Florida’s mass scale tourism, which profits off packing people into beaches, theme parks, cruise ships and airports, means the Sunshine State is among the hardest hit by a contagious virus that thrives on the social connections and personal contacts Sunshine State travel produces.
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Half-filled arenas. Mobile payment systems. And plexiglass barriers everywhere.
Experts are starting to sketch the broad strokes of tourism’s future in Florida.
The state’s No. 1 industry shut down nearly overnight in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Florida’s heavy emphasis on mass scale tourism, which profits off packing people into beaches, theme parks, cruise ships and airports, means the Sunshine State is among the hardest hit by a contagious virus that thrives on the social connections and personal contacts Sunshine State travel produces.
Nationwide, the pandemic will create $1.2 trillion in economic losses this year. About $520 billion are in direct travel spending, meaning travel and tourism has taken the brunt of the virus.
Florida is the sixth-hardest hit state by COVID-19’s impact on tourism, according to a study by WalletHub. And the tourism and retail industries have the most jobs at-risk when it comes to dealing with the public, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
In Palm Beach County, tourism is the county’s second largest industry, second only to agriculture.
Whenever government leaders fully relax restrictions on social gatherings, experts agree tourism will rebound, but in a much different way.
“We will re-emerge as a completely different industry than we were,” said Peter Ricci, director of the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Modifications for social distancing, face masks, and the heavy use of technology likely are among the changes in place for an indefinite period of time, creating constant reminders that life is different.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Re-Open Florida Task Force has been meeting this week to map a way forward for businesses to resume. This includes hotels, restaurants, theme parks, sporting venues and retailers that depend on Florida’s booming tourism industry. The recommendations are slated to be released next week.
Separately, Palm Beach County tourism leaders also have been working to develop a strategy for reinvigorating the county’s tourism industry. Leisure travelers will be targeted first, then business and convention visitors.
The plan starts with “staycations,” people with cabin fever choosing to leave their homes to stay at hotels nearby, or at least visit area attractions. Tourism marketing would then shift to marketing the county as a destination reachable by automobile, rather than the confined space of an airplane.
Palm Beach County is in a good position for this approach, leaders said.
Research shows the first trips people will want to make are to beaches and smaller cities with plenty of space, said Jorge Pesquera, president and chief executive of Discover the Palm Beaches, Palm Beach County’s tourism marketing arm.
“I think the combination of the drive market, and pent-up demand from people who typically travel internationally, will help us recover,” Pesquera said.
But after weeks spent hiding from the virus inside their homes, venturing outside only for exercise or essential shopping, will people go out and possibly risk their health just to have fun?
During a tourism video conference on Thursday, hoteliers expressed confidence that people would flock to destinations. But Pesquera urged caution. “We have to bring trust and confidence that we are safe,” he said.
The decision to travel and socialize is reliant on an individual’s feelings about risk, one psychologist said.
“As humans, we really want control,” said Dr. Kayla Thayer, assistant professor and director of Nova Southeastern University’s Anxiety Treatment Center. “But life is unpredictable. We get thrown curve balls, and this pandemic is a giant curve ball.”
Therefore the decision to go out or travel “is very much a personal choice,” Thayer said.
Unfortunately, reminders of the pandemic will be everywhere, with masks and social distancing a daily part of society.
“People will have to understand it’s for their own protection,” said James Riordan, director of the MBA in Sport Management program at Florida Atlantic University and a longtime leader in public facilities management.
Riordan recalled that people initially recoiled but then gradually accepted enhanced security screenings at airports, stadiums and other mass-gathering locations following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Riordan is confident most people over time will become comfortable with the safety measures needed to cope with the pandemic, too.
Florida’s tourism trajectory
Ever since Henry Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railway more than 100 years ago, visitors have been trekking to this southern peninsula to take in the beaches and sea breezes.
Thanks in part to Palm Beach County’s grand hotels, such as the Boca Raton Resort & Club, built in 1926, and The Breakers Resort, built in 1925, Palm Beach County turned from backwater to coveted destination vacation, touching off decades of boom-bust cycles in real estate by part-time and later permanent residents.
The 2008 recession hit the state’s residential real estate market particularly hard. State leaders tried to diversify the economy after the recession, and during the past decade, they attracted a variety of industries, including tech companies and research facilities. A major investment was bringing Scripps Research Institute to Jupiter in 2009.
But the state also went big into tourism, with former Gov. Rick Scott being a strong proponent, FAU’s Ricci said.
By 2018, after years spent marketing the state, Florida’s tourism industry attracted 127 million visitors, creating more than 1.5 million jobs that year, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm.
As the tourism industry grew, more attractions were created, including new rides, resorts and restaurants in Orlando, and more cruise ships leaving ports in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
In Palm Beach County, tourism blossomed, too.
Palm Beach County landed its second spring training stadium, the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, which opened in 2017 in West Palm Beach.
Delray Beach became everyone’s favorite small-town destination and was lauded on numerous travel websites, triggering the construction of new hotels such as Hyatt Place, Aloft and Courtyard by Marriott.
In 2019, the Boca Raton Resort & Club sold for nearly half a billion dollars to a company owned by computer maker Michael Dell.
In West Palm Beach, the 2016 opening of the Hilton Hotel next to the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach galvanized the convention business. County leaders began heavily courting business and group events.
The convention business was so strong that in March, county tourism leaders were set to hear a presentation on how to expand the convention center.
Restaurants and bars opened and expanded to handle the tourism, which accounts for 40 percent of business, according to Discover the Palm Beaches.
Steady tourism growth also spurred demand for residential real estate by visitors, especially retiring Baby Boomers from the Northeast. Charmed by the state’s weather and its growing roster of cultural destinations and restaurants, retirees began accelerating their movement south from high-tax states elsewhere.
The migration received a boost following the 2017 tax law, when financial honchos who had vacationed in Palm Beach County began fleeing the Northeast’s taxes and moved their businesses and residences to Florida.
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One month during the past two years captured the tourism highs in Palm Beach County.
The record was March 2019, with $7.89 million in bed taxes collected, according to Discover the Palm Beaches. The second highest month: February 2020, with $7.78 million collected.
Tourism was on such a tear that earlier this year that not one but two boutique hotels were set to open in West Palm Beach, ushering in a new wave of luxury lodging downtown.
The Ben, a Marriott Autograph Hotel with chic, 1920s-era interiors, opened on Feb. 13. Happy days were here again, briefly, at The Ben’s rooftop bar, which featured soaring views of the Intracoastal Waterway and Palm Beach.
The Canopy West Palm Beach by Hilton, built with an eye on the growing convention center business, was set to throw open its doors on March 26. But the Canopy was stopped cold by COVID-19 in mid-March.
It still has not opened.
Tourism on hold
As a result of the pandemic, hotel occupancy in Palm Beach County plummeted, falling 77 percent so far in April, Pesquera said.
In Palm Beach County, some hotels, such as The Breakers Resort on Palm Beach, closed temporarily. Countywide, about 20 percent of 17,500 rooms are shuttered, with the rest available only to essential lodgers such as health care workers.
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Traffic at Palm Beach International Airport virtually ceased, prompting Washington to provide a $37 million grant to keep the airport afloat for now. In mid-March, PBIA had 102 daily departures scheduled. But during two days last week, PBIA averaged fewer than 20 departures a day, said Laura Beebe, Palm Beach County director of airports.
The timing couldn’t be worse: March and April still are considered part of the county’s tourist season.
The tourism shutdown threw thousands of people out of work. The Waterstone Resort & Marina in Boca Raton laid off 111 workers, according to state records. Even Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach club and hotel owned by President Donald Trump, temporarily laid off 153 workers.
The downturn will have long-lasting effects, FAU’s Ricci said.
According to the Florida Chamber, 79 percent of general revenues come from general use and sales taxes. And 20 percent of tax receipts come from tourism.
“Where you’re really going to see the hurt is in 2021, in the next legislative session,” Ricci said.
“Next year when we don’t have that money, you will start hearing people say we shouldn’t have all our eggs in tourism,” Ricci said. “But it’s an argument that ebbs and flows all the time, and there’s no right answer because tourism is so huge and vital to Florida’s economy. There’s no mass industry that could replace it instantly.”
Consequently, bringing the tourism industry back means reviving the fortunes of the state, and the county.
How does tourism return?
Pesquera believes Palm Beach County’s beaches, parks and other outdoor, wide-open spaces will lure visitors back to the county.
The industry’s reactivation will take several months, but he expects to start seeing progress by late summer.
He also singled out Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee as an ideal trip outside the home. Guests driving from the safety of their own cars can see 1,000 animals through the 600-acre park.
Tourism leaders are watching Jacksonville, which on April 17 opened its beaches. The first day’s rush led to crowded beaches when residents, cooped-up in their homes for weeks, ventured out.
But Mayor Lenny Curry said that since that first day, “it’s really thinned out.”
Restrictions have been important to maintain social distancing and restrict large gatherings, Curry said.
Public parking is not open, so only people close to the beach can visit. Also, beach access is restricted to five hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. Walking or jogging on the beach is allowed, but towels, blankets and coolers are forbidden.
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State officials are examining Florida’s parks to see which ones can open, based on their ability to allow visitors to spread out over a large area. Amenities such as restrooms or large parking lots may be closed initially, said Noah Valenstein, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Thayer said a gradual approach to resuming activities is a wise approach. “I really like the idea of easing into things,” she said.
If people venture out to a park to meet a friend, she suggested people note how they feel during and after the outing. “It shouldn’t be a mindless effort, where you’re on autopilot,” Thayer said. “It should be a very intentional thing.”
A successful experience will encourage other experiences, Thayer said.
Ricci said if only a few new cases pop up as people venture out, the public will start to feel comfortable, even if they dine in restaurants with seating separated by plexiglass.
However, if there’s a big increase in COVID-19 cases, “people will cower down and be much more hesitant” to travel or go out again, Ricci said.
What will pandemic safety measures look like?
The pressure on business owners to make guests and workers feel safe will be enormous.
At hotels, social distance guidelines will rule, with six-foot spacing where possible, experts said. Plexiglass may be installed to create a barrier between front desk workers and guests, FAU’s Ricci said. It may also be installed in restaurants between seats.
During an April 23 tourism video conference, John Tolbert, president and managing director of the Boca Raton Resort & Club, said masks are going to be part of the uniform going forward.
Food buffets will probably go away indefinitely, Tolbert said. And the movement to get rid of disposable straws may be flipped, with single-use straws back in vogue, he added.
Theme parks also are weighing changes.
John Sprouls, chief executive of Universal Orlando Resort, is on the state’s Re-Open Task Force Industry Working Group on tourism.
During a recent meeting, Sprouls said the theme park complex may require face coverings for employees and encourage the same for guests.
Guests will likely see mobile food ordering and payment to limit contact with workers.
Lines at rides may become “virtual,” with people using technology developed for Universal’s Volcano Bay water park that summons guests when they are eligible to get on a ride, instead of having them standing in lines next to one another, Sprouls said.
The parks will likely limit attendance throughout the day, although as confidence rises, attendance could increase, he said. Extra cleaning of rides and common areas will take place not only overnight but periodically during the day, he said.
The Los Angeles Times reported that theme park fans say they have uncovered a plan, presumably leaked by a Disney employee, for allowing guests to return to Disney World.
The plan would reopen the park with limited capacity, no parades, no castle shows, no firework displays and health checks performed at every security checkpoint. In addition, the protocol would require guests to sign a form, clearing Disney of any liability for potential exposure to the novel coronavirus, the Times reported.
In an interview with Barron’s, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger said vaguely that parks would require “more scrutiny, more restrictions” so customers would feel safe to return. He suggested the idea of taking the temperature of each visitor before allowing entrance.
Those measures may not be enough to eliminate concerns.
“I don’t want to touch a grab bar on Space Mountain when I don’t know who’s been on it,” Ricci said.
Business conferences still are planned for Palm Beach County’s convention bureau. But they have been pushed back a few months, and convention planners are thinking of using larger ballrooms to hold smaller meetings in order to allow greater space between guests, Pesquera said.
There also is industry discussion of removing middle seats from airplanes, he added.
As for sporting events, they, too, are looking for a way forward.
Outdoor events such as the PGA Tour plan to return in July, with no fans and plenty of rules. Len Brown, PGA Tour chief legal officer, said on a tourism task force call that testing will be a key element going forward.
Players likely will be tested before they arrive to play, when they arrive and during the tournament, Brown said.
Players will be sequestered at the same hotel as their caddies and will be prohibited from venturing away from this “safe zone.” They likely will have to pull their own golf clubs so their caddies do not touch them. And common areas, such as ball-rinsing stations, will be banned.
Indoor sporting events may be harder to bring back.
Matthew Caldwell, president and chief executive of the Florida Panthers Hockey Club, explained the challenges during a recent task force meeting.
“Not only do you have mass gatherings at an arena, but you have to start at a specific time,” Caldwell said. The business is all about packing people together, he said, and encouraging them to be loud and close to the sport.
Games will resume without fans, but when fans do return, the number of fans allowed into the rink may be pared, and seating may be spaced far apart. Food and beverage may become cashless. But social distancing may prove tough because people rush to buy food in between periods of play, he said.
FAU’s Riordan urged caution when it comes to crowds of people gathered together to watch sports. He noted that the spread of coronavirus in Europe has been linked to a February soccer match in Milan, Italy, between teams from Italy and Spain.
“You have one major event and thousands of people get (the virus), and that will put the scare back into some people, and you are right back at square one,” Riordan said.
As for the cruise industry, Ricci expects that business to take the longest time to recover. When it does, people taking a chance on a cruise may encounter a much less crowded ship, with passengers limited to being in every third cabin, for instance.
But he’s still not sure how the rest of the ship can be managed.
“All the main areas on a cruise ship are socially congested,” Ricci said. “It’s like being at a big convention, with people side by side. That concerns me a lot.”
Pesquera said tourism leaders in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties could target would-be cruisers by creating South Florida-centric itineraries.
These itineraries could feature a range of activities, including boat tours that take off from Boynton Beach or Riviera Beach marinas, he said.
Despite all these efforts, some people may never return to previous activities until there is a vaccine.
A Seton Hall University poll found 72 percent of sports fans say they won’t attend an event without a COVID-19 vaccine.
During a tourism task force meeting on Thursday, A.J. de Moya, vice president and general manager of The de Moya Group, Inc. construction company, encouraged efforts to get businesses moving again.
He said he wants to allay what he said was “fear and hysteria” about COVID-19 so employment doesn’t slump the way it did after the 2008 crash.
Maybe the mission starts at home.
He relayed a conversation he had last weekend with his wife. He told her the family should plan on going to Disney World when it reopens because crowds will be very light.
“She said, ‘We’re not going back to Disney World any time soon,’ ” Moya recalled.
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