As winter fades into a chilly memory and with Spring Break behind us, Gulf County and the surrounding areas now look to the summer months when tourism is at its peak.
Local real estate brokers, rental agencies and the Tourist Development Council know that it’s time to kick into high gear as summer looms on the horizon.
The area has seen its share of ups and downs with numerous hurricanes and the oil spill which contributed to the housing market “crashing” here almost a year before the rest of the U.S.
So how are we doing?
After speaking with brokers, rentals and TDC representatives, it may or may not be a surprise to learn that Port St. Joe, Cape San Blas and Mexico Beach are currently experiencing some of the best tourism results of the past eight years.
Executive Director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council, Jennifer Jenkins, noted that traffic to the new TDC website was up 21 percent in March and 87 percent since February, signifying interest in the new brand and the area.
Advertising programs were run in Atlanta and Birmingham to increase awareness of Port St. Joe as a vacation destination and a targeted search engine marketing program is drove additional traffic to the online hub.
“The months of January and February showed increased bed-tax revenues,” said Jenkins.
Numbers from the TDC show a 25 percent increase for January and a 4.5 percent increase from February compared to 2012. Though May is traditionally a slow month for tourism, Jenkins notes that that summer bookings are pacing very strong.
“The TDC’s are doing a great job at selling the product and the BP money has put rentals back on track,” said Jay Rish, a broker with Gulf Coast Real Estate Group.
He and fellow broker Natalie Shoaf echoed the sentiments on growth and said the sale of single-family homes in Mexico Beach are up 100 percent from last year.
Cash sales are also up 100 percent and the amount of days that a house is on the market is down 39 percent.
“Numbers are up across the board,” said Shoaf. “The market is fabulous.”
Rish said that the current trend in the area is for sellers to get at least 90 percent of their asking price.
Shoaf noted that she had seen some homes receive up to seven offers.
While not quite the bidding war of the old days, she called it “a rare thing” to see over the past eight years.
Due to bad weather and an oil crisis, the housing market crashed in Gulf County a year before the rest of the country, but Shoaf was pleased to see things turning around.
People who were waiting to sell their homes are reportedly starting to put them on the market.
“The housing market is like the wild west,” said Rish regarding the difference in dynamics between resellers and investors looking to make some money on foreclosures or bank sales, “Each buyer is different.”
At one time the area had part-time residents from cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham who were forced to leave during the economic downturn.
Rish said that they’re starting to return.
One way Rish identified that the market was returning was that he began receiving phone calls from “scoundrels” looking to make some quick cash through real estate.
These buyers had been absent from the market for years.
“It’s been an uphill battle,” Shoaf said, “but it won’t be a buyer’s market for much longer.”
Rish said that demand in area homes is due to the pin-up value and new buyers who didn’t “get burned” when the market originally crashed.
“It’s a family-friendly area with plenty of eco-tourism and small-town coastal charm,” said Rish.
He explained that in his experience, tourists saw the real estate available during their visits and came back when it was time to buy. They took comfort in knowing that there wouldn’t be any high rises popping up.
“A lot more people are aware of the area,” said Shoaf. “Get it while you can.”
Things have also picked up on the Cape, said Denise Tarpley, manager at Cape San Blas Vacation Rentals. She mentioned that the company had its biggest winter to date and that summer bookings were “looking good” and that they had the best March in their 30-year history.
Adam White, Marketing Director for Gulf Coast Vacation Rentals said the rental company had a “tremendous year” so far with 90 percent occupancy over spring break and are already 95 percent booked for the Fourth of July weekend.
He credits the growth to the digital marketing strategies that the TDC pioneered for the area over the last year.
“We’re expecting a record high this year. Twenty-five to thirty percent of our references come from the TDC,” said White.
He cited the TDC’s social media workshops in helping locals work together to get visitors and new residents to Gulf Coast and explained that the TDC did a great job of spreading the word on the rental and real estate fronts.
White said their email correspondence regarding rentals was up 45 percent from the previous year, likely due to more guests “coming into the digital age.”
Though he appreciates the community being supportive of one another, White said that his favorite marketing strategy is to walk outside and take a photo of the beach and post it online.
Within moments of being seen, people begin to ask where it was taken and how they can get there. They are of course, directed to Gulf Coast Vacation Rentals.
“Guests want that ‘get-away-from-it-all feel,’” White said. “They want an escape to something low-key. We have the beaches for that.”
For any who may believe that Gulf Coast and the surrounding areas may still be feeling the effects of the economic downturn, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding and the areas has begun to ramp back up toward being a top vacation destination in Florida.
Shoaf may have said it best, “The Forgotten Coast is not as forgotten as it used to be.”