The Road Ahead – Carol Dover, Florida Tourism Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic

Year after year, Florida remains one of the top national and international destinations for visitors. Not only does the Sunshine State boast more than 1,300 miles of beautiful coastlines and beaches, but we also have numerous attractions, theme parks, small towns, large towns and so much to offer our residents and guests.

And we know emergencies in Florida. We are prepared for hurricanes and other natural disasters and we have responded to oil spills, public health crises like Zika, and mass casualty events like the PULSE Nightclub shootings, but nothing could ever have prepared us for the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects it would have to shutter the tourism and hospitality industry in our state and across the nation.

In March of 2020, there was a severe, sudden and shocking halt to everything. We had no idea what was to come, thinking a short two-week shutdown might do the trick to stop the spread of the virus. What came instead were months of worsening figures, a shutdown to travel, hotels going dark and restaurants shutting down to all but takeout and curbside.

At the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA), it is our privilege to represent such a robust industry – hospitality and tourism – which is truly the economic engine of our state. So, not only did we worry about our restaurants, hotels, suppliers, and their teams and families, but we worried about the overall economic health and safety of our state and the cascading implications that would arise. Pre-COVID, our industry was the largest employer in Florida and represented nearly $112 billion in revenue with more than 1.5 million employees. As COVID hit and employers had to make tough decisions, more than 934,000 of our employees were furloughed or laid off.

FRLA got to work doing all we could to advocate for relief for businesses to keep their employees on staff, to stay open in any capacity and to chart a path to recovery and rebuilding. We were grateful to have been able to keep restaurants and hotels open at all. Hotels were housing first responders, visiting emergency officials and even health care professionals wanting to quarantine away from their homes and families. Restaurants were providing meals to homebound seniors who could no longer get out for community meals and pivoted quickly to to-go, delivery and curbside operations. Alcohol-to-go became a lifeline for many restaurants that were able to sell cocktails withtakeout orders, and it was such a hit that Governor DeSantis signed legislation to allow its continuation moving forward.  

We launched the FRLA Seal of Commitment program to help hotels and restaurants, which were already well-known for their strict safety and sanitation protocols, to enhance those procedures, going above and beyond to make staff and customers feel safe patronizing their businesses. Across the state, businesses worked hard to achieve this designation and continue those efforts today.

We passed COVID-19 liability protections into law. Many businesses who were on the verge of closing, having lost savings and staff, were fearful that despite their best intentions they would get hit with a nuisance lawsuit that would be the final nail in the coffin for them. We are proud to have those protections in place so they can continue their safe operations with the confidence that, if they continue doing the right thing, they cannot be targeted maliciously and they won’t have to deplete any savings they might have recovered defending themselves.

Throughout all of our state and federal efforts for assistance, the people and businesses of our industry have become much closer. We are learning from each other, sharing best practices and looking out for each other, and we are stronger for it. Our members have monumentally increased their engagement in advocacy and speaking out because we have all spent the last year and a half fighting for our lives, our teams and our businesses. It feels like we have been through a war, and we keep fighting as brothers and sisters in arms to survive.

As Florida had the ability to open up earlier than most states under the leadership and direction of Governor Ron DeSantis, we were able to “stop the bleeding” economically for so many and proved that we could operate safely. Certainly, throughout the spring and summer this year with COVID variants increasing, we had to ensure that we were not getting lazy with our caution, but we still needed to move forward welcoming our guests with our incomparable hospitality as safely as possible.

The road ahead is filled with continually emerging trends – like the surge of ghost kitchens that focus on food delivery, combined concepts, workers conducting business remotely – perhaps at one of our beautiful hotel properties, and the continuation of alcohol to go and delivery. Take-out will remain a popular option for many who like the convenience of dining in their own homes. Targeted relief for our industry is critical to prevent further economic collapse and job loss, which will be detrimental to families across Florida who work in our industry. The replenishment of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is critical to support so many unfunded grantees in Florida who were eligible for relief, and vaccination will also play a key role in the stabilization and recovery for tourism and hospitality.

Florida’s tourism numbers continued to surge through the first and second quarters of 2021, with record numbers in some regions of our state even compared to pre-COVID numbers. And while we still have a long way to go in terms of recovery as our industry has faced monumental shifts as we deal with continued labor shortages, which affect operating capacities, hours and quality of service, we are resilient. We are proud to fight each day with the wonderful men and women of the greatest industry in Florida – hospitality.