Labor Day tourism looking up

Reservations at many hotels are up this Labor Day weekend over last year’s holiday, capping a solid summer season in which bed tax collections continued to rise each month.

Bay Tourist Development Council (TDC) Chairman Philip “Griff” Griffitts, whose family owns Sugar Sands Inn and Suites and the La Quinta Inn and Suites, said reservations are up at those hotels this Labor Day weekend compared to last year.

“Last year we had the hurricane (Hermine) out there, but it looks like it is going to be a good weekend,” he said.

Hurricane Hermine made landfall in the Big Bend over Labor Day weekend last year, forcing officials to cancel Gulf Coast Jam last year, which attracts as many as 25,000 people.

The weather forecast looks fine this weekend, officials said, and Gulf Coast Jam is scheduled to run through Sunday. The only potential headwind, Griffitts said, was increasing gas prices caused by Hurricane Harvey’s impact on refineries, but even that shouldn’t keep visitors away.

“It’s not that they are doubling or tripling the prices,” he said. “I think folks have already made their plans. It looks like the weather is fairly decent. They are going to come on down regardless.”

In fact, he said, he would expect Panama City Beach to get some visitors from Texas, where Harvey first hit.

“Somebody might have had a vacation planned for the Texas Gulf Coast. They are not going to go there now. They are going to come this way, I hope,” he said.

This weekend is considered the official end of summer. And while the July bed tax numbers aren’t yet in, the tax charged on hotel stays in Panama City Beach increased by 10.4 percent in June compared to the same month last year, despite being a wet month.

It was the fifth consecutive month of double-digit increases in bed tax revenues. Buddy Wilkes, a TDC member and general manager of Shipwreck Island Waterpark, said the study results aren’t yet in to determine whether the increases are because of increased visitors or people paying higher room rates due to new hotel properties opening.

He said the rainy weather during June and July hurt business at Shipwreck, but not by much.

“We had 12 rain-out days — the most we have ever had in any single season,” Wilkes said. “We had good days. The summer season was really good when we didn’t get rained out. We ended up slightly down (in revenues), but not really very much. We feel like we would have had a great summer had we not had all the rain and had to close.”

Paul Wohlford, vice president of business development for Resort Collection, which handles more than 1,000 rental units including those at Edgewater Beach Resort, said it was a good summer for business, but it could have been much better if the company had not lowered rates later in the summer to compete with other rentals.

The increase in bed taxes could be due in part to more hotels being open on the beach this year as new ones have opened, he said.

“There is a pretty significant amount of (hotel) inventory on the beach here that wasn’t here last summer,” Wohlford said.

Even the Sheraton was only partially open last summer. He said the Resort properties had 90 percent occupancy in June and July.

“But our rate was down,” he said. “We had to be a little more aggressive in rates to stay competitive in the marketplace.”

Catie Feeney, the public relations manager for Visit Panama City Beach, said she was optimistic about this Labor Day weekend.

“For Panama City Beach, Labor Day is one of our more popular holiday weekends, and we anticipate a strong finish for the summer season,” Feeney said in a statement. “Serving as one of the top holidays for economic growth, Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam plays a crucial role in the destination’s success. With an average of 27 percent attendance increase year over year, Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam has brought visitors from all 50 states to Panama City Beach. The expected total for this event will be close to 25,000 attendees.”

She added that compared to July 2016, TDC collections are up 14.44 percent for the fiscal year.

“This upward trend is a direct reflection on the destination’s tourism industry and how it is directly impacting the Bay County economy,” Feeney said.

Sandpiper Beacon owner John Hundley said the verdict is out about how this weekend will go. He said reservations there are on par compared to last year.

“Everybody waits to see what the weather is going to be like,” he said. “It looks really good and we’re hoping for a great turnout with wonderful, sunny weather.”

Source:  Panama City News Herald


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