MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) — When the year began, Brevard County’s tourism chief was cautiously optimistic about a comeback for his industry locally. But he never expected to see how strong the recovery has become.
Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Peter Cranis now is projecting that — when the county’s budget year ends on Sept. 30 and all the numbers are compiled — the county will have record revenue from tourism. This comes despite a continuing coronavirus pandemic and a 16½-month cruise industry shutdown at Port Canaveral that didn’t end until July 31.
The gains in tourism have helped speed up the overall recovery for the Space Coast economy, of which tourism is a major component. Before the pandemic, tourism was estimated to bring $1.8 billion a year into Brevard’s economy.
“It looks like we will have our best year ever, in spite of all that has been happening,” Cranis said. “In the last five or six months, we’ve turned things around incredibly. I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s crazy.”
The Office of Tourism is trying to keep that momentum going in the coming year, starting with a fall marketing campaign that will run from mid-October to the end of December.
It is expanding its target geographic markets and is seeking out higher-income families to lure to the Space Coast.
Cranis said the Office of Tourism in recent years has targeted families with household incomes of $75,000 and up for its marketing efforts. This fall, though, the office plans to also target families with household incomes of $150,000 to $200,000 and up.
This set of images from the Space Coast Office of Tourism marketing campaign shows the juxtaposition of scenes from local communities with images tied to the space program.
The strategy, Cranis said, is to drive up the average hotel room rate in the market by attracting visitors the Space Coast who will think nothing of spending $180 to $200 a night on a beachfront hotel room, for example.
In addition to a focus on markets in Florida, the Office of Tourism will be putting more of an emphasis on attracting visitors from other Southeast markets, including Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee. It also is looking to promote the Space Coast to potential visitors in Northeast and Midwest markets like Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.
A key measure of the strength of the local tourism industry is amount collected from Brevard County’s 5% tourist development tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.
With record-setting spring and summer months in the books, Cranis predicts that revenue from the tax should come in at about $16.5 million for the budget year ending Sept. 30. That will exceed the previous record of $16.02 million,set in the 2018-19 budget year that ended Sept. 30, 2019.
Before the current budget year began, Cranis was budgeting tax collections of $11 million for 2020-21. Actual collections through July are running 50.7% over the budgeted amounts.
A tax collection of $16.5 million for 2020-21 would mean that hotels, vacation rental properties, campgrounds and other facilities that paid the tax had revenue of $330 million in the budget year from their rentals. And that figure doesn’t include whatever they made on food, beverage and retail sales at their establishment — sales that are not assessed the tourist development tax.
What’s driving tourism? Zoo, sports and culture
Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten said attendance at the Viera zoo has been up 20% to 30% from its normal visitor counts during May through August, and is on pace for a record year.
Winsten said he is “pleasantly surprised” by the numbers, attributing the gains in part to the zoo being an outdoor attraction that many tourists are looking for as the pandemic continues.
About 45% to 50% of the zoo’s visitors come from outside Brevard County.
“We’re really strong,” Winsten said, adding that several upcoming events at the zoo should keep visitor counts strong.
These included the Halloween-themed “Boo at the Zoo” attraction during three weekends in October; an “Art of Sand” exhibit that opens in November; and the debut in November of an exhibit featuring three male lions who will be moving here from the Naples Zoo.
Winsten — who is a member of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council and chairs its Sports Committee — said the diverse mix of amateur sports events in the county is helping bring tourists to the Space Coast as well.
Key among them is the baseball and softball tournaments organized by the U.S. Specialty Sports Association at its Space Coast Complex in Viera.
Also helping boost Space Coast tourism, Winsten said, is the county’s wide range of arts and cultural events and organizations.
Sports, arts and cultural events, in turn, all benefit from revenue generated by the tourist development tax, some of which is used for grants to these events.
The largest share of the tourist development tax money — 47% — is targeted for promotion and advertising of Space Coast tourism in an effort to attract more tourists.
The rest of the money is allocated this way:
25% for beach improvement (including beach renourishment, and various grants for projects to help the improve the condition of the Indian River Lagoon).
14% for capital facilities that benefit tourism.
5% for the Brevard Zoo.
4% for cultural programs (including grants for cultural organizations and events, and partial funding of the Brevard Cultural Alliance).
3% for USSSA Space Coast Complex.
2% for visitor information centers.
Brevard County Commissioner Bryan Lober — whose commission district includes the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral tourism corridor — said he believes a number of factors are contributing to the gain in the tourist tax revenue.
Lober — who is the County Commission’s representative on the Tourist Development Council — said the Office of Tourism’s marketing strategy played a role. But so did the improving economy, both locally and in the markets where the tourists to the Space Coast are coming from.
Cranis said tourism on the Space Coast is recovering faster than in many other tourism markets — including the Orlando area — because of Brevard County’s beaches and wide range of other outdoor activities. He said, with the pandemic continuing, many tourists feel more comfortable doing socially distanced outdoor activities, rather than being in indoor venues or at crowded theme parks.
Debra and Michael Millner were the first passengers to board MSC Divina when it began sailing from Port Canaveral on Sept. 16, and were showered in confetti, given the VIP treatment and had their accommodations upgraded. MSC Cruises became the fifth cruise line with year-round or seasonal cruises out of Port Canaveral.
Port Canaveral cruise return brings boost to Brevard businesses
The return of cruising from Port Canaveral also should help the Space Coast tourism industry.
Before the pandemic, the cruise sector generated about 20% of the overall tourism industry revenue in Brevard County, as many passengers on Port Canaveral-based ships stayed at local hotels before or after their cruises, ate in local restaurants, visited local attractions and shopped at local stores.
MSC Cruises this month began regular sailings from Port Canaveral, basing the MSC Divina there. With its first sailing out of Port Canaveral, MSC joining four other cruise lines with ships based there year-round or seasonally — Carnival, Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
Garry and Sharon Lukemire of Clermont were among the passengers on the Divina’s first sailing. They have taken about 50 cruises altogether, most of them out of Port Canaveral, and like to come to Brevard County a day early to stay at a local hotel and eat at local restaurants.
“We like to get a jump-start on the vacation,” Sharon Lukemire said.
Divina passengers James and Melody Beckner of Homosassa Springs have a similar approach.
They say they come to Brevard County one or more days before their cruise, rent a room at a Titusville hotel, and have dinner at Dixie Crossroad Seafood Restaurant in Titusville, a popular stop for tourists.
“It’s good just to get away,” James Beckner said, just after the couple boarded the Divina.
Canaveral Port Authority Chairman Wayne Justice said it is “hugely exciting” to have a fifth cruise line at Port Canaveral.
Justice expects the cruise business to be strong, as cruise lines are using strict COVID-19 protocols to keep their passengers and crew safe.
Justice noted that many people have money saved up from not taking vacations during the pandemic, and will be looking at cruises as an option now that sailing has resumed.
Brevard County Tourist Development Council member Bob Baugher — who owns or co-owns four hotels in the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral tourism corridor — said the increase in cruise operations is boosting business for his and other tourism businesses.
Spectators line the A. Max Brewer Bridge along the Indian River Lagoon in Titusville on Sept. 15, to view launch of Inspiration 4 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
‘We’re the only beach in the world that doubles as a launch pad’
So is the increased space launch cadence, including more crewed launches from the Space Coast.
“I have never not sold out (of hotel rooms) for a launch,” Baugher said.
The Office of Tourism’s fall marketing campaign will continue a focus on recently successful themes of “plus space” and “only here” — telling potential visitors about all they can do on the Space Coast, in addition to seeing rocket launches.
In one 30-second promotional television ad, for example, images of launches are juxtaposed with images of surfing, boating, kayaking, diving into a hotel pool and zip lining at the Brevard Zoo. While the images play, the narrator says: “On Florida’s Space Coast, you can do anything. … Just don’t forget to look up. We’re the only beach in the world that doubles as a launch pad. Because this — you can only do here.”
Office of Tourism Marketing Director Charity Stewart said the campaign will aim to boost visitor counts through “competitive conquesting,” telling people why the Space Coast is the place they want to come, as opposed to other Florida beach tourism markets.
The Office of Tourism also plans to use $50,000 to $100,000 of its $980,000 fall marketing budget to promote the Space Coast in the three markets that Allegiant Air plans to begin flying to in November out of Melbourne Orlando International Airport — Charlotte, Nashville and Pittsburgh.
Cranis said Allegiant’s future in flying out of Melbourne will depend largely on how it does with its initial flights. Strong bookings would mean more flights per week to these and possibly other markets, he said.
This is among the Space Coast Office of Tourism’s promotional ads for the Cape Canaveral area.
In addition to spending money on traditional media, the Office of Tourism plans to promote local tourism this fall on social media, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
It also is continuing to sponsor a specially curated Pandora radio station — called “Space Coast Grooves” — that debuted this summer and includes regular promotional messages for the Space Coast.
Meagan Happel, the Office of Tourism’s public relations manager, said “fans, industry partners and Space Coast Office of Tourism staff chose their favorite summer songs and tunes that remind them of the Space Coast. This collection includes classics by the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffett for beachy vibes, to tracks like Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ and David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ to evoke the space half of our name.”
Cranis said the Space Coast also should benefit from increased marketing spending being done outside of Florida by Visit Florida to promote the state’s tourism destinations. Visit Florida is the state’s official tourism marketing corporation.
Hotels and other short-term rental venues have a month to submit their tourist tax revenue after a month ends. So the final tax collection numbers for the budget year that ends Sept. 30 won’t be available until early November.
But the latest monthly report — for July — demonstrates just how strong tourism has been.
The July figure was $2.12 million — an 81% improvement over July 2020 and a 31% improvement over pre-pandemic July 2019 — making it the best July in history.
Cranis calls the July numbers “incredible.”