Evolution and Revolution of Lodging On Florida’s First Coast

As society has adapted to what most would call a reorientation as a result of the global pandemic, members of the hospitality and tourism industries have taken notice. With COVID as a catalyst, people are adopting a carpe diem mindset, richly savoring each life experience, and rediscovering their passions, in many cases through travel.

At the ready, restaurants, attractions and lodging partners are adapting themselves to meet these new expectations.

The first few months of 2020 presented grave challenges for the hospitality and tourism industries as the pandemic swept the globe. As the economic engine of tourism began to restart, destinations like northeast Florida were ahead of the curve through careful preparation.

“Thanks to the 2020 investment in the Visitors and Convention Bureau by the St. Johns County Commission, we were able to communicate the features of our destination that travelers wanted during the pandemic. As prospective visitors gained confidence in the safety of travel, our destination was top of mind since many of our competitors had stopped advertising,” said Richard Goldman, President & CEO of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.

The successful campaign showcasingassets across northeast Florida, and the readily available inventory of vacation rental properties, created the near-perfect scenario for a resilient economic return.

“Based on our weekly monitoring of traveler sentiment starting on March 22, 2020, we were able to modify our messaging to communicate our features that satisfied their needs and stimulate strong demand….even during the summer of 2020,” said Goldman.

“We also shared the information we learned about traveler sentiments and expectations with our tourism stakeholders and we advocated with them to adopt and communicate to their guests the actions properties were taking to make visitors’ experiences safe as well as fun.”

These steps included mask wearing by staff, reduced capacities and lower density, important and consistent factors visitors wanted to see to feel safe in 2020 and early 2021, according to Goldman.

President & CEO · St Augustine, Ponte Vedra _ The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau
Mica Campbell
Greg Cook, Ritz Carlton Amelia Island GM
Kerry Mitruska, Dir. of Sales, Hammock Beach Resort Palm Coast

Hoteliers: Diamonds to Darlings, The Lodging Sector Adapts

As a USA Today ‘10 Best Waterfront Hotels’ recipient from 2016-2021 and a AAA Five Diamond Awarded property, The Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, was already a jewel. Evolving to become a haven of creativity, staff set about enhancing the visitor experience during a time when travel itself and breathing space had become commodities.

“The pandemic has altered our luxury guests’ needs. They look to escape to our secluded barrier island and once they are here they seek unique experiences that give them personal space. We’ve expanded our offerings that are more one-on-one; such as personal wellness, beach ecology field trips for students, White Oak Conservation experience or fishing with a chef for your personal dinner,” says Greg Cook, General Manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island.

Along with the desire to enthrall guests is an understanding among those in the hospitality industry that cleanliness is next to godliness, and tourism partners were careful to articulate the measures taken to ensure the safety of their visitors.

Kerry Mitruska, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast says the beachfront golf resort and spa, like many luxury properties, strives to exceed standards daily for their guests. 

“The health and safety of our guests and associates remains a top priority. Since the beginning, we have diligently followed the CDC guidelines along with those from local and state health authorities when it comes to operating in this new environment, and we will continue to do so,” said Mitruska.

As visitors resume and expand their travel patterns, visibility plays a key role in assuaging concerns.

“Cleanliness has always been important to us. What may have been a function largely performed out of view of our guests in the past – cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting – is now done more frequently and oftentimes within view of our guests,” he shared.

The diverse experiences and attention to detail have had a noted impact on the tourism industry, building confidence among travelers and the summer of 2021 was the year of the road trip.

Leaving behind Los Angeles, California, and taking ownership of The Island Cottage Oceanfront Inn mid-August 2021, new hotelier Mica Campbell is looking forward to seeing the upward trend in visitation continue for the TripAdvisor 2021 Traveler’s Choice Award winning property in Flagler Beach.

“I know that the sellers for them, it’s been quite busy the last few months. It has really picked up,” she said, while welcoming guests to the boutique bed and breakfast.

“What I’ve noticed in the last two weeks, it’s drivers,” she said. “Relatively local from Orlando, Jacksonville and as far away as Georgia, but they did drive. I think we’ve got someone coming from California next week.”

It’s those road trip explorers who were also among the first to keep the industry thriving throughout the pandemic as they searched for places less crowded, with more wide open spaces.

Airbnb proprietors like Jamie Kretsinger were ready to accommodate visitors, one get away at a time. 

“With the wonderful climate and natural charm of our area, we have always strived to make outdoor spaces an integral part of the experience at one of our properties,” he said

“With the recent events, we believe that our guests are enjoying those spaces more – whether that means spending a few hours on a second story deck overlooking one of our Victorian neighborhoods, or taking the beach wagon and umbrella out for the day. We want the feeling of the hospitality we provide to extend beyond the interiors of our listings,” said Kretsinger.

Leading St. Johns County’s VCB, tourism expert Richard Goldman said the agility of the hospitality and tourism industries has paid off in St. Johns County, citing the numbers. Traditional lodging in July 2021 saw a 78.6% occupancy rate, up 62.1% over last year and +8.0% over 2019; 63.3%, for +21.3% fiscal year to date. Vacation rentals in July 2021 saw an occupancy rate of 63.8%, up by +15.9% over last year and +27.3% over 2019; 47.7%, for +25.6% fiscal year to date.

“At the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, we leveraged the lessons we learned responding to our stakeholders’ needs during hurricanes to positively react to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Goldman.

“The key lesson was to frequently and directly communicate with visitors, tourism businesses and residents. We know how resilient the tourism industry is on Florida’s Historic Coast and how attractive our destination is to visitors, so we believe the worst is behind us and that travelers and meeting planners will find a “new normal” in the coming years. Tourism will continue to be a key economic driver for Florida’s Historic Coast and all of northeast Florida.”