TOURISM By The Numbers
Summer Season Adds Up To Pre-Ivan Occupancy
By Sunny David of Condo Owner Magazine
Following two disastrous hurricanes in two years, tourism on the Alabama and Perdido Key (Fla.) and the Mississippi Gulf Coasts has rebounded vigorously, according to local real estate agents and city officials.
Hurricane Ivan hit the Alabama Gulf Coast and Perdido Key area in September 2004. The storm, whose eye made landfall between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, damaged many condominium projects, residential homes and businesses. In some cases, they were totally destroyed or were deemed uninhabitable for a year or more.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina, named one of the costliest and deadliest storms in U.S. history, did major damage to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in popular tourist destinations such as Biloxi and Gulfport.
According to Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), things are looking up. Taxable lodging revenues surpassed the $50 million mark in June this year, he said. "It was the highest since July 2004 (the highest rental rate month in the area's history) and an indicator for the rest of the summer." For the months of March, April and May of this year, the CVB's records show that taxable lodging revenues reached $57.1 million. This represents a $1.3 million increase over the record of $55.8 million set in 2004 during the same spring months.
Even though the crowds were large this year, condo rental management company officials said they are doing all they can to make people feel comfortable and want to come back. "We haven't had as many complaints this year as we have in the past," Foster said. "For us to be delivering quality services with this record number of people is a real compliment to the industry."
A similar record number of rentals also occurred in Perdido Key, just across the Florida state line. Dave Cherry, the newly appointed visitor information manager for the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce, described the summer as showing "no slowdown as of yet. The vibes I am getting is that it was a great summer tourist season," he said. As of mid-August, Cherry described condo occupancy as being "near full."
Adding to the positive outlook felt by CVB and chamber officials is the fact that new condominium developments have come on line since Ivan made landfall or have been repaired and are available for occupancy. According to chamber records, Medittera, La Riva, Windemere and two new towers at Indigo have been newly constructed. Units that have been repaired, updated and redecorated in Perdido Key include those at Needle Rush Point, Spanish Key, Mirabella, Atlantis and Grand Caribbean. Three developments not damaged by the hurricane and back in business as soon as the road was repaired were Beach Colony, La Playa and Palacio, which is where the FEMA agents and reconstruction teams stayed after the hurricane.
The Aquatic Realty Company in Perdido Key is now offering specials for the beginning of the fall season, including Labor Day specials. The company is granting a 20 percent discount off the base rent on any booking for three or more nights through Sept. 30.
Even without these post-summer season specials and promotions, Ed Schroeder, vice-president for tourism and development for the Pensacola Bay Area CVB, said tourism figures in the area are almost back to the pre-Ivan figures.
Janice Jones, media relations manager for the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB, said that while the bureau does not presently have a way to measure exact condo occupancy, "It's looking better. We now have more visitors who are actually tourists instead of construction and FEMA workers."
In a recently published news article, Marie Curren, marketing manager for Orange Beach-based Brett Robinson, said the company experienced a 97 percent occupancy rate during the first week of August, which was the last full weekend before area schools reopened for classes. "That's about as good as you can get," she said.
Connie Carlisle, director of reservations for Meyer Real Estate Company in Gulf Shores, said that while the company's occupancy levels are not quite what they were before Ivan, they are very close. "Our biggest surprise this summer has been the number of new guests to the area who have never been here before," she said. "We probably had about 30 to 35 percent new people. Maybe one thing the hurricane did for us was to let people know that we are here. We had a lot more people from the Midwestern states and a lot of people from north Alabama this year who [said they] used to go to Destin."
Occupancy numbers are probably even with pre-Ivan numbers due to the number of units that have come on line since the storm, said Meyer General Manager Chuck Steeg. "After Ivan, we lost a couple of hundred properties. Since then, we have added about 500 units to our rental program. So, from that standpoint there is more inventory. But, from a individual owner gross rent standpoint, the occupancy levels are somewhat close to what they were in 2004, which were really, really good."
Another measurement tool used by local officials to gauge the number of visitors coming into the area is the rising number of people attending popular tourist attractions. The annual Mullet Toss at the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package attracted the largest crowd since 2004, said event spokesperson Cheryl Lange. At The Amphitheater at The Wharf in Orange Beach, touring jam-band Widespread Panic attracted a sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 concert-goers in April, as did other summer concerts by Hank Williams Jr., Brad Paisley and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
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