PANAMA CITY BEACH - With Spring Break only four weeks away, hotel reservations are down from last year, hoteliers say.
Claire Pease, who owns a company that rents out condos on the Beach and sits on the Bay Tourist Development Council (TDC), said spring breakers are not renting out rooms this year. Efforts to rent Beach condos to visitors attending religious events in a new convention center space in Laketown Wharf are not producing satisfactory results.
The RoadTrip - Spring Break 2017 Christian concerts have been scheduled for March 8, March 15 and March 22 at Laketown Wharf, which is putting the finishing touches on 28,000-square-foot of convention center space below its parking garage for the concerts. Pease said people who have been inquiring online about the events are ending up using Google to investigate Panama City Spring Break, and they don't like the negative news coverage of the celebration.
"Unfortunately, we put the words 'Spring Break' in the name of our Christian 'Spring Break,' " Pease said.
Julie Hilton, whose family company owns the Holiday Inn Resort and Days Inn Oceanfront, said reservations at the properties for March are way behind where they were last year at this time, but she didn't have an exact percentage. "We just have to accept what we cannot change," she said.
She said spring breakers no longer want to come here, and city and county officials who passed the Spring Break laws have "accomplished what they've intended."
"The city has effectively told students they are not welcome, and they've heard that," Hilton said.
When Spring Break was flourishing, she said, their properties had their highest average daily rate of the year in March. Now, rates have been substantially slashed for the month, and as slow as business was last March - bed-tax revenues were down 40 percent - this year is setting up to be worse because Easter was in March last year.
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To try and soften the expected blow on the local economy, TDC officials have organized new events at Aaron Bessant Park in March this year. The TDC has organized a new boat show at the park in March, a second annual Emerald Coast Cruizin' car show, and the wine and gourmet show "UNwineD.
David Demarest, a spokesman for the TDC, said tickets are selling fast for the UNwineD festival, scheduled for March 24-25, and he expects all 7,500 to be sold.
Dan Rowe, executive director of the TDC, said they are "excited about the work being done by our new ad agency, Lucky & Co., and their ability to target a specific market that can travel during that (spring) time of year."
"This is in addition to the special events," he said. "We're focused on creating compelling advertising that shows Panama City Beach as a dynamic destination that's moving forward into a very bright future."
But Sparky Sparkman, the owner of Spinnaker Beach Club, one of the popular Spring Break superclubs, said he's not pleased the TDC is helping to market events that are competing with private-sector businesses like his. Sparkman said the new Spring Break laws decimated his business last year and he's expecting no improvement this year. He is instructing his managers to hire the bare minimum employees.
Sparkman said after speaking with people in the know about Spring Break, he is convinced it is going to be a dud.
"We are right next door to Summit. They are reporting nothing" in reservations, he said. "That is the death knell to our March business."
Rebecca Edwards, the front desk manager for the Chateau Motel, said that motel used to fill up quickly with spring breakers. Last year, it was not even half full during March, she said. And reservations for March are down again this year, she said. Room rates have been reduced 20 to 25 percent.
"We are getting some families," she said. "Maybe at the last minute everyone starts booking. With families we're offering a free night stay if they stay a certain number of days."