Remote working, learning may be fueling uptick in vacationers

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DESTIN — What the COVID-19 pandemic took away, it's now — in a way — giving back, as condominium and hotel bookings are up substantially in Walton and Okaloosa counties for the last months of this year as compared to the last months of 2019.

"We certainly are seeing an uptick in visitation," said David Demarest, director of communications for the South Walton Tourist Development Council. "If it seems busier this year (than last year at this time) that's not your imagination. ... A lot of (local) people last week thought it was fall break already, but it's not fall break." 

More (April 2020):CORONAVIRUS: Walton County advising potential visitors of ‘new normal’ in beach vacations

Demarest suggested the increase "could very well be a rebound from the COVID prohibitions."

Tourists walk across Scenic Gulf Drive from the Majestic Sun Resort Condominiums in Miramar Beach.  Tourism officials and rental operators are reporting more bookings for the last three months of the year.

Next door in Okaloosa County, Jennifer Adams, director of the county's Tourist Development Department, said, "We're still booking strong through Thanksgiving." 

Across Florida, the prohibitions noted by Demarest included a ban on short-term vacation rentals — condominiums, as opposed to hotels, which were not covered by the ban —  instituted by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 27 and not lifted until May 18. Additionally, limitations on bars and restaurants, and shelter-in-place rules instituted in various locations across the country also helped to limit early vacation season travel to Florida.

At the time of the short-term vacation rental ban, a number of rental operators indicated that many people who had reservations were opting to reschedule their vacations for later in the year. That, in turn, fueled speculation that both the rental operators and operators of tourist-oriented businesses could claw back at least some of the losses from the traditional tourist season.

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In South Walton County, hotel and condominium bookings are up 7 percent from last year for the period between now and Christmas, based on forward-looking numbers for KeyData, a top provider of data on vacation rentals, according to Demarest.

Demarest also noted that the 7 percent increase comes as the number of accommodations also has increased from last year, meaning that in terms of numbers, there will be a more than 7 percent increase in visitors for the last months of this year.

People enjoy the water and beach along Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar Beach.

In Okaloosa County, the last part of September saw a 20 percent increase in occupancy rates over the same time last year, according to Adams.

Signs of increased visitation to the area began to emerge in July, when tourist development taxes posted a 9 percent increase over the same month last year, she added.

Routinely, Adams explained, the county would see a drop in those revenues in July, as the start of the school year loomed for Atlanta and other cities across the Southeast for which Destin, Okaloosa Island and other area communities are prime vacation options.

The current tourism numbers, according to Adams and Demarest, are an indication that families — with children attending school remotely via digital links and parents working digitally from home as part of the public health efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 — now have more flexibility as to when they can go on vacation.

"If you look at our busiest times, it follows the school calendar, and historically always has," Demarest said. 

Destiny Beach Villas are among many rental choices along Scenic Highway 98 in Destin. Remote working and schooling is helping fuel an increase in bookings,  local tourism officials and rental operators believe.

Now, in light of the switch to remote learning and remote working, area hotels are beginning to market themselves specifically to that segment of the market, according to Adams.

For instance, The Island hotel complex on Okaloosa Island has converted some of its conference space into work spaces where parents can remotely attend to their job responsibilities and children can be in touch digitally with their academic instruction back home, she said.

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Okaloosa County itself will steer some of its marketing efforts for the latter part of the year toward that dynamic, Adams noted, promoting the idea that the area can be a new venue for family holiday celebrations.

"I do think we'll have more holiday visitation," she said.

For the moment, though, "having July be up 9 percent is really good news," Adams said.

But she cautioned that the increased visitation projected for now through the end of the year won't help businesses come back completely from the earlier losses.

"We're not going to make up for the loss," she said. "We lost our critical spring break. We lost 10 weeks of prime visitation."

But, "From those (businesses) that I've talked to, it's (going to be) less of a loss than they have thought," she added. "It would be wonderful if we could break even, but it's very difficult."

Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, which has short-term rentals in both counties, is among the companies bouncing back from the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place earlier in the year.

Reservations made in September for future stays are up 68 percent from the same month last year, said Jeanne Dailey, the company's founder, CEO and sole owner. Also, occupancy rates for September were up 34%, are up 31% for October and up 14% for November, she added.

"This fall is the most successful we've ever had," Dailey said, although she did take care to note that some of the increase in business was the result of Hurricane Sally, which brought people in from areas affected by the storm.

Newman-Daily also is using the remote working and schooling that is part of the COVID-19 response to promote this area as an attractive place to stay outside of the traditional tourist season, Dailey said.

"People are no longer beholden to a school schedule," she said. "We're doing a lot of promotion of 'Work from the beach.'"     

Even the area's smaller short-term vacation rental operators, like White Sand Vacation Rentals, which has a small number of properties in Destin, are expecting to get back some, or maybe all, of the revenue lost to COVID-19 restrictions

"I believe so," Sarah Ladner, who operates White Sand Vacation Rentals with her husband, Trevor, said Wednesday when asked whether they expected to recoup all or part of the revenue lost.

"We always seem to recuperate" from adverse business impacts, Ladner added.

"The amount of calls we're getting for this whole year has been increased," she said, adding that she believes the trend toward remote learning and working has contributed to that.

"We're more of a 'mom and pop' (rental operation) and we have always stayed busy," she continued, attributing that to the rental company's "small-business, customer-service mentality."

And in the end, whether or not White Sand recovers revenue lost to COVID-19 restrictions isn't something that weighs heavily on her.

"I honestly don't really worry about that," Lander said. "We're blessed no matter what."