As restrictions and fears tied to the coronavirus pandemic continue to ease, big crowds are anticipated for Memorial Day weekend in Volusia and Flagler counties, an expectation that bodes well for a strong summer season, according to hotel managers and tourism officials.
“I’m expecting Memorial Day to be sold-out,” said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County. Davis said that he was astonished at the crowded hotel parking lots early this week on his morning commute along State Road A1A.
“It’s amazing what’s going on, even now,” Davis said. “I came down the avenue at 5:30, 6 a.m. this morning and every hotel was packed with cars. The summer has started.”
At the same time the summer influx is arriving, area shorelines also are experiencing another annual ritual: Thick clumps of brown Sargassum seaweed began carpeting Volusia and Flagler counties’ beaches last week, tangled piles of seaweed that emit a powerful, unpleasant odor.
Yet the crowds are still expected, part of an estimated 37 million-plus people who are expected to travel 50 miles or more over the holiday weekend, according to AAA auto club. That’s a 60% increase from last year, when only 23 million traveled, the lowest on record since AAA began recording in 2000.
In Florida, more than 2 million residents are forecast to take a holiday weekend trip, a 62% increase over pandemic-affected Memorial Day weekend in 2020.
And, although restrictions related to the pandemic continue to be eased, the prospect of packed crowds on a holiday weekend still carries the potential for spread of the virus, according to experts.
In Volusia County, two weeks after crowds packed Main Street and other areas for Bike Week, the area experienced a significant spike in cases and hospitalizations.
By Tuesday, 39.5% of adults in the United States had been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The CDC advises that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state or local regulations, including local business guidelines.
The CDC also recommends that unvaccinated people continue to follow guidelines that include wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated areas.
‘I predict a very, very strong summer’
That Memorial Day will be busy comes as welcome news for hotels and other tourist-reliant businesses in the wake of the catastrophic downturn in the global travel industry over the past year, a virtual shut-down that at its height caused a record 80% plummet in occupancy and bed taxes collections in Volusia County in April 2020.
A little over a year later, on the eve of summer’s traditional opening weekend, Davis foresees the potential for a record-setting summer turn-around.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I predict a very, very strong summer.”
The rebound started gaining momentum in March, when family spring break vacationers and visitors in town for the 80th anniversary edition of Bike Week generated a record 70% year-over-year increase in bed-tax collections over the same month in pandemic-affected 2020, according to the Volusia County Revenue Division.
The March figure also was 9% higher than collections for pre-pandemic March 2019.
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“People are traveling, no question about it,” Davis said. “They are more confident in the vaccine, more confident about the virus. They just want to get out.”
‘It’s a boom’
That optimistic outlook was echoed by hoteliers, who generally expected to be at capacity this weekend.
“We will be at 100% occupancy for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with positive rate growth,” said Jim Berkley, general manager of the 744-room Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, the area’s largest hotel.
Looking beyond the holiday weekend, the hotel “has a very, very busy June, July and August ahead,” Berkley said. It’s an influx driven by a mixture of group business, family leisure travelers and events at the county-run Ocean Center convention complex, he said.
High occupancy also is expected at the 212-room Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach Shores, said general manager Rob Burnetti. Room rates also are being elevated by the high demand, he said.
“We’re getting the highest rates we’ve ever gotten for this weekend in quite some time,” Burnetti said. “It’s a boom, as far as we’re concerned. It will be a good summer.”
Likewise, rooms are 98% sold-out at the 91-room Sun Viking Lodge in Daytona Beach Shores, said longtime owner Gary Brown.
“People want to travel,” Brown said. “We are looking good all the way through the summer.”
Looking ahead to fall, the hotel already is booking rooms tied to the Welcome to Rockville music festival, a four-day event slated for November at Daytona International Speedway, Brown said.
“Interest even stretches out to that,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
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Many of the hotel’s summer guests are longtime returning regulars who were forced to cancel trips last year due to the pandemic, Brown said.
“This is pent-up demand from last year,” he said. “We’re getting a bunch of folks who didn’t come last year and they are all telling us they are so happy they could come this year. The phones are ringing off the hook. We can’t accommodate it all.”
Rooms also are expected to be sold-out throughout the holiday weekend at beachfront hotels owned and operated by Ormond Beach-based Premier Resorts & Management, said Domien Takx, the company’s vice president of operations.
Premier properties include Hilton Garden Inn; Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites; Best Western Daytona Inn Seabreeze; and Ocean Breeze Club Hotel, all in Daytona Beach; as well as the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Daytona Beach Shores.
Takx also reported positive rate growth.
“Rates have steadily climbed since we saw the uptick in room demand starting early March 2021,” he said. “Granted, we still have a long way to go to get to pre-pandemic levels and make up for losses in revenues in 2020, but the immediate future looks promising.”
Demand has rebounded to surpass 2019 occupancy and rates at hotels owned and operated by Ormond Beach-based Elite Hospitality Inc., said Manoj Bhoola, president and CEO.
“We do not see any slowdown in this and expect it to head into the summer season,” Bhoola said.
Elite’s roster of area hotels includes the Ormond Beach Best Western Castillo Del Sol; the Best Western Plus International Speedway; Hampton Inn by Hilton Daytona Speedway Airport; and the Hilton Garden Inn at Daytona Beach International Airport.
‘Good times right now’
At One Daytona, across from Daytona International Speedway, a sold-out holiday weekend also is expected at The Daytona Marriott Autograph Collection hotel and the Fairfield Inn & Suites, said Nancy Guran, director of sales for both hotels.
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“We are anticipating a great summer,” said Guran, pointing to the fact that many big events such as the Aug. 28 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway are returning to 100% capacity. “We believe that occupancy levels will be strong, with stronger rates in place than last summer when area hotels and businesses were struggling to stay afloat.”
Big summer crowds also have already arrived at the Starlite Diner, the landmark beachside eatery just north of the Ocean Center on State Road A1A in Daytona Beach, said owner Kevin Gelnaw.
“We’ve been doing really well,” Gelnaw said. “Our numbers right now are better than the year before all the COVID impact and that was a pretty solid year. We have lines out the door all day until about two in the afternoon. It’s good times right now.”
In Flagler County, business also is booming at the Flagler Beach Gift Shop, said owner Michelle Brown.
“We’re having our best year ever,” Brown said. “It has been consistently busy pretty much the whole year. Obviously, when you’re looking at numbers for last year, we were closed six weeks for COVID, but we’re also trending above and beyond previous years.”
The holiday weekend will only build on that momentum, she said.
“More people are traveling from other states and the mask guidelines have been lifted,” she said. “I think the overall feeling of people is the worst of the situation is over.”