Gulf Coast City 'Buries' Off-Season, Renames It 'Vacation Season'

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By Gay Nagle Myers

Reed Travel Features

NAPLES, Fla. -- It's old but new, historical but funky, predictable but full of surprises. Naples, on Florida's Gulf Coast, is projecting a new image these days, targeting new markets and testing the waters with a promotional campaign.

John Ayres Jr., president of Visit Naples, an autonomous tourism group formed last fall and made up of 15 directors from hotels and other travel industry groups, described Naples as "a flat Bermuda with better service."

"New hotels and inns are opening here, we have a revamped shopping area on Fifth Avenue with more than 50 new shops and spruced-up landscaping, and there is a visible collaborative effort among the merchants and proprietors," said Ayres, who also is president and managing partner of Edgewater Beach Properties, which includes six full-service hotels in Naples. Hotel openings in Naples include a Hilton within the next two years, the 60-room Old Naples Trianon on Fifth Avenue in December and the conversion of the 82-room Old Naples Inn on Third Street into an all-suite property next year.

Nestled between the Florida Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico, Naples is shaking its image of a winter-only retreat for the wealthy and retired and is reaching out to previously untapped markets, such as families, environmentalists and ecotourists. "We are seeing a lot of changes here," said Tammy Matthews, managing director of Visit Naples. "Our tourists come from all over the world at all times of the year."

To symbolize the year-round aspect of Naples' tourism, city officials recently staged a mock funeral, complete with a casket and a jazz band, to officially "bury" the off-season and rename it the Vacation Season.

Already, the summer season has shown strength. Matthews said that hotel occupancies averaged between 85% and 90% in early June and that advance bookings were solid for the rest of the season. "We are selling and promoting a quality vacation destination, and it seems to be working," she said.

Ayres said that agents are the key target of the Vacation Season promotions, which seek "to differentiate Naples from the rest of the destination pack." "We want upscale travelers to come here. We want agents to come here and see what we have to offer and then sell us," he said.

Tourism took hold in Naples after Hurricane Donna's visit in 1960. The aftermath of that storm required a substantial amount of rebuilding and replanning of the city. Prior to the storm, Naples was best known as a getaway for wealthy Midwesterners, who maintained a low profile during their winter visits.

Because of the proximity of Everglades National Park east of Naples, more than 50% of public land around the city is protected from development. The region is known for its strong environmental stance. The park joined the national park system in 1947 and ranks as the third largest in the U.S., after Yellowstone and Yosemite. Eight different parks and nature preserves, the National Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the Ten Thousand Islands and the 52-acre Carib Gardens as well as Everglades National Park are the heart of the area's ecotourism attractions. A younger clientele, often with toddlers in tow, come to visit the park and Naples and now fill many of Naples' 5,511 hotel rooms.

Although Naples claims to have more Fortune 500 chief executive officers residing within the town limits than anywhere else in the world, according to Matthews, "we have plenty of accommodations for the mid-market range. We just have to get that word out."

Options are numerous for families visiting Naples; that market is being courted aggressively through means of a Family Fun Guide, which describes attractions, bike routes (helmets are required for children under 14 years old), horse-and-carriage rides, kid-friendly accommodations and restaurants. Many Naples hotels and resorts accommodate children in the same room as parents at no charge.

Ayres reported a 12% hotel room growth in the past 10 years, a total of 53 public and private golf courses ("more holes per capita than any other U.S. city," he said) and a strong interest in golf in the group market. Group business is particularly strong in the summer at the Registry Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton Naples, accounting for 70% of the total bookings at each hotel. Matthews said that the Midwest, the Northeast, Texas, California and the Florida drive market make up the bulk of the tourism business.

A $489,000 promotion budget, funded by the 3% Collier County tax, has been allocated for the Naples marketing campaign. The majority of the funds raised by the tax go toward beach refurbishment and anti-erosion measures, according to Matthews. "More than $12 million was spent in 1996 to protect and sustain our 10 miles of beaches, and all of it came from the bed tax," she said.

For more information, call Visit Naples at (800) 605-7878.

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