Navarre Beach tourism’s summer season for 2020 will likely be heavily impacted.
The global pandemic is driving cancellations of discretionary travel and even a month’s long ban on vacation property bookings in Florida.
Cancelations due to COVID-19 fears appeared to have started in early March according to data from state marketing agency Visit Florida. By March 8, statewide hotel revenues and demand had plummeted, and in northwest Florida vacation rental bookings began dropping as well, eventually leveling out at about -92% in April.
Despite hotels being allowed to make new bookings, many of them are largely empty. Best Western owner Baker Clark said he has a handful of rooms occupied by construction workers building a new medical facility in the area but no vacationers.
The pain is not likely to end soon with uncertainty about when normalcy will return. Navarre Properties general manager Petra Fransis said they have had cancellations all the way into August.
Tamara Fountain manages operations of the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier, pier shop and Windjammers restaurant. They were bringing in record setting revenue to the county from beach visitors when numbers took a nosedive as COVID-19 concerns in the U.S. grew.
Fountain said the tourism business community needs to come together with a unified plan to recover from the current losses. Like most tourism pros, she said the next few months are probably not going to bring in revenue.
“Even in our best case scenario we are able to see guests come back middle of July, what we would be doing is even if we started some type of campaign we would not be able to benefit from that until August at the earliest,” she said.
For businesses that were just coming out of the lean winter season, losing most of the spring break traffic and the peak of summer could mean shutting doors permanently. At the very least, it means uncertainty for the future.
What’s the plan?
Tourist Development Director Julie White said the entire summer is going to be impacted. Her team and advertising firm Paradise Advertising and Marketing, Inc., are developing a recovery plan. Paradise is currently only receiving 50% of their typical monthly pay out due to COVID-19’s hit to the tourism budget.
White outlined some of the goals and strategies in an email to tourism businesses last month. While not addressing specific markets or strategies, the plan preview explains the types of marketing planned and the metrics that will be measured.
White said once “travel normalcy” appears to be coming, they will put out the specifics of the plan, including a partner plan to help tourism businesses align their efforts, figuratively hitching their wagons to the county effort.
“Once we have our plan polished off, we are going to share a partner plan. For our smaller partners, this is going to be a good resource for them, including specific ZIP codes where we are going to pack a punch,” White said.
The problem, she said, is that everyone is holding their breath to see when normal might be returning, looking to federal, state and local leaders for a sign.
“The American public, I think they are afraid to book anything right now,” White said. “Once our travelers know that the U.S. has a plan laid out that is going to ease up some of their thought processes on what they are going to do.”
Locally, Commissioner Dave Piech said there’s no definitive date on when Navarre’s greatest asset, the beach, will reopen to the public. He said uncertainty from officials at the top means timelines are unclear. And he had other concerns.
“Are folks going to have a job or money to even come and spend” once the beach is open, he asked. “Our infrastructure here is going to be fine, but is the economy and are people’s pockets going to afford them the opportunities to vacation?”
Piech may have a point. Just because the restrictions on movement are lifted does not mean things go back to normal.
A survey by the University of Florida’s Tourism Crisis Management Initiative found 65% of people said they would not be comfortable staying in a hotel until at least two months after the pandemic ended. Of them, 16% said it would take a least a year for them to be comfortable staying in a hotel again.
Looking forward to October
Realistically, tourism partners are turning their attention to October. This month has historically been a relatively high earner for the county compared to similar non-summer months. This is largely due to the regions extended warm weather and Beaches to Woodlands event schedule.
Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary president Mike Sandler has been working with tourism related business on Navarre Beach for years. He pointed out that the Beaches to Woodlands festival offers a great opportunity to attract visitors, and he said it was a good opportunity to make it even bigger and better.
Fountain also suggested that a massive festival type event may be a viable way for Navarre Beach to put out the welcome mat to potential visitors once normalcy returns. She pointed to similar events such as SunFest in West Palm Beach and Hometown Festival in Sarasota, both of which aimed to grow regional economic success out of an adverse time.
“We need October, and then we need a punch in November to get through winter again,” she said.
Having a plan in place is essential to speeding economic recovery for one of Navarre’s largest business sectors, but for now, all plans are tentative as everyone waits on decisions from the top.
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