With a charge of attracting visitors and continuing as the top economic engine in the county, recent months have been difficult at the Gulf County Tourist Development Council.
April will end up a lost month, revenue-wise, after a down March interrupted a positive fiscal year.
And with people, visitors, at the center of its mission, the TDC must ride a delicate wave toward an economic reopening of the county and its number one attraction, the beaches.
“It is a double-edged sword because of what is going on,” said TDC executive director Kelli Godwin. “I think because of Hurricane Michael we are a little more flexible and prepared.
“But it has been hard. At the heart of the service industry is taking care of people. We are tourism-development related but you can’t have people coming if the community isn’t safe to come to.”
Recent opening of beaches and boat ramps will help.
Amazingly, the TDC was running a positive tab before coronavirus began invading the headlines and broadcasts in February.
In all but one month of the fiscal year which began Oct. 1, 2019, revenue from bed taxes was up compared to the prior year.
Even more critically and importantly, Godwin said, was that collections in all but one month were also over collections in the same month in the 2017-2018 fiscal year; the last fiscal year pre-Michael.
“We were still up compared to those years and that was a positive sign,” Godwin said. “Then, everything started to go haywire.
“The good early months at least gives us a little bit of cushion.”
Through March, the most recent numbers available, bed tax revenue for the year was up 19 percent, or $86,748.
March was down 11 percent compared to the prior year.
With vacation rentals banned during much of the month of April, and continuing into May, that positive ledger will not likely last.
Currently in the first phase of the governor’s multi-phase plan for re-opening the Florida economy, Gulf is poised to recover its tourism levels relatively quickly, Godwin said.
“I feel we are going to come out of this strong and recover fairly quickly,” she said.
And if restrictions are lifted by Memorial Day, there is still a full summer, when local businesses recoup most of their revenue, ahead, Godwin said.
Working in the county’s favor is that it is a drive-to destination; the return of normal air travel will have less impact than with other markets.
In addition, Godwin noted, most rental units in the county are single-family units, enhancing adherence to social distancing guidelines.
The loyalty factor is also strong in Gulf County, as evidenced after Hurricane Michael when many long-time visitors returned if only to help with the recovery.
“I think people will remember us and want to come back,” Godwin said.
Once the state reaches the second phase of re-opening, or once the prohibition on vacation rentals is lifted, the TDC will focus on marketing to in-state travelers, broadening out as restrictions in other areas of the country are further lifted.
“We are already in that transition phase,” Godwin said, noting TDC staff just returned to the Welcome Center last week.
The next marketing campaign will surround the concept of “Wade In” as the country, state and county slowly moves toward a post-pandemic future.
Godwin said the idea is “wade in together” into life after COVID-19.
“It will be a softer approach, like wading into water, let’s just wade into this,” Godwin said.