Megan Padilla
Megan Padilla

Increasing airlift and other factors promise to turn up the flow of visitors to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater region in the months and years to come. And hotel inventory there seems to be keeping pace with that anticipated rush, with 2,000 new hotel rooms coming on line in 2016 and 2017.

The area along Florida's central Gulf coast is marketed as Visit St. Pete Clearwater but actually comprises 24 municipalities, each with its own flavor and distinct visitor experience, from the workaday Greek fishing village at Tarpon Springs, the furthest north of these Pinellas County towns, to the funky, walkable (and bikeable) Dunedin, known for its Scottish history. However, it's the artsy downtown St. Petersburg and the resort juggernaut of Clearwater Beach that are experiencing explosive growth.

That growth only figures to intensify with the increases in international and domestic flights. Lufthansa is offering direct flights from Frankfurt five times a week. Edelweiss is providing direct flights from Zurich three times a week. Direct flights from Panama City will be arriving five times a week on Copa Airlines. And there are daily, direct flights from Seattle on Alaska Air as well as daily, direct flights from 52 U.S. cities on Allegiant.

A corner suite at Treasure Island Beach Resort.
A corner suite at Treasure Island Beach Resort.

Projects are sprouting in areas that have seen little in the way of new hotels in recent decades. The 1920s-era Fenway on the waterfront in Dunedin is being returned to use as a hotel and will open as part of the Marriott Autograph Collection in October; it had served as a hotel until 1961 and operated as a collge for some time after that but has stood vacant for the past decade. And last year, the Treasure Island Beach Resort opened with its 77 one- and two-bedroom suites on the barrier island west of St. Petersburg, giving visitors a stylish, modern beach hotel in an area primarily known for its mom-and-pop motels.

But it is the development in Clearwater Beach that merits the closest attention. The two most recent luxury properties are the 230-room Opal Sands Resort, celebrating its first anniversary on Feb. 24, and the 343-room Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach, which opened on Jan. 24. The two act as bookends of the newly developed Beach Walk section of Clearwater Beach, a winding beachfront promenade.

The Opal Sands Resort on Clearwater Beach is celebrating its first anniversary this week.
The Opal Sands Resort on Clearwater Beach is celebrating its first anniversary this week.

"We have positioned [the region] as a leisure destination on the Gulf coast," said David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete Clearwater. "We don't have a convention center, though high-end meetings and incentive travel are rapidly growing and helping to fuel the higher-end products."

But did the hotels shape the destination or did the destination inform the hotels? A bit of both, it turns out. Downing pointed to the opening of the Hyatt Regency at Clearwater Beach in 2010 and its hugely successful Hyatt Passports rewards program. "This is the only Gulf-front hotel in the Hyatt chain, which opened us up to a stream of frequent travelers who were loyal to the brand," Downing said.

"Wyndham has loyal travelers, too, so there is leveraging power of those brands to grow the destination."

Nancy Cimney, director of sales and marketing at the Sandpearl Resort and the Opal Sands Resort, has been in Clearwater Beach for about 25 years and has had a front-row seat to observe its transformation.

"I really think it started with the city of Clearwater," Cimney said. "They had a vision of what they wanted the beach to be and from that came Beach Walk, a promenade that goes from Pier 60, south. They wanted to redevelop the beach to make it more pedestrian-friendly. They really had the foresight and stuck to their plan, even during the [economic] downturn, and that allowed for other developers to come in. Not only the hotels but also the residential side, which is totally different than it was 20 years ago."

Cimney cites three major upscale residential projects in Clearwater Beach — Belle Harbor, Sandpearl Residence and Mandalay Beach Club — that attracted an entirely different type of resident to the beach. "The change in the residential community along with what the city did [creating Beach Walk] really became much more enticing for the luxury travel market."

The Sandpearl, which celebrates its 10th anniversary later this year, was the first new luxury product on the beach in Pinellas County in some 25 years, Cimney said, making it and the Don Cesar at St. Pete Beach the only true luxury products on the beach; until now, that is.

If occupancy levels are any indication, development seems to right in line with the increased demand. The region's occupancy level averaged 77.2% in 2015; with the addition of 1,000 rooms in 2016, that average dipped only slightly in 2016, to 76.8%, while the average daily room rate rose by nearly 6%.

The addition of 1,000 rooms in 2017 will raise the region's inventory to about 37,000 units.

Regardless of recent concerns about incoming travel to the U.S., Downing is confident that the region will continue to grow and cites increased visitor numbers from South America and Canada specifically.

"We've had double-digit increases each year since we developed a diversified strategy in Latin America [three years ago]. We haven't put all of our eggs in one basket in Brazil, we've reached out to a lot of underserved markets in South America such as Costa Rica, Chile and Panama," Downing said.

"Of course, the market is cyclical. Canada is soft now because of currency, but it will come back. We double down when things slow down, so we're top of mind when things pick up."

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