Spring break visitors starting to return to Brevard, but not in pre-pandemic numbers

March traditionally is strongest month for tourism on Space Coast

Spring break tourism is likely to be a little more subdued than usual along the Space Coast this year, with a number of people remaining wary of traveling, as the yearlong coronavirus pandemic lingers, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

Spring break tourism is likely to be a little more subdued than usual along the Space Coast this year, with a number of people remaining wary of traveling, as the yearlong coronavirus pandemic lingers, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

But local hotel, restaurant and other business officials say they are seeing a much-needed upswing in tourist activity.

Jennifer Sugarman, president and chief executive officer of the Cocoa Beach Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that “Cocoa Beach has certainly picked up quite a bit,” including its hotels and restaurants.

Traffic is heavy along State Road A1A, Sugarman said, and the chamber’s visitor information center is getting 20 to 30 visitors on a typical day — up from one or two a day during the midst of the pandemic.

“We’re seeing an uptick in the numbers, which is very encouraging,” said Tom Williamson, general manager/partner with Ocean Partners Associates, a company that operates four hotels in Cocoa Beach. “Our pace has been picking up.”

Williamson said room bookings for the spring break period that is getting underway, as a percentage of capacity, ranges from the mid-70s on a weekday to close to 100% on weekends, during the period from March 12-31.

Although that’s not up to the full occupancy that had been typical on both weekdays and weekends during the pre-pandemic spring break periods of the past, “it’s better than 40%, like we’ve been running” in recent months, said Williamson, who also is president of the Cocoa Beach Area Hotel and Lodging Association.

March traditionally is the strongest month for tourism on the Space Coast. Early-March 2020 was relatively strong. But then the pandemic hit in the second half of the month, putting the brakes on travel.

Turning the corner

Bob Baugher, who owns or co-owns four hotels in the Cape Canaveral/Cocoa Beach region, said he has seen improvement in bookings at his hotels for the spring break period.

“I’m hoping we’ve turned the corner. It’s getting better,” Baugher said. “But we’re still way off” — down about 60% from pre-pandemic levels.

Further hurting business at his two Cape Canaveral hotels is the shutdown in multiday cruises since last March, which has particularly affected hotels near Port Canaveral that are not located along the beaches.

“Obviously, the cruises are impacting them a lot,” Williamson said.

Cruises are not likely to resume at Port Canaveral until July — and perhaps later. And cruise ships are likely to initially operate at reduced passenger capacity.

Despite the lack of cruises, Rich Hensel — who co-owns Fishlips Waterfront Bar & Grill, Rising Tide Tap & Table, and the temporarily closed Junkanoo Island Kitchen and Rum Bar, all at Port Canaveral — said business is picking up.

The irony now is that Hensel is having some trouble filling 20 staff positions at Junkaroo, which Hensel is hoping to reopen soon, and as well as 15 positions at Fishlips, which Hensel needs to hire to handle the increased business volume.

Sabin Thompson, owns a beach rental company in Cocoa Beach. It’s almost like pre-pandemic spring break, says Thompson.

“It’s really picking up quite a bit,” Thompson said. “If it’s a nice day out here and warm, it almost feels like over a year ago.”

Business is expected to pick up once cruise lines begin sailing again.

“Once we get the cruise ships running out there, it will be a whole different story, but even without those, business is great,” Thompson said.

‘We feel very positive’

The Space Coast Office of Tourism in mid-February kicked off a new $650,000 spring marketing campaign on traditional media and social media in an effort to lure more visitors to the Space Coast.

Office of Tourism Executive Director Peter Cranis said his office is monitoring the results of the campaign each week, “and we feel very positive that we will see increases in tourism.”

The hotel industry tracking company STR is projecting that March hotel room occupancy in Brevard will be 66.8% and that the average room rate will be $126.47 a night.

Another sign that spring break tourism is rebounding is the passenger figures at Orlando International Airport, traditionally one of the nation’s busiest airports during spring break. It also is the airport that is the arrival and departure point for a number of tourists visiting the Space Coast.

The airport is projecting 1.95 million departing passengers during the period from Feb. 28 to April 13. That’s up from 1.34 million during the same period in 2020, but down from 3.22 million during the same period in 2019.

“It is a much-welcomed improvement over this time last year when we were in the depths of the pandemic,” Phil Brown, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, said in a statement announcing the projections.

Soft national numbers

Nationally, however, spring break tourism demand remains soft.

Only about one in eight Americans plans a spring break trip this year, according to new polling data released by the U.S. Travel Association.

Despite the nationwide progress on COVID-19 vaccines, spring break travel intentions actually appear to be dropping. The 12.4% who plan to travel for spring break is down from 16% the week prior, the poll by Destination Analysts found.

The company surveys more than 1,200 American travelers about their thoughts, feelings, perceptions and behaviors surrounding travel in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“A true travel comeback can also only happen once the pandemic is decisively behind us,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said, in releasing the survey results.

Dow said, for the comeback to take place, “we all have an important part to play,” including people getting vaccinated “as soon as you can, and don’t become complacent about mask-wearing and other important health practices.”

The polling data suggests that many Americans prefer to defer their travel plans until the process of vaccinating the population is more complete.

In Florida, for example, about 16.7% of the population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Brevard County, that figure is 15.9% of the population. Most of the doses so far have been administered to residents age 65 and older and to health care workers.

Williamson said the fact that Florida is less restrictive than some other states may be benefiting the state’s tourism comeback, as people are looking for destinations where they can freely visit attractions and restaurants.

But Baugher said that could be “a double-edged sword,” depending on how COVID-19 case counts in Florida compare with other states.

“It can hurt if we have another wave” of increased cases, Baugher said.

About the Authors:

Mark Lehman became a News 6 reporter in July 2014, but he's been a Central Florida journalist and part of the News 6 team for much longer. While most people are fast asleep in their bed, Mark starts his day overnight by searching for news on the streets of Central Florida.