Despite a slow economy, tourism numbers in the Pensacola Bay Area were the second-highest in history. From Oct. 1, 2008 to Sept. 30, 2009, overnight visitors to the area generated $133 million in lodging revenue.
2007-08 was a record year for the Pensacola Bay Area tourism industry with lodging revenue exceeding $138 million. While this year’s lodging revenue was down 3 percent or $5 million from last year, it was slightly up from the 2006-07 year which yielded $132 million, and significantly better than the national average.
Smith Travel Research reports the U.S. travel industry is down 18.3 percent year-to-date through September.
“The tourism industry performed extremely well this year, especially considering the challenges in the national economy,” said Ed Schroeder, vice president of tourism for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “Our hotels lowered their average daily rates, but those discounts brought in more overnight visitors which brought occupancy rates up.”
“National travel research indicates that in a slow economy, families don’t give up their vacations, but instead stay closer to home,” added Schroeder. “We focused our marketing efforts on key drive markets, touting Pensacola as a family-friendly destination with free events and attractions. That strategy paid off.”
Pensacola’s 450th anniversary was another factor in drawing visitors. Special events included a visit from the king and queen of Spain, renowned artist Miguel Zapata, the Juan Sebastian de Elcano tall ship and Spanish winemakers. Nearly 850 stories about the anniversary were generated in the local, regional and national media, including USA Today, Smithsonian and MSNBC.
Additionally, the CVB launched a Pensacola Celebrity Chefs program to raise awareness of the area’s culinary offerings with special events, a Web site and promotional materials. All four events sold out, and the program received a state-wide public relations award from VISIT FLORIDA.
These marketing and communications efforts helped generate more leads. The number of inquiries about vacations to the Pensacola Bay Area increased 20 percent over last year.
Area attractions also saw a major increase in visitors. In 2009, visitation increased at Historic Pensacola Village by 41.3 percent, at the National Naval Aviation Museum by 15.2 percent and at Big Lagoon State Park by 2.6 percent. Additionally, Fort Pickens experienced an overwhelming number of visitors since re-opening in May. From May to October, nearly 1 million visitors went through Fort Pickens gate.
The number of walk-ins to the I-10 Welcome Center and the Pensacola Bay Area Visitor Information Center increased 16 percent and 3 percent respectively. While traffic through the Pensacola Beach Toll Bridge increased 5.4 percent, visitation to the Pensacola Beach Visitor Information Center was down 10.2 percent. On Perdido Key, traffic to the visitor center increased 45.4 percent, a significant change from last year.
Currently, 8,700 hotel and rental units in Escambia County collect lodging revenue. In 2010 and 2011, the Holiday Inn on Pensacola Beach, Hotel Indigo and Hilton Garden Inn will add 505 more hotel rooms to the county’s inventory, providing an opportunity for growth.
The tourism industry is among the top economic drivers in the county, following military and health care. The tourism industry represents a total economic impact of $1.2 billion and employs 18,000 local residents.