At last year’s annual Amelia Island Tourism Industry Marketing Meeting, we spoke about using hindsight, insight, and foresight to develop and implement a world-class marketing effort in 2020. Considering the past six months, I believe it fair to say about our situation, “we didn’t see that one coming!”
Through the first half of the fiscal year, all indicators signaled 2020 would be another success. Visitation was up, lodging metrics set new records, and tourist spending supported a robust job market. State and local governments budgeted growing tax revenues from tourism activity. On March first, our state joined the rest of the world and changed forever. The first two cases of COVID-19 were reported on Florida’s west coast. It turns out Shakespeare offered good advice - “Beware the Ides of March.” On March 15, 136 confirmed cases were reported in Florida. As 188 nations have experienced, the impacts of the pandemic were unimaginable. The freedom to travel in a safe, secure environment was replaced with restrictions, regulations, and fear. In two short weeks, Florida - the world’s greatest travel destination crumbled. Walt Disney World, the nation’s largest single site employer closed – and with it 75,000 jobs. Closing on the same day were Universal, SeaWorld, LegoLand, and Kennedy Space Center. Hotels shut down, restaurants closed, flights cancelled, and cruise ships were quarantined. Along with it, the vast majority of 1.7 million Florida hospitality workers found themselves unemployed. Even then, most of us did not realize how drastically daily life and work was going to change. Normal will never return and a “new normal” doesn’t exist. We must change the way we do everything. Essentially, we must REBOOT
To survive and flourish we must commit to a customer centric approach, creating experiences and delivering services that exceed their expectations. For generations, visitors have been drawn to Amelia Island - to disconnect from a hectic environment in order to reconnect with the important people and things in their lives. We must REFRESH
our brand’s promise presents an opportunity to excite them about the destination, assure them of a safe visit, and extend a warm welcome to all.
In the year ahead, our efforts are focused on one measurement – RETURN
. Return the travel industry to its critical role as the economic engine of Nassau County. Return hospitality team members to the workplace and return profits to our business partners and stakeholders. In order to return to the successes of the past decade - we have to recognize and understand factors that influence us – the known knowns; the known unknowns; and the unknown unknowns.
In September 2008 the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) created the Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau to focus exclusively on marketing Amelia Island. Under the direction of the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, we have experienced unprecedented returns. Economic Impact has grown from $499 million in 2008 to almost $900 million in 2019. Jobs directly supported by the tourism industry grew from 9,800 in 2008 to 14,300 in 2019 which now represents 35.8% of all jobs in Nassau County. Taxable Room Revenue has grown from $87 million to $158 million.
The unwavering support of the County Commission and the resources generated by the bed tax have fueled tourism’s growth. As voted on by Nassau County residents, 75% of the visitor user fees are dedicated to marketing and visitor services. Beach projects, such as renourishment and beach cleaning, are fully funded by 10% of the bed tax collections. The remaining 15% funds program operations, including overhead and staffing. For Fiscal Year 2021, we have budgeted $7.8 million, comprised of $4.6 million in bed taxes - down 37.5% from this past year – and $3.2 million in reserve spending. Significantly, we have committed $1.4 million (19%) of the total budget to projects necessary to implement the new County Beach Ordinance. As approved by the BOCC, we have recruited a spectacular team of individuals responsible for execution of our programs, the staff of the Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. Coupled with “best of class” specialists in the creative arts, public relations, promotions, and research, this structure gives us the flexibility and agility to execute programs which generates results envied by our competitors.
Our 2019 key metrics in the Florida lodging industry were again among the top 5 in all categories. Focusing on high-yield customers who stay longer and spend more has improved Occupancy, Average Daily Rate (ADR), and Revenue per Available Room (RevPAR) significantly.
As mentioned, the 2019 fiscal year produced record-setting performances:
In 2020, we saw significant declines in performance due to COVID-19:
- 692,000 Room Nights
- 70.2% Occupancy
- $239.79 ADR
- $168.30 RevPar
- 510,000 Room Nights, -22.8%
- 51.4% Occupancy, -27.7%
- $221.44 ADR, -7.7%
- $113.79 RevPar, -33.2%
Since March 1, we have seen record-setting declines. Overnight guests have declined more than 20% in the fiscal year. Economic impact fell from $900 million in 2019 to $529 million in fiscal year 2020 and the average length of stay declined 2.5%. The booking window for lodging on Amelia Island fell from 31 days in advance to six days in advance. Although we can track performance, we cannot predict when the situation turns for the better, that is beyond our control.
- When will the next spike in infections occur?
- When will the vaccine be approved and how long will it take to vaccinate 200 million people?
- When will people start to travel again?
- When will we recover to pre-pandemic levels?
- Will beach destinations recover faster than urban areas?
Most experts project it will take 3 to 4 years for our industry to fully recover drawing a comparison to the great recession of 2009. We know what used to work is inapplicable in today's environment. The way people buy travel and experience travel is different today than it was yesterday. We know that our key feeder states have changed. With our focus on drive markets, Florida and Georgia are maintaining their most important status. New York, which generated $31 million in economic impact, has been replaced by drive markets North Carolina and South Carolina. We don't know when the airline industry will recover, but until it does, the visitors who live 8 hours closer are critical to our recovery.
Our mix of lodging offerings – resorts, select service, bed & breakfast inns and vacation rentals - offers choices unmatched by other destinations. We know that promotions and added value package offered by lodging facilities create opportunities to experience world class products at great prices. We don’t know when special events will be allowed to resume business. Special events such as Concours d’Elegance, Dickens on Centre, Shrimp Festival, and the Jazz Festival generate millions of dollars for the community. To continue, event organizers must adopt new protocols that require masks and enforce social separation. Such regulations are here to stay.
Unknown is the effects distance learning, virtual medicine, work from home, and online meetings will have on Amelia Island’s meeting business. Corporate travel policies are likely to move away from recommended guidelines to mandated rules in destination facilities. As corporations cuts budgets, we expect travel for business and meetings to decline significantly next year. With meeting planners sensing weakness in the market and additional supply in the lodging market, they will negotiate from a position of strength; putting downward pressure on revenues, profits, and tax collections.
“I know that I know nothing.” - Socrates
We base our plans on our knowledge, and there'll be times where we know there is a gap in that knowledge. We're also aware that there may be things we can't possibly foresee, because "we don't know what we don't know.” Yet, in this circumstance, as in all these instances, life offers no crystal ball; there's no way of knowing what the future holds, or to be cognizant of something we are unaware of. This is the essence of "you don't know what you don't know."
However, in FY 2021, we are using what we do
know, combined with our marketing experience and intuition. We are planning for flexibility to adapt to the unknowns throughout our marketing initiatives. We have rebooted and refreshed and will work to return Amelia Island’s tourism industry to a successful economic engine for Nassau County, our community and our partners.