Driving revenues up

Cars make their way onto the on-ramp of I-75 northbound in front of a row of hotels that line the interstate near Archer Road.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 12:50 a.m.

The car-traveling public drove Florida's tourism market last year, buoying stopovers in places along major highways, including Alachua County.

On Thursday evening, Elayna and Bill Cross of Fort Lauderdale were among a steady stream of guests checking into the Red Roof Inn just off Interstate 75.

The Crosses are making their way home after spending the holiday with relatives in Louisiana.

"It's a good stopping point just before dark," Elayna Cross said.

The cost of her overnight stay will contribute to the amount of money collected from the county's "bed tax," a 3 percent tax hotel guests pay on each room. Revenue from the tax shot up about 6 percent in 2002, indicating more people spent the night in area hotels.

The local increase follows recent statewide trends showing the percentage of visitors entering Florida by car, bus or train exceeded those arriving by airplane.

"With the airlines falling apart, a lot of people are hopping in the car and heading for Disney," said Morgan Attwood, general manager of Comfort Inn West, one of the newest hotels at Archer Road and Interstate 75. "We're getting 30 to 40 rooms a night off the highway."

In addition to drive-through traffic, Alachua County's strong showing can be attributed to a diverse tourism market, primarily propelled by University of Florida sporting events and conventions and then accented by a growing interest in the area's nature-based attractions, said Roland Loog, director of the county's Visitors and Convention Bureau.

While UF had an extra home football game, Loog said he was particularly surprised by the significant gain seen in the bed tax.

According to state law, the money can be used only for tourism development.

"It's huge," Loog said.

The state has struggled to overcome considerable losses following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when tourism dropped 19 percent, costing the state millions.

Regions dependent on air travelers, such as Miami and Orlando, are suffering from instability in the airline industry, which has meant fewer planes flying compared with a year ago, said Tom Flanigan, a spokesman for Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing corporation.

Less air service is having the greatest impact on international travelers coming to Florida from Europe and many Latin American nations.

"Obviously, you can't drive from London to Gainesville," Flanigan said.

Nonetheless, an increase in travelers opting to drive rather than fly is spurring a rebound in tourism.

Electronic counters at four welcome centers near the state line - Interstate 75, I-95, U.S. 231 in the Panhandle and I-10 - show the number of visitors has increased 10 percent in the final two months of the year.

Meanwhile, the Air Transport Association of America reported last month that passenger traffic nationwide in November was down 14 percent compared with 2000. The decline shows a continued weakness in demand for air travel.

While year-end results aren't yet available, Florida officials are optimistic that the holiday travel rush - even if by car - could mean tourism levels meet or better those in 2001 when 69.8 million visitors came to Florida. The best year ever for Florida tourism was recorded in 2000. More than 72 million came to the state that year.

To help avoid another traumatic hit to the state's $50 billion hospitality industry, the Legislature authorized the expenditure of $20 million on advertising.

The ads, first geared to residents in the state and in the Southeast and then to those in large cities, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia, targeted people living in what is considered Florida's "drive market."

"If people weren't flying, there was no reason to concentrate advertising on San Francisco," Flanigan said.

Private industry, in turn, came up with more than $25 million to combine with the state's appropriation to create what the state claims is the largest tourism recovery campaign in Florida history.

Increased exposure may be what's driving a host of guests staying in Alachua County from out-of-state places.

Ron Gromoll, general manager at the Best Western Gateway Grand, said that while most of the people staying at his hotel at NW 39th Avenue and I-75 come in for conferences, lately many of them have come from Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and other Midwestern states.

The surge in traffic is helping him do better than sister properties owned by the same management company in Key West and Tampa, for example, although Gromoll said their numbers, overall, are down from last year.

"We're doing better than most other areas," Gromoll said.

"Some parts of Florida still haven't recouped. They are experiencing some bad shortfalls."

Immune from swings?

If Glenda and Gary Trusner of Decatur, Ill., are any indication, Gainesville could be immune from those tourism swings. They are regular one-nighters in town stopping on their way to their Lakeland winter home.

Today they plan to head to the links at Haile Plantation for a quick round of golf with a friend.

"We've stayed here for three or four years," Glenda Trusner said, "we're snowbirds now."

Janine Young Sikes can be reached at (352) 337-0327 or sikesj@gvillesun.com.

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