Visit Sarasota study reveals cautious optimism for summer/fall vacation travel

By Jane Bartnett, Siesta Sand

   Summer vacation days are almost here.  After Covid-19 turned Siesta Key’s tourist industry upside down (after a very successful winter season), what does the short-term future hold for area businesses and tourism on The Key?  What are potential visitors to Siesta Key and Sarasota County considering? 

   To get some answers to these pressing question, Visit Sarasota County, the county’s official tourism marketing entity, commissioned the Tallahassee, FL,  based research firm, Downs & St. Germain Research, to conduct a professional Consumer Sentiment Study.  Designed to gauge the short-term impact of Covid-19 on vacationers and travelers who may be planning trips to the Sarasota County and Siesta Key areas, the researchers conducted the first of four surveys during the week of April 21, 2020.  The first study, in a series of four, was purposely completed prior to Governor DeSantis announcement of Florida’s re-opening.  Virginia Haley, the president of Visit Sarasota called the Consumer Sentiment Study, “a baseline view of how vacationers and travelers are feeling about their 2020 travel plans.”

   The study results show that hope is on the horizon. Many tourists from near and far are looking ahead to mid to late summer/fall vacations,  and to enjoying the peaceful beauty of Siesta Key beaches and Sarasota County.

   The study, that was specific to Sarasota and Lee Counties, surveyed adult  “vacation decision makers” with income over $75,000 a year.  A total of 350 residents of Atlanta, Chicago, the Tampa Bay area, the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale region, West Palm Beach, Orlando, and the New York City area, were surveyed.  There was an equal division of men and women as well as those with and without children.  All had vacationed at paid accommodations in 2019 and all were deemed “key-decision makers.”

   Safety, the respondents overwhelmingly reported, was their primary concern. “Anything that local businesses can do to enhance the safety of their guests will benefit their businesses,” Haley stated.

   Key short-term and general take-aways from the Visit Sarasota Consumer Sentiment Study survey showed that:

  • When making travel plans, travelers put their trust in The Center for Disease Control (CDC)
  • As of late April 2020, the majority of vacationers did not feel safe in making short-term travel plans
  • When large attractions, restaurants and retail operations open, consumers believe that it will be safe to travel

Future travel and vacation plans show more encouraging news:

  • Beaches and other uncrowded areas that visitors can drive to are their most popular destination picks
  • Travelers want to go to Siesta Key and other Southwest Florida beaches when travel is “deemed safe again”
  • A majority plan to take a vacation or “get-away” within a month of Covid-19’s passing
  • Traveling in July/Mid-summer will be safe, said the majority
  • A majority (50% surveyed) are planning a late summer, or early fall trip
  • Vacationers are most comfortable about going to the beach, as opposed to cruising, attending a major sport event or a large concert.

   Vacationers want to know what Siesta Key businesses and Sarasota County groups are doing to create safe environments.  “Prioritizing safety is the number one message consumers say will motivate them to travel again,” reported the research firm’s principal, Joseph St. Germain.  Travelers also “want to hear from destinations during the Covid-19 crisis about what they’re doing to help others,” he said.

   As vacationers cautiously make get-away plans, they are more likely to view travel videos on social media sites and on magazine and newspaper websites than they are to read travel magazines.  A full 61% of those responding said that destination websites are their top choice for trip planning.  The findings for this study are consistent with finding for other markets around the country, the study’s author, St. Germain noted. 

   As Siesta Key businesses and Florida as a whole begins the gradual process of getting back to business, Visit Sarasota’s president Haley said that there is “pent-up demand.”  Echoing her sentiment, St. Germain sounded his own cautiously optimistic voice for the future noting: “Once the leisure traveler begins going out to restaurants, they’re starting to dip their toes back into travel.”