The cruise industry remains idle. Activity at the port is at a trickle. The cruise passengers who once generated $2 of every $10 spent by tourists in Brevard County are absent from the scene. And, yet, Space Coast tourism this spring was a record-breaker — at least according to one widely watched economic indicator, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
In March and April combined, the revenue from Brevard County’s 5% tourist development tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals was $3.65 million. That broke the previous record set in March and April 2019 of $3.56 million.
Why? What’s driving the boom? According to Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Peter Cranis, it’s Brevard’s beaches, and the fact that the Space Coast remains an affordable, family-oriented alternative to some of Florida’s other beach tourism areas.
Cranis said “it’s a perfect storm:” More people are feeling it’s relatively safe to travel, with much of the nation’s and state’s residents having been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the daily count of new cases generally decreasing. People want to get out — and they want sunshine, surf and sand.
Another reason, Cranis said, is that Florida has been less restrictive than some other states during the pandemic, as far as access to attractions and restaurants. Also helping are tourism promotion efforts by the statewide public/private partnership Visit Florida and by regional tourism marketing agencies within the state like the Office of Tourism.
Cranis said he expect May data — which won’t be out until mid-June — to be equally strong, compared with previous years. He said May’s collections potentially could top the record May tourist tax collections of $1.32 million, set in 2019.
What’s amazing to Cranis is that the strong tourism numbers this year are coming even as the Port Canaveral cruise industry remains shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. Before the pandemic, cruise passengers generated about 20% of overall Space Coast landside tourism business.
The biggest impact of the cruising shutdown is felt in the Cape Canaveral/Cocoa Beach tourism corridor near Port Canaveral. But cruises at Port Canaveral could resume to a limited extent at Port Canaveral as early as July, including the planned debut of Carnival Cruise Line’s new ship, the Mardi Gras, on July 31.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Cranis said, noting that, with cruises still idled and people anxious to take a vacation, beach destinations are popular.
Among the tourists visiting the Space Coast this past week was the Schriner family from Laramie, Wyoming — Ron and Anne, and their sons, 10-year-old Emery, 7-year-old Ezra and 1-year-old Isaac.
They came here for a 10-day vacation, including visiting family who live in Indialantic, checking out Space Coast beaches and the Brevard Zoo in Viera, plus taking day trips to the water parks in the Orlando area, deep-sea fishing off the coast of Fort Lauderdale and swimming with the manatees in Crystal River. And eating at various local seafood and sushi restaurants.
“It’s been great,” Ron Schriner said, in discussing the variety of things to do for his family. “We’re loving being down here.”
Plus, Schriner said he likes the fact that “Florida seems pretty open,” with few COVID-19-related restrictions in place.
Exploring KSC Visitor Complex
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is seeing visitors coming back to what has been Brevard County’s most popular paid tourist attraction.
The pandemic forced the Visitor Complex to close to the public from March 16 to May 27, 2020, and forced furloughs of up to 90% of the complex’s 1,100 employees. But, now, almost all of the complex’s attractions are operating, with some new ones added, and the staff level is back up to 700.
“We continue to have strong weeks, and the future looks bright,” said Therrin Protze, the complex’s chief operating officer.
Protze said this year’s spring break period marked the turnaround for the complex, and attendance continues to strengthen, aided by the increasing percentage of people receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and fewer people fearing being in public places.
Protze said the increased cadence of rocket launches and the return of crewed launches also are helping boost interest in people visiting the complex.
But the past year has been challenging.
Pre-pandemic, the complex had a customer mix of roughly 20% Florida residents, 40% U.S. residents from outside Florida and 40% residents of other countries, according to Howard Schwartz, the complex’s senior director of marketing, education and sales. Now, however, most of the visitors are residents of Florida and nearby states.
The complex is operated for NASA by a private company, and does not disclose specific attendance data.
Protze said attendance trends are encouraging going into the summer months, and he believes the “cabin fever” many people have experienced during the pandemic will encourage more people to visit the Space Center and other attractions.
He also hopes that international travelers will return late this year or early next year.
Brevard Zoo benefiting
Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten — who also is a member of the nine-person Tourist Development Council that is an advisory board to the County Commission — said he is seeing strength in attendance figures at the zoo. Attendance figures have climbed back to 90% of pre-pandemic levels during the first five months of 2021.
That’s better than Winsten was projecting before the year began. He thought they could be at about 65% of pre-pandemic level for January through April, then at 75% in the late-spring and summer, before reaching 90% in the fall.
Additionally, from January through May, 46% of the Brevard Zoo’s visitors were from outside the county, including 27% from other counties in Florida, 16% other U.S. states and 3% from other countries.
In comparison, from January through May 2019, 60% of the Brevard Zoo’s visitors were from outside the county. But most of the decline from 2019 to 2021 was from out-of-state and out-of-country visits. The breakdown during the first five months of 2019 was 28% from other counties in Florida, 24% other U.S. states and 8% from other countries.
What’s more, visitors to the zoo now are spending a little more money on food and gift items than they did before the pandemic hit, Winsten said.
“Obviously, I’m thrilled,” Winsten said, both for the comeback of visitors at the zoo and the comeback of tourism in general in Brevard County. “Month after month, we’re getting stronger and stronger.”
Winsten attributes the gains in part to a $650,000 Office of Tourism spring marketing campaign that promoted the Space Coast as a tourism destination.
That campaign — which ran from February through April — used a combination of traditional media; billboards; social media, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; and travel sites like Expedia and VRBO.
The campaign’s split-screen-style visuals paired up the unique attraction of viewing a launch from the Space Coast with the range of other options for tourists, including the beaches, surfing, fishing, boating, kayaking, ecotourism, golfing and the Brevard Zoo.
The Office of Tourism now is underway with its $2 million summer marketing campaign, which runs from May through September.
Ron Jon Surf Shop’s flagship store in Cocoa Beach is a popular stop for many tourists to the Space Coast. And Ron Jon Marketing Director Heather Lewis says the retailer is noticing the gains in Space Coast tourism in recent months.
“We are pleased with the tourism recovery that the Space Coast experienced this spring and are optimistic about the summer months,” Lewis said
“We continue to have steady in-state travel from Florida residents, and, this spring, started to see the return of visitors from out of state,” Lewis said. “We anticipate that the number of out-of-state visitors will continue to grow over the summer months.”
‘Very robust recovery’
Cranis said new hotels have opened in Brevard in the last two year. But even with the increased inventory, both the average percentage of hotel rooms rented on a given day and the average daily room rate have been trending higher in recent months — albeit not to record levels.
Also showing strength, Cranis said, is the vacation rental sector, such as short-term rentals of private homes and condos through Airbnb and VRBO. Cranis said some travelers feel safer from COVID-19 at a self-contained residence with their own family, rather than staying at a large hotel filled with other travelers.
The markets where tourists to the Space Coast are most likely to come from have remained consistent, Cranis said. For in-state tourists, that includes Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and West Palm Beach. For out-of-state tourists, that includes Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; New York City; and Washington, D.C.
Tourism is one of the major sectors of the Space Coast economy. Cranis said he believes the tourism industry in Brevard is returning to its pre-pandemic levels, when tourism was responsible for about 28,000 jobs in Brevard and had a $2 billion-a-year economic impact.
Brevard County Tourist Development Council Chairman Tom Hermansen says he has seen the comeback of the tourism industry firsthand, as a principal in four hotels in Cocoa Beach and one in Cape Canaveral.
“We are close to 2019 levels without cruise, which is a welcomed development,” Hermansen said. “It’s been a very robust recovery. We didn’t think that tourism would come back this quickly,” especially with the cruise industry still idled.
He cited as among the factors for the comeback the growing number of people getting COVID-19 vaccines, “pent-up demand” of people wanting to take vacations and the increase in savings among many families.
The increased money to spend is related in part to household savings from families not taking vacations or going to restaurants during the height of the pandemic, as well as to two waves of direct payments many individuals received from the government as part of federal coronavirus relief packages.
However, Hermansen said he doesn’t believe tourism is at a record level yet, because, comparing 2019 to 2021, there now is a more concerted effort by the county to collect the tourist tax from operators of vacation rentals. So, Hermansen contends, comparing tourist tax revenue in 2019 and 2021 is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Hermansen noted that, as far as hotels go, comparing room occupancy rates, average daily room rate and the indicator that combines those two figures — called revenue per available room or RevPAR — April 2021 data still fell short of April 2019 data.
Cranis said the numbers are “still a little bit under 2019, but it’s definitely getting better. Demand is going in the right direction.”
Additionally, Hermansen said the total number of hotel rooms in the market has increased from 9,237 to 10,466 in the last two years, as new hotels opened throughout the county. He said the new hotels generally can charge higher room rates than the older hotels, thus inflating the average daily rate figures.
How tourist tax is used
Tourist development tax collection totals are important for the Space Coast as a whole. Revenue from the tax pays for the operations and programs of the Space Coast Office of Tourism.
The largest share of the hotel tax money — 47% — is targeted for promotion and advertising of Space Coast tourism in an effort to attract more tourists.
The rest of the money is allocated this way: 25% for beach improvement, 14% for capital facilities, 5% for the Brevard Zoo, 4% for cultural events, 3% for Space Coast Stadium and 2% for visitor information centers.
Among the challenges the tourism industry still faces, however, is filling open positions with new staff. Hotels, restaurants and retailers all are experiencing this problem.
Hermansen, for example, said he is still having trouble filling job openings, even though he raised starting hourly pay at his hotels by 15% to 20%; offers signing bonuses for new staff members; and offers retention bonuses if they stay on staff for a certain amount of time.
“It’s harder than it’s ever been” to fill vacancies, Hermansen said. “It’s never been this challenging.”
Cranis said one factor that could ease the shortage of available workers to fill tourism-sector vacancies is an upcoming change in the state’s unemployment benefit system.
Awaiting return of cruises
Hermansen said the potential return to cruising from Port Canaveral this summer will be a driving factor in the recovery of Space Coast tourism in the months ahead, along with more people getting COVID-19 vaccines and new daily case counts continuing to drop.
Starting June 26, the state no longer will participate in the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, meaning that unemployed Floridians no longer will be eligible for $300 a week in benefits through this program.
Some employers contend that an obstacle to filling job openings is that people who are unemployed can receive the added $300 a week in benefits — on top of up to $275 a week in regular state unemployment benefits. The $275 a week in regular benefits is one of the lowest maximum jobless benefits in the country.
Brevard County’s unemployment rate in April was 4.5%, unchanged from March and down from 13.2% in April 2020, according to the latest data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
That bodes for continued tourism growth in our market,” Hermansen said.
Cranis is optimistic as well about the Space Coast tourism sector’s outlook, after a strong May that was boosted by the Great Florida Air Show at Melbourne Orlando International Airport featuring the U.S. Navy Blue Angels (May 15-16) and the Thunder on Cocoa Beach powerboat and personal watercraft races (May 20-23).
To supplement the tourism market, Cranis said many hotels, including those in the mainland areas, are benefit on weekdays from stays by business travelers, among them, those with ties to the strong defense, technology and space industries.
“I think we could have our best summer ever,” Cranis said.
By the numbers
March collections: The March 2021 tourist development tax collection in Brevard County of $1.93 million was the third-highest month on record, exceeded only by $2.10 million in March 2019 and $1.97 million in March 2018.
April collections: The April 2021 tourist development tax collection in Brevard County of $1.72 million was the highest April collection on record, topping the $1.47 million collected in April 2019.
Types of facilities rented: For the first seven months of current budget year that began in October 2020, 60.5% of the tourist taxes were collected by hotels and motels; 28.7% by “management companies” like Airbnb and Expedia; 4.7% by other condo owners; 4.1% from other vacation rentals; and 2.0% by recreational vehicle parks and campgrounds.
Location of facilities rented: For the first seven months of current budget year, 19.8% of the tax was collected in Cocoa Beach; 10.4% in Cape Canaveral; 10.3% in Melbourne; 8.0% in Melbourne Beach; 6.7% in West Melbourne; 6.2% in Titusville; 3.4% in Palm Bay; 3.4% in Viera; and 3.1% in Cocoa/Merritt Island/Rockledge. The other 28.7% of the revenue comes from management companies, and are not broken down by the geographic areas of the properties.