percent last September, that was unusually high because hotels filled up after Hurricane Irma and because of the World Rowing Championships.
–Tourist development tax collections, the best available measure of the local industry's health, hit a four-year low in September.
–Collections of the tourist development tax, a levy on short-term rentals also known as the bed tax, in August dropped to the lowest they've been for that month since 2013.
The county generated $732,643.21 in tourist tax revenue in September, down 32 percent from last year. In August, bed tax collections fell by almost 20 percent, to $882,739.49.
Manatee County also saw a drop in September, but collections were up in August, even with the presence of the toxic algae bloom.
Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, blamed red tide but also cited an increase in hotel inventory. Sarasota has about 23 percent more hotel rooms than it did two years ago, and although visitorship is up, hotels have had to lower their rates to compete for those visitors.
"You have a little increase in visitors and all that inventory, so they start dropping their rates," she said.
Bed tax collections in Manatee County increased by almost 1.3 percent in August, but they fell by 18 percent, to $622,059, in September.
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said bringing in visitors for sporting events and business meetings helped keep tourism afloat there in August.
Falcione said the Tourist Development Council in Manatee County is allowing the visitors bureau to use $250,000 from its emergency fund to lure people back if they need it. He'll know within about 60 days whether they'll need to use that money, depending on traffic to their website and how bookings are going.
"I think before Christmas, we're going to have to make a decision if we need to kick it up a notch in our advertising and hit it hard on the holidays," he said.
The Visitors Bureau asked for access to $500,000 from its reserves for beach cleanup in August, but it didn't end up having to use it, Falcione said.
Both counties, along with the three others affected by red tide, received grant money from Visit Florida to help boost their presence on Google Maps. Sarasota County has been assured that at least 500 new assets will be uploaded to Google Maps in order to show up-to-date video and other information about the red tide status of the area.
Visit Sarasota County planned to use some of its budgeted money this year to promote the area in new international markets, but that money has been shifted to existing markets because of red tide. A new digital advertising push will start next week. Getting the message out earlier was virtually impossible because of the cost of advertising right before the midterm elections, Haley said.
She added that "It's hard to hear six nasty political ads in a row and then a happy Sarasota ad. It doesn't work."
Haley said that although she doesn't yet know how this winter's tourism season will pan out, 90 percent of lodging businesses have reported winter cancellations.
"This is usually a very busy period, where phones are ringing, and people are making reservations. The phones are not ringing," she said.
Falcione said he's confident visitors will return to the Bradenton area soon. Many of the area's visitors are repeat guests who want to support it.
"Our beaches are clean, our water is turquoise again — come one, come all and enjoy this destination that you and your family have loved for many years," he said.