Palm Beach County tourism thrives amid gloomy economy

As sports fans and snowbirds swell the county's roads and restaurants, signaling the arrival of the winter season, tourism continues to be a gleam of positive news in a gloomy economy.

During the past year, bed taxes collected in the county have risen from the previous year almost every month, meaning more people stayed in hotel rooms and paid a higher price than during the recession.

The fiscal year for 2010-11 ended with about $25.5 million in bed tax revenues, and September receipts shot up over the previous year by nearly 24 percent, bringing in $1.2 million from a 4 -cent tax tourists pay on each dollar of hotel rent, according to Tourist Development Council reports. Tourists pay a fifth penny on each dollar, but that is counted separately.

Those figures continue to grow after falling from $27.8 million in 2008 to $22.3 million in 2009, when people canceled vacation plans amid the economic downturn.

Bed tax dollars pay for tourism-related advertising and marketing for the county, infrastructure like Roger Dean Stadium and help with preliminary costs of Lynn University's presidential debate next year. Tourism directly contributes $2.8 billion annually to the county's economy and accounts for 1 in 8 jobs, according to the tourism agency .

Signals indicate tourism will continue to rebound as fall ramps up to tourism's winter peak.

One signal is the crack of bats at Roger Dean Stadium, where 2,000 men are participating in their league's Fall Classic. The tournament, in its 21st year overall and third year running in Palm Beach County, is contributing significantly to the 7,000 nights sports fans are adding to the hotel receipts this month.

That's the biggest November since 2005, when the USA Field Hockey Festival was held here, Palm Beach County Sports Commission Executive Director George Linley said. Next year, the field hockey group will be back for a two-year run with 4,000 players and fans.

Baseball players come from Detroit, California, Texas, Venezuela and elsewhere for the Men's Senior Baseball League Fall Classic, Tournament Director Gary D'Ambrisi said. Nearly a third bring their families. They hang out in Jupiter, but also make it down to Clematis Street and the beaches, he said.

While players also travel to Port St. Lucie, where some games are played at the Mets facility, Roger Dean Stadium is "tournament central" for the third year in a row, D'Ambrisi said.

"The county has an abundance of restaurants, everything from a quick-bite coffee (shop) to fine dining," D'Ambrisi said .

Tourism officials carefully develop these shoulder seasons, the months on either side of South Florida's winter peak.

Tourist council Executive Director Roger Amidon said consumer confidence is getting better. Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index figures released Friday showed an increase for the third month in a row, led by an improvement in people's outlook for the future.

"It seems like more of the companies are having their salespeople hit the road," Amidon said.

Those business groups are a key component of the shoulder season, said Dave Semadeni, who heads the Palm Beach County Hotel and Lodging Association.

Even snowbirds figure into the equation, Amidon said, because those who rent a place here for less than six months pay bed taxes. And the winter residents are returning, perhaps even a little early, he said.

Car transport companies have been busy delivering vehicles for seasonal residents who don't want to make the long drive, said Larry Tolstyka, vice president of Autolog in Linden, N.J. His company moves at least 2,000 cars into the West Palm Beach market each fall, Tolstyka said.

"There was definitely a large block of individuals who were going south during October and November," he said. "Expect it to peak after Thanksgiving."