Headed into the heat of the high season, Palm Beach County tourism is looking better than it has the past few years.
Hotels are seeing more guests, attractions are seeing more people and shopping destinations are seeing more foot traffic. Many businesses that depend on tourists count on the winter season to be strong to shore up the rest of the year. On a broad basis, tourism is estimated to add $5 billion a year to the county economy and is the state’s No. 1 industry.
The season sees such high-profile events that draw visitors as the Winter Equestrian Festival and the PGA’s Honda Classic.
Tourism taxes on hotel and lodging stays are up nearly 16 percent for the first four months of the county’s fiscal year, according to the Tourist Development Council. That’s only through December, as figures aren’t available yet for the peak months of the year, January through March.
“We’re doing better than we’ve ever done,” said Joel Paige, vice president and managing director of PGA National Resort & Spa.
He said the resort added 125 full-time jobs this year because of the extra guests. Renovations lasted through season last year, putting a damper on 2012 revenues, so 2013 figures look especially good, Paige said.
“We’re looking forward not just to season but the whole year,” he said.
The outlook is also sunny for the state. Last year, 89.3 million visitors came to Florida, up 2.3 percent over 2011, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday. For the fourth quarter last year, 21.4 million people visited the state, an increase of 1.8 percent over the same period in 2011.
Palm Beach County economic projections for 2013 are generally positive, though the rate of recovery isn’t expected to pick up until later in the year due to a renewal of payroll taxes that are drying up discretionary funds and a Washington stalemate on the deficit.
Signs are more uplifting in the local tourism market. The December occupancy rate for county hotels was up nearly 10 percent, an increase which led the state, said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Once people get to the hotels, they fan out into the community to enjoy the beach, shopping and attractions such as the Palm Beach Zoo.
President and CEO Andrew Aiken said the zoo expects a solid year based on recent visitor numbers.
“Following a record November for the zoo, our attendance since then has been up around 2 percent compared to the last couple of years,” he said in an email. “Our expanded offerings in the areas of fun events, keeper talks and new baby animal encounters are beginning to pay off.”
At Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens, an eating and shopping venue that features smaller, specialty retailers, those extra visitors are showing up as well.
“We have seen an increase of both day and evening traffic this year,” marketing director Kendall Rumsey said in an email. “This has given a bounce to our retailers and restaurants alike.”
David Burke, vice president of sales and marketing at The Breakers, said the season is up, though the hotel is traditionally 95 percent full from January through March, so the potential for increase is limited.
However, bookings were still delayed. This year he blames that on Hurricane Sandy instead of the trend post-recession that has had people making vacation plans much closer to the actual date.
“I think that bad weather up north finally” persuaded people to make vacation plans, he said.
Damage from Sandy hit the hotel’s target customer — the New Yorkers and New Jerseyites who flock to Florida shores in the winter. Just a few months ago, Burke said, advance reservations for season were lagging.
While visitors are up, many are still focused on value.
Overall, the hotel daily rate tracked by the TDC was up 3.5 percent in December, a definite improvement. But the economy is still putting pressure on rates, keeping them lower than hoteliers had hoped 3½ years after the recession’s official end, said Dave Semadeni of the Palm Beach County Hotel & Lodging Association.
“Everyone’s been a little reticent in pulling up rates,” he said.
Tourism shows increases
Bed tax receipts
Dec. 2012 $3,187,043, up 28% over Dec. 2011
Year to date* $8,172,390, up 15% over 2011
Dec. 2012 67.4%, up 10% over Dec. 2011
Average daily rate
Dec. 2012 $150.09, up 3.5% over Dec. 2011
Source: Palm Beach County Tourist Development Council
* Year is fiscal year Oct. 1-Sept. 30. Receipts for December are due by Jan. 20.