Tourism-Dependent Industry Navigates Pandemic Fallout



For all the diversification of Florida’s economy since the Great Recession, tourism remains a pillar in the Sarasota-Bradenton market. But with the greatest economic threat of the moment scaring tourists away—if not outright driving government to outright prohibit some visitors—how will many companies survive regardless of whether beaches are open?

At an online symposium about economic challenges hosted by SRQ MEDIA, tourism leaders explained the challenges and path ahead amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Manatee County was projected for a banner spring until the coronavirus scare brought tourism to the area to a halt around March 12. First spring training and events were canceled, then more beach vacations were called off. By month’s end bed taxes were down 34%.

“And we all know April isn’t going to be pretty at all,” he said.

But there’s positive signs drive traffic can pick up and bring visitors to the region. Area beaches have opened in both counties. For some time, the people who can come by land will be the market officials try to reach.

“We can’t really afford to spend our very limited dollars building consumer confidence in flying,” said Erin Duggan, vice president of Visit Sarasota County. “We're going to have to wait until we start to see that consumer sentiment change and for people to have their confidence restored in that before we start targeting a fly market. We're really going to be targeting the drive markets and then we're balancing that against residents' sentiment.”

That’s critical, especially to organizations spending tax dollars. Many residents today simply don’t want a flood of tourists from other parts of the country potentially bringing further spread of a novel coronavirus.

But there’s also an array of companies in the region relying on visitors to the area, even those not directly associated with tourism.

“Restaurants and retail are just in dire straights right now,” said Christine Robinson, executive director of The Argus Foundation. “When you have to make an appointment to go into a store, and the maximum number of people they allow in the store is six, that’s just not sustainable.”

Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, said she’s seen some industries cancel projects and others put fresh attention to operations. Home improvement actually has seen a spike, which helps contractors, but then any work planned at area nursing homes has been cancelled with visitation to facilities prohibited. School renovation projects once planned for summer have been accelerated. Basically, industries across the board just need to dust off a decade-old playbook on enduring a recession, which among other things calls for local business to support one another without the outside world giving the economy a lift.

“It would be a goal of every one of our members that we don’t cook for the rest of the year,” Dougherty said. “Take your family out to a meal or pickup take-out. Support these retailers. We’ve come together before.”

Excerpts from SRQ Magazine's Economic Recovery Symposium will continue in the May 18 edition of SRQ DAILY. The full symposium will be published in the June edition of SRQ Magazine.

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