County tourism grapples with COVID-19

This information was current as of March 17. The COVID-19 pandemic is a fluid, ever changing situation. For the latest updates, please visit the NavarrePress.com homepage. 

Thursday morning Tourist Development Director Julie White told the Board of County Commissioners the risk to Santa Rosa County tourism from the novel coronavirus COVID-19 would be less than what the larger markets experience.

She said in her talks with hoteliers and property managers, she has not heard of cancellations or concerns.

Beyond hotels, the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier may also be feeling the sting as the number of U.S. COVID-19 cases—and amount of media attention—climbs.

During the meeting, County Administrator Dan Schebler said revenue reports from pier entry for the year show end of February being less than 1% down from the previous years.

But more recent weekly reports from March, when the virus began to spread more widely in the U.S., show the revenue to the county dropping by 55% compared to the previous year.

However, some of these impacts may be due to ongoing redecking work on the pier.

Commissioner Sam Parker told White he has been hearing a very different tune from businesses and hoteliers in the community and he argued the county needs to be using more up to date data.

“Emotionally, some folks told me yesterday that numbers are off where they were last year in March,” Parker said. “December, January and February might have been fine, but the situation is evolving.”

He said regardless of what the facts of the situation are, people are acting on their emotions, and the county should be responding to address those concerns.

“What I take, when I hear somebody tell me on the phone, they are not having any cancellations and I don’t know yet that anything has slowed down, I take them at their word,” she said.

But local business may be feeling the sting as across the country schools close, travel bans expand and large events such as national sports contests are cancelled or postponed.

By Friday, the county issued a statement saying all permitted events in Santa Rosa County expecting more than 500 people would be canceled or postponed until further notice. Santa Rosa County School District also announced schools would remain closed after spring break until March 27.

Best Western owner Baker Clark said hoteliers may not have seen cancellations, but the number of bookings is down considerably.

“We are not getting cancellations because of the coronavirus, but what we are seeing is phones not ringing and no bookings coming in. It is very concerning,” he said. But by Friday, cancellations were coming in due to canceled events and fears of the spread of the virus.

Foxy Boutique owner Dora Zuses said her numbers for March are down significantly, too, leaving her concerned.

“Where is everybody?” she said. “March is usually a busy month. We are definitely down, and I don’t think I am the only one. I need everybody to come in and shop and know that we are open.”

In a proactive move, Zuses is shifting more attention to her online shopping component by offering free shipping.

The warmer months that bring visitors to Navarre Beach are essential for much of the area economy, influencing thousands of families’ incomes, and if spring break visitation is down, those businesses could be in trouble.

In Pensacola, one of the largest hotel companies in the region, Innisfree, reported potential revenue loss of $4.5 million for the month of March and layoffs of more than 100 employees due to expected COVID-19 impact.

In a slideshow presentation to commissioners, White outlined the marketing strategy for the county. She said the messages for the county have been transitioned to “uncrowded, unspoiled” in describing the county’s beaches. But those terms and phrases have been part of the county’s brand and in the county’s advertising since the rebranding effort in 2017. But by Thursday afternoon, White’s plan had evolved.

In a presentation to the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, White outlined the shift. At the standing-room-only event, White addressed bed tax collectors with the changing plan which includes a shift in the marketing spend, pushing the dollars to the fall season.

Petra Fransis, general manager of Navarre Properties, asked White if there was a statement or communication guidelines her staff could use when answering questions about the virus from potential visitors. White agreed it was needed and will make arrangements to keep everyone updated on their official statement through the chamber.

Most in the room agreed they had lost the opportunity to capture spring break but were hopeful of still a strong summer and fall season.

White also announced she would be seeking $150,000 from the Tourism Development Council at their next meeting March 19.

Beyond hotels, the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier may also be feeling the sting as the number of U.S. COVID-19 cases—and amount of media attention—climbs.

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