Historic City News reported last year when the St Johns County Commission voted to fully fund the county’s tourism marketing budget — in spite of insufficient bed tax collections.
According to Richard Goldman, CEO, and president of the St Johns County Visitors and Convention Bureau, the cost of “destination marketing” is normally funded by the Tourist Development Tax. Clearly, the industry was hurting, but Goldman told commissioners that the taxpayer-financed risk has paid off. He says tourism has “roared back” at the end of 2020 and throughout 2021.
“The explanation for this (rebound) really has a great deal to do with the fact that the County Commission funded us in 2020,” Goldman said in a recent report by Stuart Korfhage in the Jacksonville Business Journal. “When everybody else had shut everything down, they funded us so that we could leverage what St Johns County has going for us.”
The St Johns County Visitors and Convention Bureau is the agency tasked with marketing the area to visitors. Goldman said having a full marketing budget allowed his agency to promote many outdoor activities and other leisure options that aren’t as tightly packed as something like a theme park or cruise. It was a risk that paid off, Goldman says because more and more travelers feel safe visiting the First Coast despite the dangers of the pandemic.
“That we could invite people to come for those things that they were looking for at a time when the competition was silent, and the cruise lines weren’t running,” Goldman says, “that head start we had has really carried us through 2021.”
Because of the shutdowns in 2020, it was almost a guarantee that the hospitality sector would do better in 2021. However, Goldman said the recovery so far has been stunning.
“Most of our lodging properties are exceeding the records that they broke in 2019,” according to Goldman. “Everybody is doing better, even the attractions that we poll every month. They’ve been having to make up for time lost, but they’re way ahead of last year and some of them have even exceeded 2019 figures. So that’s really strong.”
Travelers have focused on domestic travel since the start of the pandemic and Goldman speculates that St Augustine stands out in part because of its Old-World vibe. Goldman said that has really helped us. He believes the VCB has communicated our destination to feel “like a world away”, making Ponte Vedra, or Historic City, or the beaches feel “a little bit like international travel”.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) added that the last few days of December are going to be good for the tourism industry. Florida figures show a strong rebound in travelers compared to the 2020 year-end holiday period. More than 5.9 million are forecast to travel between December 23rd and January 2nd. Although that’s 4.5% fewer travelers than the record high set in 2019, it’s still 1.5 million (35%) more than last year.
It hasn’t just been St Johns County that has felt the recovery. Lodging stats from Jacksonville were also strong for the last two weeks of November. Thanksgiving week saw more demand and a higher average rate than the same week in 2018, 2019, and 2020. Occupancy was at 63.3%, nearly 26% higher than the same week in 2020.
“We have every reason to be optimistic about the future,” Goldman said.