Local Resorts Make Condé Nast Traveler’s 2019 List

top resortsThree local resorts have been honored by Condé Nast Traveler readers as part of the magazine’s readers’ choice list of the top 30 resorts in Florida.

The Zota Beach Resort, Ritz-Carlton Sarasota and The Resort at Longboat Key Club all made the magazine’s 2019 list released this week. Condé Nast Traveler readers voted their favorite Florida resorts outside of the Keys and the Orlando area to make the rankings.

The Zota Beach Resort at 4711 Gulf of Mexico Drive in Longboat Key snagged the list’s 15th spot. The hotel, formerly known as the the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort, underwent renovations and added a new 84-room tower in 2018.

The name “Zota” was unveiled in 2015, and at the time owner Ocean Properties explained the name change like this:

“Zota is believed to be a native word meaning ‘blue waters.’ The word ‘zara’ may be a Spanish reference to Sahara-like sands, and as the name of the area evolved over time, Longboat Key and the surrounding area became known as ‘Zara Zota,’” or “Sahara by the blue waters.”

“It is an honor to receive this recognition from Condé Nast Traveler readers. Our team is proud of this recognition and hope to continue exceeding expectations every day,” Roy Padgett, general manager of Zota Beach Resort, said in an emailed statement. “We are incredibly thankful for our guests and want to ensure a memorable experience happens with every visit.”

Also on the list is the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota at No. 18. The Ritz, a luxury hotel in downtown Sarasota overlooking the bay, has 266 guest rooms, a private beach on Lido Key, a spa, a golf club, about 60,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, a 12,000-square-foot ballroom (the largest in Sarasota) and two restaurants — Jack Dusty and Ridley’s Porch.

The Resort at Longboat Key Club came in at No. 20. The resort, just north of St. Armands Circle at 220 Sands Point Road, has 218 guest rooms and suites, a spa, on-site dining, tennis and golf.

The No. 1 resort on the Condé Nast List is the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa.

Other nearby resorts on the list are:

Gasparilla Inn & Club in Boca Grande (No. 3)

the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers (No. 4)

Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach (No. 8)

The Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach (No. 9)

LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in Naples (No. 14)

The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club (No. 19)

Sarasota Herald-Tribune October 9, 2019

Lido Sandcastle Resort – Lido Key

Lido Sandcastle

Plans to transform the aging Sandcastle Resort at Lido Beach — long known as the Helmsley Sandcastle — into a luxury contemporary resort were rubber-stamped by the Sarasota City Commission this week.

The commission unanimously approved plans and a rezoning request to redevelop the 176-room hotel, built in 1953, into a flashy four- or five-star, 304-room resort spanning two curved towers that will be eight and nine stories tall. The amenities are expected to include valet parking, a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, 5,000-square-foot junior ballroom, 7,000 square feet of meeting space, a spa, private pool with cabanas and a restaurant and bar that will be open to the public.

The planned resort, which will keep the same moniker, will replace its aging and significantly smaller predecessor on the roughly six-acre beachside site on Ben Franklin Drive near Lido’s south end. Built in 1953 and expanded in the ’60s, the resort is one of the oldest beachfront hotels in Southwest Florida.

It was time for a major face lift, project representatives said.

“This is the only remaining obsolete hotel of this magnitude on Lido Beach,” said John Patterson, a lawyer representing the project. “It’s desperately in need of being torn down and starting over again.”

The existing hotel has the unique distinction of having once been owned by a multimillionaire Maltese dog named “Trouble,” who was bequeathed the hotel by his and the resort’s longtime owners, New York billionaires Harry and Leona Helmsley. But after the Helmsleys and eventually “Trouble” died, it briefly appeared the hotel would be sold and turned into luxury condominiums, much to the chagrin of local tourism officials who wanted one of the few remaining beachfront hotels to stay.

That became reality when a Delray Beach hotel group that also owned the Longboat Key Club purchased the property in early 2014 for $27.4 million, according to property records. They then announced the hotel would remain, re-branded as the Sandcastle Resort at Lido Beach.

“My vision for the Sandcastle is to be an exciting, unique, fresh and alluring experience, both for guests and residents of the area,” said architect James Wurst of Coral Gables-based Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe & Associates.

Before granting approval, several commissions expressed concerns that traffic could back up onto Benjamin Franklin Drive and that parking could be inadequate.

“If this hotel is what it claims to be, parking is going to be a problem,” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said.

City staff and developers assured the commission its mandatory valet will keep cars moving and the resort will have 601 parking spaces — 19 more than the city requires. Plus, more people use car services such as Uber and Lyft to get around and other hotels in the area typically provide free transportation around town, should guests at other lodging attend an event at the redesigned Sandcastle Resort at Lido Beach, project representatives said.

Developers still don’t have an estimated cost for the likely pricey project. They expect the design and permitting process to last up to two years, with construction taking at least 18 months. The resort will be operated by Delray Beach-based Ocean Properties, which owns more than 100 hotels in North America, including Lido Beach Resort.

Sarasota Herald Tribune November 21, 2018

Hotel Laurent to Deliver Luxury Experiences in Downtown Sarasota

Hotel LaurentHotel Laurent will be uniquely Sarasota and decidedly exceptional in every way.

For L. Ronald S. Gray, a decades-long vision of creating an incomparable luxury hotel is coming to fruition in downtown Sarasota. Hotel Laurent, his 10-story, 140-room passion project, is pending approval at 20 N. Washington Blvd. To be built in conjunction with Sarasota-based Hoyt Architects and Gilbane Building Company, and internationally-recognized design firm, Cooper Carry, the boutique hotel will revitalize the east end of downtown’s Main Street, while offering discerning travelers a level of service and accommodations unrivaled in the region.

Gray was the sole bidder at $3.3 million last month for the nearly 1-acre, county-owned parking lot at 20 N. Washington Blvd., the northeast corner of the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Main Street. The former New York investment banker who has visited Sarasota since 2002 said he had looked for more than a year for the right location for the boutique hotel.

“We’re presenting a new take on luxury as well as the execution of elegant service — five-star with a smaller footprint,” he said in a news release. “Our goal is to not only re-energize the eastern tip of Main Street but to resonate with those who demand the very best.

Local ownership will allow for an innovative approach to hospitality not mandated by a corporate handbook and focused on individually tailored experiences. All aspects of the brand will exude European-inspired opulence, from the lavish detail and styling to the attention to service and amenities. Preliminary plans include world-class dining options, a spa and gym, and a private concierge floor, club and rooftop pool.

“Hotel Laurent is the culmination of a lifetime of travel and a love for Sarasota,” said Gray. “We’re presenting a new take on luxury as well as the execution of elegant service – Five-Star with a smaller footprint. Our goal is to not only re-energize the eastern tip of Main Street, but to resonate with those who demand the very best. Hotel Laurent will be uniquely Sarasota and decidedly exceptional in every way.”

Preliminary plans for Hotel Laurent — Gray’s first name — include dining options, a spa and gym, and a private concierge floor, club and rooftop pool, according to the news release. Construction is planned to begin next year, with completion targeted for the fourth quarter of 2020.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Tampa Bay Newswire, August 28, 2018

Longboat’s Colony to Become St. Regis Resort

st. regis longboat key

What has been a dilapidated eye-sore, will soon be home to a five-star St. Regis Resort! Positioned to deliver a new level of luxury to Longboat Key, Unicorp proudly submitted plans for a first-class 166-room hotel that includes 102 residential units, 2 restaurants, a 15,000+ sq. ft. spa and opulent ballroom.

Southwest Florida is about to get a boost in travel luxury it hasn’t seen since the Ritz-Carlton opened in Sarasota in 2001.

Premier Beachfront Property – 1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive

St. Regis is a five-star luxury brand of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which is part of Marriott International Inc. — the world’s largest hotel brand. There are 60 St. Regis hotels worldwide, including 11 in the United States. There is one St. Regis location in Florida — the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Miami.

The new plan’s maximum building height is five stories, reaching no higher than 65 feet over flood elevation, which is the maximum allowable height for new construction on the Key.

Also included in the proposal are 6,700 square feet of meeting rooms, 2,750 square feet of board rooms and a “meandering saltwater lagoon.”

“A name like St. Regis adds validity to the area in the deeply competitive travel world. The industry notices when a property like a Ritz-Carlton opens, said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County.” She remembers being at conferences and in meetings in the months leading up to the Ritz-Carlton’s opening, and there’s a buzz that comes with it.

Two-path approach

Planning, Zoning and Building Director Alaina Ray noted that any development including more than 103 units is considered nonconforming for the property’s zoning district.

With this information, Unicorp is pursuing two regulatory paths to make the proposal a reality, each of which would require a zoning code amendment to allow the property’s existing units to be used for either tourism or residential purposes, according to the proposal.

The first path requires the use of the 165 remaining units in the town’s tourism-unit pool. Zota Beach Resort, which opened in June, used 85 of the 250 total units in the pool. Voters decided to create the pool in 2008 to allow for flexibility in development of tourism on the Key.

The second path requires 31 units from the tourism pool, then using a zoning code amendment to convert the property’s 237 grandfathered units to either tourism or residential use.

Any zoning code amendment or use of the tourism-unit pool will require approval from the Town Commission.

The earliest date the proposal could go before the Planning and Zoning Board is at the group’s Oct. 17 meeting. The board will review the plan, then forward its recommendation to the Town Commission as early as November for a decision.

Pending approval from commissioners, Whittall hopes to break ground on the project within a year.

The developer noted that he has been pursuing development of the former Colony property for five years, and during that time, he’s learned a great deal about what the people of Longboat want for the site.

Whittall said he understands residents’ concerns regarding traffic. Included in his company’s proposal is a traffic study from Kimley-Horn, which concludes that the development will have a minimal impact on peak-hour traffic. The proposal also states that the resort will implement a parking fee to “discourage hotel guests and visitors from using personal vehicles.”

In addition, Whittall’s company will be involved in implementing short- and long-term traffic solutions through the Barrier Islands Traffic Study, a $942,000 project of the Florida Department of Transportation, designed to determine ways to improve the flow of traffic to, from and on Longboat, Anna Maria Island and Lido Key.

“Unicorp will participate in the traffic study as a key stakeholder and can contribute financially once strategies are developed,” the proposal reads.

Whittall hopes the community will embrace the new plan, noting that he believes the resort will bring visitors to support businesses, raise property values and “get rid of an eyesore,” referring to the property in its current state.

“We hope to be able to move ahead with the project that we believe will be good for the community,” Whittall said.

Next Door

In April, Unicorp entered into a contract with residents of Aquarius and Tencon, the two condominiums immediately neighboring the former Colony property. The contract extends “membership privileges” for residents of the two properties in exchange for support of a Unicorp project that meets certain criteria, including a total unit count of no more than 268 total units.

Membership privileges include access to the future resort’s amenities, which in the proposal include:

– Two restaurants

– 15,700-square-foot spa

– Lounge and lounge bar

– Salt water lagoon

The Project


Observer, July 26, 2017, Herald Tribune August 4, 2017

Why Sarasota Florida Is A Hidden Travel Gem

From Forbes Travel Guide – September 2016

Sitting in The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Beach Club Grill on Lido Key, you get a real taste of Sarasota, an underrated town where everyone seems to have a backstory. As you dine on succulent scallops and bacon risotto, with the stunning pool and the Gulf of Mexico’s lapping waves in the background, server Irmy checks on you. The friendly elder German woman will share that she’s a grill veteran, but if you probe a bit, she will reveal that she landed in town many years ago because she had a unicycle-acrobatic act with her husband, which was risqué at the time.

The encounter demonstrates the many facets of the southwestern Florida city — the fresh Gulf Coast cuisine, the inviting beaches (Sarasota County boasts almost 40 miles of shoreline) and its history as the Circus Capital of the World. Find out why our Forbes Travel Guide editors think Sarasota should be your next travel destination.

The Beach Club – Ritz-Carlton Lido Key

Where to Stay

The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota debuted with a fresh new look in December 2015, making it the hot place to stay in town. Taking inspiration from the Gulf, the rooms have a modern beach vibe that avoids cliché and veers chic. Soft blues and purples come from Sarasota sunsets, sea green from the water outside and gray textured walls lend a contemporary touch. Bathrooms blend white marble and gray walls.

The seashore accents are subtle: The carpet bears a nautilus shell pattern, the bedside lamps have a golden shell base and local artists and Ringling School of the Arts students create the framed pieces.

Upgrade to a room on the eighth-floor Club Level to receive two daily garment pressings and access to the Club Lounge, which offers food and drinks throughout the day. Sip a sparkling rosé, nibble on a mini crab roll and admire the great views of Sarasota Bay.

Where to Play

One of the best amenities at the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel is its private Beach Club on Lido Key three miles away (the complimentary shuttle will bring you back and forth). While popular Siesta Key impresses with its flour-like sand, the beach here is more quiet and exclusive.

If the clear ocean doesn’t call to you, try the heated pool overlooking the Gulf. Or snap up a cabana to gaze at the waves from a hammock. Just make sure you have a potent mai tai from the onsite Lido Key Tiki Bar in hand when you’re watching the sun set and a drummer welcomes the evening in a daily ritual.

For active pursuits, borrow free equipment back at the hotel to do kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. Or remain at the beach and make use of the gratis snorkels, masks and fins.

Duffers should head about 16 miles from the luxury hotel to the 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed Golf Club. Spread across 315 acres, the scenic course is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary with more than 100 plant species, 12 lakes (check out the lily pond at hole No. 17) and a setting for bald eagles, snakes, alligators, boar, bobcats and even a panther. It has one of the best driving ranges in the area, so don’t be surprised if you spy a pro practicing there. And if you have your own PGA dreams, enlist the help of genial instructor Randy Kok.

What to See

Beyond the beach, Sarasota’s biggest attraction is the sprawling Ringling campus. The city’s big top legacy started in 1927, when circus mogul John Ringling relocated Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s winter headquarters there from Connecticut.

Learn more at the Ringling Circus Museum, where you can see everything from aerialist Dolly Jacobs’ glittering dress with rhinestones, sequins and feathers; to vintage circus posters; to ornate circus wagons.

Marvel at a meticulous 44,000-piece miniature replica of the Ringling circus as it would have looked during the 1920s and 1930s and what it took to bring the show to each town (the 26,000-yard big top alone took four hours to raise). In 1926, a typical Ringling show would spotlight more than 800 performers in 22 displays.

Elsewhere on the campus, you’ll find the waterfront home of John and Mable Ringling. The 56-room 1925 mansion called Cà d’Zan showcases a distinctive Venetian Gothic design. Step inside to see rooms like the Court — an atrium space with a checkerboard floor, velvet sofas and a crystal chandelier from the former Waldorf Astoria — where the Ringling’s entertained guests.

Ringling is also home to an art museum with 21 galleries’ worth of work from old masters and contemporary artists. It just opened a new Center for Asian Art in May 2016. The 25,000-square-foot addition sticks out from the perfectly pink surrounding buildings with its mosaic of more than 2,700 green-glazed terra cotta tiles that were designed to look like jade. Inside, discover works like the Phoenix Door Panels (Ramma) from Japan’s Edo period. The Ringling’s originally purchased the pair of carved wood painted panels for their home.

You could spend days covering the 66-acre Ringling campus, but take time to walk the grounds. In particular, swing by Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden, the oldest continuously operating rose garden in the state, and the Museum of Art courtyard, with replicas of ancient Greek, Roman and Baroque statues on a pristine manicured lawn and lining the top of the buildings.

Explore more of Sarasota’s natural beauty at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. It’s the only botanical garden in the world focused on epiphytes, non-parasitic plants that grow on other plants, like orchids and bromeliads. Traverse the nearly 15-acre grounds and you’ll encounter a banyan grove, a Children’s Rainforest Garden with a waterfall and swinging bridges, rare putrid-smelling corpse plants and a koi pond.

Don’t miss a trip between February and July 2017, when “Marc Chagall, Flowers, and the French Riviera: The Color of Dreams” will take over Selby. Chagall’s famous flowery paintings, archival nature photos from his estate and other objects from his life will be woven into the garden setting for a unique first-time curation.

The prized piece of the exhibit will be The Lovers, a 1937 oil painting on loan from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Quotes from Chagall, like “Great art picks up where nature ends,” will be highlighted in the garden as well. The exhibit marks Selby’s move to become a living museum; it plans to feature a new artist every February.

Where to Shop

Shoppers will want to stroll the coconut-palm-lined sidewalks of St. Armands Circle, a quick shuttle ride from the hotel. Peruse more than 130 upscale shops (McCarver & Moser fine jewelry), restaurants (open-air Shore Diner) and gourmet specialty stores (Big Olaf Creamery’s handmade Amish ice cream). In the center of the shopping quadrants you’ll find Circle Park with Italian statues from John Ringling’s personal collection.

Another nice walking area is Burns Court Historic District. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the area south of downtown Sarasota is made up of 15 stucco bungalows in vibrant hues like cornflower blue and fuchsia. They house everything from art galleries to residences.

Pop into the Pepto-Bismol-pink Burns Court Cinema building to catch an independent movie before heading to the next-door Owen’s Fish Camp for seafood. Keep an eye out for art, from painted bikes (a pink two-wheeler with a plastic flamingo perched on the handlebars and a sky-blue bike with a matching fish on top) to wall murals (Anat Ronen’s work shows hands grasping a Leica camera, Pixel Pancho’s skull-faced Mickey Mouse rides a mechanical flamingo).

Jack Dusty's Ritz-Carlton - Downtown Sarasota

Jack Dusty’s Ritz-Carlton – Downtown Sarasota

Where to Eat

In this beach town where the dress code is resort casual, dining options are just as easy. Downtown, go to Nancy’s Bar-B-Q for a hearty Southern meal. Pitmaster Nancy Krohngold, whom you will recognize with her trademark pearls, tortoise shell glasses and thick hoop earrings, turns out tender 12-hour brisket and popular pulled pork. Pile on the unusual barbecue sides — a light sesame slaw adds crunch and edamame elevates the sweet succotash.

The aforementioned Beach Club Grill is a solid lunch or dinner option — don’t miss the creamy citrus-burrata salad with Thai basil, Marcona almonds and a vanilla vinaigrette. It gets a kick of sweetness from honey that’s made on the hotel’s golf course.

The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota’s Jack Dusty restaurant is a pioneer in the Ritz-Carlton chain. It bucks the more formal fine-dining model of the hotel dining experience for one that is casual and upbeat. While the white tablecloths may be gone, the food remains focused and well executed.

Start with mussels doused in a sage-pesto broth and the compressed tomato and watermelon salad with basil, chili flakes, fennel pollen and Meyer lemon oil. For seafood, order the whole fried local snapper or the grilled lobster with drawn butter. And if you prefer meat, try the short rib BLT with cheddar grits, fried green tomato caponata and wilted lettuce.

Save room for sweets; it would be a shame to forgo executive pastry chef Lyndsy McDonald’s decadent desserts. The most comforting — and Instagram-worthy — is the coffee milkshake served in a mason jar with big doughnuts threaded through the red striped straw.

More Hotel Rooms Planned for Downtown Sarasota

Developers aren’t losing their interest in building hotels in downtown Sarasota, for a Maryland woman has filed preliminary plans for a 118-room hotel on Fruitville Road.

On Aug. 16, Nancy Vu submitted an application for a meeting with the city’s Development Review Committee regarding a hotel project on a 0.67-acre site between Central and Cocoanut Avenues. Vu, who is listed as the contract purchaser for the properties at 1351 and 1365 Fruitville Road, declined multiple requests for comment.

A LinkedIn profile lists Nancy Vu as the senior director of asset management for Choice Hotels International. The company owns several hotel brands, including Comfort Inn & Suites, Quality Inn and Econo Lodge. The plans do not list a specific hotel flag.

Downtown Sarasota New Construction Choice Hotels

The proposal is the latest in a series of hotels planned for downtown. The site is across the street from where Jebco Ventures intends to build a 163-room Hampton Inn & Suites. Starting with the 138-room Aloft hotel on Ringling Boulevard, nearly 1,300 new hotel rooms have been proposed for the heart of the city.

That’s not to say all of those rooms will come to fruition. Already, plans for a 120-room Kimpton hotel at U.S. 301 and Main Street have fallen through. Other projects, such as the redevelopment of the former Quay site, are awaiting city approval.

Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, said financing for hotel projects is starting to tighten nationally — though that doesn’t necessarily reflect the market conditions in Sarasota.

It’s impossible to know how full those new hotel rooms will be once they’re all built. Right now, Haley said, Sarasota has a 78% occupancy rate through June — an all-time high, putting the county in a position to improve on 2015’s 73% occupancy rate.

Still, the visitors’ bureau is already working to ensure the hotel market doesn’t take a dip once the new rooms come on line.

“We’re really expanding our meeting and group sales efforts,” Haley said. “What we really need to do is focus on that business during the week.”

Sarasota Observer August 26, 2016

Siesta Key Ranked in New Top 10 Beaches List

Siesta Key Ranks No 2 in the 2016 Top Beaches in the US



Dr. Stephen Leatherman– (Dr Beach)–has come out with his 2016 list of America’s Best Beaches, and Siesta Key Beach is No. 2.

“With some of the finest, whitest sand in the world, this beach attracts sand collectors from all over,” Leatherman writes on his site. “Siesta Beach has clear, warm waters ideal for swimming. The beach is hundreds of yards wide in the shape of a crescent, due to anchoring of onshore rocks to the south. This beach is great for volleyball and other types of recreational fitness.”

“We’re really thrilled,” says Lynn Hobeck Bates, communications manager for Visit Sarasota County. “It’s not often that a former No. 1 beach makes it back on the list, so when we saw it this morning we were surprised and excited for the exposure. I think that the new renovations, which have made the beach even better, have to come to Dr. Beach’s attention.”

“I never dreamed we’d be back on the list, so I am just thrilled for the recognition,” said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism promoting agency.

Leatherman is an internationally known coastal scientist who has published 20 books and hundreds of scientific articles and reports about storm impacts, coastal erosion and ways to improve beach health and safety.

Lately, he’s putting more emphasis on environmental management and beach safety.

This year’s No. 1 beach is Maui’s Kapula Bay Beach, but two other Florida beaches also made their way into the top 10: Grayton Beach State Park in the Panhandle, and Caladesi Island State Park Dunedin/Clearwater.

Dr. Beach’s Top 10 beaches of 2016
1. Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve; Oahu, Hawaii
2. Siesta Beach
3. Kapalua Bay Beach; Maui, Hawaii
4. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach; Outer Banks of North Carolina
5. Coast Guard Beach; Cape Cod, Massachusetts
6. Grayton Beach State Park; Florida Panhandle
7. Coronado Beach; San Diego, California
8. Coopers Beach; Southampton, New York
9. Caladesi Island State Park; Clearwater
10. Beachwalker Park; Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Sarasota Magazine, Orlando Sentinel May 26. 2016

Florida Sets Another Tourism Record

Florida TourismThe broader economy might be throwing out some mixed signals, but Florida tourism was showing no signs of waning during the first three months of 2016.

While the nation’s gross domestic product saw a mere 0.5 percent bump in annual growth rate during the first quarter, and as retailers struggled with a customer base that is more prone to save and to spend its money on experience that material goods, the Sunshine State continued to welcome droves of visitors at a record pace.

There were 29.8 million tourists in the first three months of the year — the largest ever first quarter, and a 4.8 percent spike over the same period last year, data released on Monday by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency, showed.

The average number of direct travel-related jobs in the first quarter also reached a record 1.23 million, up 3.8 percent from the same period in 2015.

Some experts expect those increases to continue, even if they are not the double digit hikes that the state has seen in the past. Consumers are still spending on fun, even if they may be tightening their belts elsewhere.

“You see a willingness to spend for those experiences,” said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, the community’s tourism promotions agency. “We certainly see it with grandparents willing to splurge on a great condo unit knowing that kids are going to come down for the weekend.”

This kind of growth is a prime example of why tourism agencies need to keep promoting their areas even in good economic times, said Elliott Falcione, executive director for Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Visit Florida has pushed into markets that it wasn’t in five years ago. Even if the economy falters domestically or in an international feeder market, the increases in visitors and dollars spent will still come because the state agency is constantly drawing new people to Florida.

“Diversification is a key word when you talk about preparing for darker times,” Falcione said.

Haley expects the growth will continue albeit more slowly.

Sarasota County, for example, saw another record-breaking March for tourist tax collection, but it only came with a 1 percent increase in the number of visitors when compared with 2015. The upcoming presidential election, too, will limit what the agency can do as far as advertising, she said.

Meanwhile, the weak Canadian loonie did mostly stall growth from the Great White North, one of Southwest Florida’s largest international feeder markets. Travel through January from Canada was only up 0.4 percent.

“We haven’t seen a dip,” Haley said. “What you are seeing is continued growth but at a much lower rate. We’re seeing some of the international and national things impact us.”

Still, nearly 30 million visitors already have come to Florida this year, and last year the state exceeded its goal and welcomed 105 million people. The Sunshine State also is expected to topple its record again this year and with 115 million visitors, Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement on Monday.

But it’s not all about putting new heads in hotel beds.

Visit Florida announced in September the agency a plan to bring in $100 billion in annual visitor spending by 2020. That means attracting visitors willing to stay long and spend more on Florida’s luxuries. These consumers with larger pocketbooks can boost the industry without necessarily diluting the quality of an area.

The Bradenton area targets households with an income greater than $125,000, Falcione said.

Consumers in that market are more likely to spend money on travel even in tougher times. They may limit their annual trips, but it is important to attract a market that will come back to Florida even when times are tough.

That old Florida feel in the southwestern part of the state is often an escape from the rat race of everyday life. It’s the kind of place people want to be even when times are tough, he said.

“Every day in life is more challenging in society today,” Falcione said. “People are always on technology and high energy, you never get a chance to break away. It makes our destination quite appealing.”

Herald Tribune 5/16/2016

Florida Breaks Tourism Record for Fifth Consecutive Year

105 million people travel to Sunshine State in 2015, governor says

florida tourismFlorida welcomed 105 million visitors last year, making 2015 the fifth consecutive year where tourism records were broken.

The new record exceeded the previous high of 98.5 million in 2014 by 6.6 percent, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion arm.

The total number of visitors to the Sunshine State last year exceeded the populations of most of the world’s countries. It was about 3 million more people, for example, than inhabit the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the average number of direct travel-related jobs in 2015 also was a record high, with 1,199,200 Floridians employed in the tourism industry, up 4.7 percent compared with the same period last year.

“Tourism plays an important role in supporting our economy, and we will continue to make strategic investments in the tourism industry to keep Florida on track to becoming first for jobs,” said Gov. Rick Scott, who revealed the preliminary tourist count Thursday at Walt Disney World in Orlando. “With five consecutive record years for tourism, it is time to set our goal even higher, and I look forward to welcoming 115 million visitors to the Sunshine State this year.”

Visit Florida estimates that a record 89.8 million domestic visitors traveled to Florida in 2015, reflecting an 8 percent increase from 2014. Estimates also show that 11.2 million overseas visitors and 4 million Canadians came to the Sunshine State last year. The number of people boarding planes at 18 Florida airports during 2015 increased 8.2 percent when compared with the previous year, representing a record 6.1 million more passengers than in 2014.


The state’s success wasn’t a surprise to Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County and a board member for Visit Florida. Once Sarasota County saw that it had reached its own goal of welcoming more than a million visitors in 2015, she suspected the state as a whole would topple its goal.

“It’s nice to know that Sarasota played its part in that goal,” Haley said. “We know that first and foremost for us, a visitor has to be interested in Florida. Then we can make our case that the best place to be is Sarasota.” The state continues to draw more tourists, but Florida promoters and local agencies have shifted their goals for the future, Haley said. Lately, there’s been a greater emphasis on attracting visitors with a higher spending power and bringing in more tourists during the off season. Visit Sarasota County, specifically, has focused on attracting sporting events in the late spring, summer and early fall to boost tourism in the slower seasons.

“We as a state have shifted our focus,” Haley said. “I think it’s a very important shift.”

Locally, the Baltimore Orioles released an economic impact analysis by Sarasota County government this week suggesting that the team’s activities and presence at the Ed Smith Stadium and Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex generated about $81 million in Southwest Florida in the past year. That figure exceeds the $40 million to $50 million estimate reported by the state of Florida in a 2009 analysis of communities that host Major League Baseball Spring Training. The Orioles’ year-round presence, job creation, economic activity, commerce and direct club spending also contributed substantially to the results.

State Collaboration

Five years of record-setting visitation does not happen by accident, said Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe, who credited the success to the agency’s global marketing strategy that focused on maximizing the economic impact of Florida tourism.

The collaboration with destination marketing organizations and the money the state has continued to pump into Visit Florida has made all the difference, said Elliott Falcione, executive director for Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“You’ve got to thank the Legislature and the governor for believing in Visit Florida,” Falcione said. “It’s now proven four years in a row that as the budget increases that visitation increase.”

In pushing to continue the increases, Scott has asked lawmakers to set aside $79.3 million for Visit Florida in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The funding would be an increase of $6 million from the current year. The House and Senate have each budgeted $80 million for Visit Florida. Of that money, the House has proposed that $1.8 million go to a contract with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association to craft an in-state tourism campaign. The Senate has pitched $2 million for the marketing contract with the Tallahassee-based hospitality trade association. Tourism and recreation taxable sales for Florida as a whole increased every month year-over-year from January through November 2015, representing an 8.6 percent increase over the same period in 2014.

The state is aiming to bring in $100 billion in total tourism related spending by 2020.


Total 2015 Visitors: 105 million, up 6.6%

Total Floridians employed in tourism: 1,199,200, up 4.7%

Domestic visitors: 89.8 million, up 8%

Overseas visitors: 11.2 million

Canadian visitors: 4 million

Number of people boarding planes at 18 Florida airports: 74.3 million, up 8.2%

Taxable sales increase January to November 2015: 8.6%

Average daily room rate increase: 5.9%

Number of rooms sold increase: 4.5%

Average room occupancy rate: 72 percent, up 3.2 percentage points

Source: Visit Florida

Herald Tribune February 18, 2016

Florida Breaks Tourism Record in 2015

welcome to florida-1The Sunshine State welcomed an estimated 79.1 million visitors during the first nine months of 2015, the most of any such period in Florida’s history.

The nine-month count was a 5.5 percent increase when compared with the same period in 2014.

The third quarter of this year saw an estimated 25.5 million visitors, an increase of 6.8 percent, according to a report from Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotions agency, released on Thursday.

The average number of direct travel-related jobs in the third quarter also was a record high, at 1,195,400, 5.2 percent more than a year ago.

Gov. Rick Scott has set a goal of drawing more than 100 million tourists to Florida this year, and that now seems within fairly easy reach.

Visit Florida estimated that there were 22.1 million domestic travelers to Florida in the third quarter, an 8.2 percent increase. There were another 3.4 million international visitors.

Preliminary figures for the nine-month period show 67.4 million domestic visitors, 8.3 million overseas visitors and 3.4 million Canadians.

Tourism and recreation taxable sales for Florida increased year-over-year for January through August, which was the last month reported, by 8.2 percent, while the average daily room rate rose 5.1 percent. The occupancy rate for Florida hotels increased 3.6 percent and the demand in rooms sold grew 4.8 percent compared with a year ago.

“The continued growth of tourism for the third quarter, including a record number of tourism-related jobs, puts Florida on pace for a fifth consecutive record breaking year. These records also emphasize the power of tourism as an economic leader and job creator for the state,” John Tomlin, Visit Florida’s chairman, said in a statement.

Local data has been equally impressive, with Sarasota County collected more than $19.02 million from its 5 percent tax on overnight accommodations during the recently ended fiscal year. That amounts to a 27 percent increase in those revenues from just two years ago. Meanwhile, that same revenue source in Manatee County was $11.74 million, a 30 percent jump from two years ago.

For the first time, too, Sarasota County broke 1 million visitors in paid lodgings.

In the July-to-September quarter, the number of visitors to Sarasota County was up 2.3 percent and their spending grew by 3.8 percent.

Herald Tribune November 2015