More people are finding more reasons to visit Jacksonville for work or leisure and that’s resulting in very good business for the local hospitality industry.
According to Visit Jacksonville, the convention and visitors bureau for Jacksonville and the Beaches, 2014 may be a record year.
In March-June, room revenue was the highest since 2004 when Smith Travel began gathering statistics from hospitality providers.
Hotel revenue is up nearly $18 million through July compared to the same period in 2013. The more than $32 million in revenue banked by local hoteliers in May was only $1 million short of February 2005 when Jacksonville hosted Super Bowl XXXIX.
Part of the influx of business can probably be attributed to the slowly recovering economy. Another factor is a change in how and where Jacksonville’s varied assets for visitors are being marketed.
“The hardest part of my job is that Jacksonville is so diverse,” said Katie Mitura, Visit Jacksonville director of marketing and product development. “We have so much that we can promote.”
Two years ago, a statewide survey of potential travelers determined that Jacksonville was primarily known for the Jaguars, the beach and the U.S. Navy.
“That’s not going to convince you to come here and explore the city,” Mitura said.
The research led to a website, onlyinjax.com, that promotes what the city has to offer. It’s dedicated to what makes Jacksonville an attractive travel destination, as well as accolades the city’s travel opportunities have received.
“We put it all on one website and we constantly update it. It’s a great tool,” said Mitura.
Visit Jacksonville’s advertising plan, funded by a portion of the 6 percent bed tax collected on hotel rooms, calls for an expenditure of $917,262. Print advertising accounts for $372,000, 41 percent of the budget; $281,000, 31 percent, is planned for digital advertising including online-based promotions; and $100,000, 11 percent is scheduled to be spent on broadcast advertising. A fund of $167,000 is set aside for contingencies, including last-minute bargains on advertising media, Mitura said.
Since February 2013, a greater focus has been placed on attracting Florida and Southeastern states residents to come to Jacksonville for leisure travel.
The “staycation” trend for vacationers to limit travel expenses by avoiding long trips that began in 2009 with the downturn in the economy has remained a strong market.
Florida residents represent 33 percent of the overnight travelers in Jacksonville.
Adding 15 percent from Georgia, 5 percent from North Carolina, 4 percent from South Carolina and 3 percent from Alabama yields a total of 60 percent of visitors who travel to Jacksonville from southeastern states.
The increase in vacationers choosing to stay close to home is being felt at the hotel level. Mike Islava, director of sales and marketing at the Omni Hotel, said after a slow start due to the unusually harsh winter, 2014 is shaping up to be a good year for business.
“It started off soft, but we are having a really good summer,” he said. “It’s not only business travelers, it’s people who just want to get away. With this year’s events and festivals, we’ve had good weekend business. We had quite a few reservations for Labor Day weekend. It was a surprise.”
The shift from traditional advertising media to a more digital presence is also being felt at the hotel.
“Omni doesn’t do a lot of advertising, but we have a new website that’s easier to use and one out of three of our reservations are made on mobile devices,” said Islava.
Another new focus has been on making more potential travelers aware of Jacksonville’s arts and cultural offerings, eco-tourism and even the local dining scene. The campaign focuses on museums, art galleries and Art Walk and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra
People will travel on weekends to dine, but Jacksonville has not traditionally been considered a dining destination, even though it could and should be, said Mitura.
“We have some great restaurants and you don’t have to make a reservation two or three months in advance,” she said. “And in most cases, you don’t have to wear a coat and tie to go to a fancy restaurant.”
Visit Jacksonville is sponsoring again this year “Pandora Holiday Moments on Ice.”
The show, which features Olympic figure skaters and live music, will be taped Nov. 15 at Veterans Memorial Arena and then broadcast on the ABC Network at 4 p.m. Nov. 30 and again Dec. 14.
“We’re getting the national audience that isn’t watching football on Sunday afternoon,” said Mitura.
Visit Jacksonville is planning this year to go after a new category of leisure travelers with the “Jax Ale Trail,” a tour of local breweries.
In addition to bus tours of breweries, accommodation packages are being developed with hotels.
“That’s a whole new market. We know people are traveling for craft beer. They will go to a city to experience their breweries,” said Mitura.