The Space Coast’s tourism sector continues to show strength heading into the summer with some Port Canaveral-based cruise lines sailing at 100 percent occupancy, Brevard Zoo eying possible record-breaking attendance and Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex celebrating the opening of a new exhibit.
“It looks like it will be a very strong summer season,” said Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, citing reports of advance bookings. “If spring is any indication, this could be our best summer ever.”
But one concern tourism officials have is how soaring gas prices will affect the volume of visitors coming to the Space Coast. Also worrisome is the ongoing shortage of workers to fill openings at a range of tourism-related businesses.
Still, optimism holds.
Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik — whose city is in the heart of the Space Coast beachside tourism corridor — doesn’t see much that will stop the tourism influx.
“I don’t see it slowing down. As painful as $5 gas is, that’s the new reality,” Malik said. “At the end of the day, kids are off school. People are wanting to go places. And the beach is always a destination.”
Brevard has been on a roll lately. April was the 13th consecutive month that collection of Brevard County’s 5% tourist development tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals set a record for that month of the year. The tourist tax collection is a key economic indicator of how the tourism sector is doing, as it takes into account business volume at both hotels and vacation rentals.
“Our cruise numbers have been steadily growing, and, looking ahead, we’re anticipating this trend will continue,” said John Murray, chief executive officer at Port Canaveral, the world’s second-busiest cruise port, based on passenger volume.
“All of our cruise partners have been working hard to deliver high-quality guest experiences. We’re hearing bookings are strong, and it shows, with some of our home-ported ships sailing at or above 100 percent occupancy,” based on double-occupancy capacity of ship cabins.
“This could be one of the port’s strongest summer sailing seasons,” Murray said.
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Space Coast hotels, restaurants, retail shops and attractions benefit from Port Canaveral cruise passengers, many of whom stay in the area for one or more days before or after their cruises.
Port Canaveral will get an additional boost in July, when Disney Cruise Line’s new ship, the Disney Wish, will begin sailing from there.
Hotel revenue growing in Space Coast
Carlos Rodriguez Sr., chief executive officer of Driftwood Capital, which operates two hotels in Cocoa Beach and one in the beachside area of Melbourne, said tourism “has come roaring back to the Space Coast — and it’s only poised to get better, as corporate and group travel makes a full return. High gas prices haven’t put a noticeable dent in bookings yet. There’s still plenty of pent-up demand from both the business and leisure guest.”
Rodriguez said the revenue per available room — data that takes into account both room rental rates and occupancy levels — is rising at his company’s local hotels, and groups staying at the hotels also are spending more on food and beverages.
On the Space Coast, “the corporate market has been stronger than most markets, due to demand from space/tech industry,” Rodriguez said.
But hotelier Tom Hermansen is more cautious about the summer tourism outlook.
Hermansen said he has noticed somewhat of a softening of bookings at his hotels, after a strong start to the year.
Hermansen is a partner in five hotels in the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral area and is chairman of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council.
“The beginning of the year, we saw greater year-over-year increases over last year than we have in the last few months,” Hermansen said. “It was pretty strong year-over-year increases through March. April and May have been pretty flat, year-over-year. And the summer looks like it’s going to be strong. But we’ve kind of leveled off on a year-over-year basis.”
Room occupancy rates are flat to slightly up, Hermansen said, but that’s “mitigated by hotels’ ability to charge moderately higher rates,” which helps increase revenue.
Hermansen said, in the coming months, much will depend on how potential tourists react to higher gas prices, inflation and the overall economic outlook in general.
Brevard Zoo aiming for record
At the Brevard Zoo — a popular family-oriented attraction for tourists to the Space Coast — Executive Director Keith Winsten says this could be a record year for attendance.
Winsten said a record-breaking 482,592 people visited the zoo in 2021.
Zoo officials have budgeted conservatively for a projected 437,155 visitors this year. But Winsten said the nonprofit wildlife facility’s attendance numbers through April indicate that attendance is running about 30,000 ahead of projection.
Winsten hopes his Viera zoo reaches the 500,000-visitor plateau for the first time this year. He called the zoo “a half-day, reasonably priced option,” compared with the Orlando area’s theme parks and other tourist attractions.
“Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy. This is always a challenge. But we are cautiously optimistic,” Winsten said.
“I think the economy is not going to impact us through July, because people have already made their summer plans, and they’re excited to go out,” Winsten said. “I don’t know what the economy will do after that. I don’t know whether high costs of gasoline and other issues will be a positive, because more people drive to our market, or it will be a negative. But I think we’re going to have a strong tourism summer.”
Kennedy Space Center’s international appeal
This month, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex — Brevard County’s most popular paid tourist venue — opened its newest attraction, Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex. The 50,000-square-foot exhibit houses a showcase of NASA and commercial spacecraft hardware, including the Orion EFT-1 capsule and a SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster hanging suspended from the ceiling.
“We’re expecting a strong summer because of the interest in seeing a launch while you’re on vacation, and seeing the operations at Kennedy Space Center behind the gates,” KSC Visitor Complex spokesperson Rebecca Burgman said.
“We think that attraction will definitely drive attendance for a strong summer,” Burgman said.
The Visitor Complex has been “definitely actively trying to hire people” amid the labor shortage, but Burgman said the guest experience has not been affected.
She said executives at the facility are optimistic that international visitation will increase, now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lifted the U.S. requirement for overseas passengers to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding a plane.
“I think a lot of people locally don’t realize how many of our guests come internationally,” Burgman said. “We draw people from Orlando. If they came from the U.K. or Germany, typically, they have a day that they dedicate to come over to Kennedy Space Center. So we try and draw from that visitor base.”
Data compiled by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation, shows that Florida is strengthening as a destination for international visitors.
In 2021, Florida expanded its market share of overseas travelers to 44.6% of the nation’s total. This is the highest market share of overseas travelers that any state has ever achieved and twice as high as second-place New York, which had 22.3% of the market share in 2021. It also is more than 10 percentage points higher than the previous record of 34.1%, which was held by New York.
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Space Coast an ‘attractive, affordable option’
Michael Ayers is president and chief executive officer of the Melbourne Regional Chamber. He cited the KSC Visitor Complex as a potential catalyst for healthy tourism statistics this summer on the Space Coast, along with other local tourist draws.
“We have enough attractions around here — with the zoo and the Space Center and the cruises — that it’s still an attractive, affordable option for families. And I anticipate that we’ll continue to see those (strong) numbers continue throughout the rest of the year,” Ayers said.
That said, Ayers said the labor shortage remains a significant issue for many chamber businesses.
“It’s across the board, whether it’s hotels or restaurants or any sort of attraction to aerospace and professional talents,” Ayers said.
“You see it impacting places where maybe they’re limiting their seating. Maybe they’re limiting their hours. Maybe limiting their days open, because they’re burning out their employees. They don’t have enough staff. You walk into places, and you’re seeing a lot of new staff that you maybe haven’t seen before,” Ayers said.
“There are workers out there, but it’s just a matter of finding them and retaining them,” Ayers said. “Certainly, from what I’ve seen and heard, it’s a challenge across the board in all of our tourism-related industries,” he said.
Malik said the ongoing labor shortage is impacting city operations in Cocoa Beach.
“We’re competing with other cities, and everybody is trying to keep staff. We’re having trouble getting lifeguards at the city pool,” he said. “Kids want 20 bucks an hour. And any small increase is negated by the run-up of inflation. So it’s a quandary for all of us.”
Strength in numbers
Still, the numbers so far show strength in the tourism sector.
Cranis noted that the three strongest months ever for tourist tax collections in Brevard were three consecutive months this year — February ($2.30 million), March ($2.80 million) and April ($2.27 million).
For the first seven months of the county’s 2021-22 budget year that began Oct. 1, tourist tax revenue is up 59.7% from the same months in the previous year and up 29.7% from the amounts Cranis and his staff initially budgeted for this budget year.
And to keep that momentum going, the Office of Tourism is running a summer campaign that will cost in excess of $2 million, “which we expect will generate more than $66 million in visitor spending based on last year’s results,” Cranis said.
The multimedia campaign will include television (cable and streaming); digital (search advertising, online display advertising and social media advertising); streaming radio (including the Space Coast’s own station on Pandora); and billboards.
The campaign will run through Labor Day in Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa/St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach, as well as a number of out-of-state markets, including Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; New York; Philadelphia; and Washington, D.C.
Melbourne Regional Chamber CEO Ayers says he sees lots of positives ahead for the tourism sector.
“I’m looking into my crystal ball. I’m pretty bullish still on the market,” Ayers said. “The hotels have been going crazy in occupancy and average daily rate. And even though there are concerns with gas prices and inflation, I think we’re in a pretty good location market-wise to capture a lot of the drive market.”
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