By Rich Pollack
It is a Palm Beach County tourist season best defined by storms.
Snowstorms in the rest of the country, no storms to speak of in South Florida and the perfect storm of an improving economy plus pent-up demand and strong promotions all having come together to help break tourism records.
“At both our restaurants, this is the best season we’ve ever seen,” says Luke Therien, whose family has owned and operated the Banana Boat in Boynton Beach for 35 years and the nearby Prime Catch for 10 years. “We’re seeing a much higher traffic count.”
At local hotels, occupancy rates are booming, with guests booking earlier and staying longer.
In February for example, hotel occupancy in Palm Beach County reached 90 percent and at Crane’s Beachhouse, a boutique hotel in Delray Beach, February was as close to being sold out as you can get with a 98 percent occupancy rate, up from 87 percent last February.
“February occupancy was a record,” said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches, which is responsible for promoting tourism throughout the county.
Many of those visitors came by air, with Palm Beach International Airport seeing more than 1.1 million passengers flowing through its corridors, a 6.7 percent increase over the same period last year.
All of this translates to good news for local businesses, which depend on tourists to help bolster their winter sales.
The Boca Raton Resort and Club is having an outstanding season, according to Troy McLellan, president and CEO of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce.
“The success of the hotel in its group and leisure stays equates to success for our local retailers and restaurants,” he said. “And the hotel is having a phenomenal year.”
In Delray Beach, tourism-related businesses such as Delray Yacht Cruises, which offers Intracoastal sightseeing tours, have also benefited from the influx of visitors.
“It’s been a very busy season,” said Vice President Meghan Christian. “It’s been busier than last season.”
Much of the credit for the increase in visitors to South Florida can be given to Mother Nature. Just about everyone in the local hospitality industry points to the miserable winter in the Northeast and much of the rest of the county as the main reason tourists are flocking to the area.
But Peter Ricci, director of the hospitality management program at Florida Atlantic University, says other factors have also played a key role, including the rebounding economy, pent-up demand and a significant increase in tourism promotion at the state, county and local level.
“It’s like a perfect storm of several factors coming together,” he said.
Ricci says a commitment by the state and strong promotional efforts by county organizations such as Discover the Palm Beaches and the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative have also helped drive numbers up.
“There are people who used to come to Florida regularly but who might have been lured away to other places,” he said. “Now Florida [marketing] is in their face.”
Discover the Palm Beaches promoted the area in the Northeast and the Washington D.C. area through its “Winter in the Palm Beaches” campaign, which hit at about the same time as the bad weather up North.
In Delray Beach, one of the few local cities with its own organization focused specifically on tourism, the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative has been working closely with state and county groups to bring visitors to town.
At Crane’s Beachhouse, General Manager Cathy Balestriere sees the upswing in tourism continuing into the summer.
By early March, Crane’s had already booked 118 room nights for June compared to just eight at the same time last year.