By Jenni Stahlmann

While much of the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard were being pummeled with snow and ice this winter, travelers from those regions flocked to our sunny skies and warm temperatures, breathing much-needed life into the Venice tourism industry.

And, the increase in visitors might signal a greater trend than just weather-weary northerners seeking shelter from the cold. According to the Sarasota County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the overall economy in our area is showing encouraging signs of recovery.

Coming to Visit

As the national job market is seeing gains, Americans are making travel plans. “Vacation to Americans is a bit of a birthright,” said Erin Duggan, communications director at the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And while travelers may not be able to afford a weeklong vacation at this point, an extended weekend in Venice is a great respite.”

The Venice Area Chamber of Commerce offers a bird’s-eye view of tourism, serving as a visitor’s center for this part of the county. “We’re seeing very good numbers,” President John Ryan reported, adding that during season, Venice averaged more than 100 visitors a day, even reaching as high as 160 on some days. “The numbers are similar to what we’ve seen in previous good years, and the attitude of people coming in is very positive,” he said.

But as a community, we can’t rely solely on our great weather and exquisite beaches to keep tourists coming. “Value is more important than ever,” said Duggan. “People book vacations impulsively. As a destination, we’re going to need to stay in front of them. It’s critical to put our destination front and center, so we don’t get lost in the competition.”

Owning a Piece of Paradise

Like tourism, real estate is showing encouraging signs of recovery. “I feel we’re seeing a soft bottom,” said Bonnie Price, realtor at Signature Sotheby’s International Real Estate. “This is going to be our turning year.”

Price said her agency is seeing inventory come down quickly. “We have just been slammed since the beginning of the year.” And they’re not alone. According to Ryan, at the Chamber, realtors throughout Venice are talking about increased sales, “not at the numbers they’ve seen in the past,” he said, “but better than the few years prior.”

According to Ryan, last year people were looking at real estate properties in Venice, but waiting for prices to come down lower. This year, people are saying, “I’ve just bought a house or condo and need information for setting up a home.”

In order to continue the trend, sellers will need to watch the market carefully.

“Price is the primary driver of real estate investment and the opportunity of future appreciation,” said Kathleen D. Baylis, President and CEO of the EDC. “Over the last several years, we’ve seen prices depreciate, and we have a lot of inventory on the market as a result.”

With the increase in real estate sales, inventory is coming down and prices are stabilizing but it will still be some time before we see appreciation, industry experts say. “Properties have to be priced correctly,” said Sotheby’s Price. “It doesn’t matter what the owners paid or what’s owed. Sellers have to listen to where the market is.”

Retirement trends offer more good news for Venice growth. Sherrey Welch, realtor at Michael Saunders, said: “It is important to note that Venice has been selected as the best place to retire according to the September/October 2010 issue of ‘Where to Retire’ magazine. Economists predict that the coming year will tell the tale. Hopefully, we can take advantage of the new steady growth of baby boomers that is predicted.”

Just as business owners need to stay in front of tourists, realtors need to stay relevant to reach new buyers and sellers. “Realtor education is key to our professionalism and competitiveness,” Welch said. “We must adapt to new ways of doing things, such as networking on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and texting. Our customers are very savvy these days, which compels us to stay ahead of the learning curve by proving that we are the educators, not the students.”

Looking and Thinking Ahead

With a little education and a dash of creativity, business owners can also influence more impulsive travelers with enticing offers. Tourism-based businesses need to find creative ways to maintain a strong digital presence, paying special attention to social media and mobile technology trends.

Close to half of all adults in the U.S. are using social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. As a result, savvy business owners are adding new elements to their marketing plans with campaigns like time-sensitive “flash sales” and collaborations with popular bloggers.

In addition, mobile technology has seen a global roll-out of high-speed data networks. The rise in smart phones and computer tablets has created a new breed of app-hungry users, who are primed to receive tourism suggestions on their phones or iPads. QR codes and video tags that link to web pages and videos when scanned have created a new realm of marketing opportunities.

Duggan says that a travel package is more successful when something is added to it that can’t be purchased. “Businesses are short-staffed, so partner with other companies.” She suggests. “What can you offer people that wouldn’t be too difficult for you, but would provide a special experience that couldn’t be purchased?”

Proceeding with Caution

An increase in tourism and new residents in Venice are bound to have a positive impact on businesses in town. Many could probably afford to begin hiring, but there is some hesitation, said Ryan. “Over the past few years, they’ve had to downsize and no one wants to do that again.”

“During the rough years between 2007 and 2010, many business owners had to roll up their sleeves and wear a variety of hats. And although they’d like to hire new help, many are going to wait a little longer,” said Ryan.

Baylis at the EDC agrees, noting that in spite of a slight improvement in unemployment numbers, the overall unemployment rate has not decreased much. “Some ground is being gained,” she said, “but it’s not as significant as we’d like.”

Baylis added that although she believes increased gas prices will cause recreational and business travelers to be more cautious, she tends to have a bullish outlook on tourism.

“In 2010, it seemed like everyone wanted to get in their rearview mirror,” said Ryan, “The weather was horrible, and obviously, the economy was not so hot.” But the winds are definitely shifting.

The expansion of Venice-based Tervis, as well as PGT’s plans to add nearly 400 new jobs, is bound to make a positive impact on business, including real estate and supporting industries.

“Venice Regional Medical Center is doing very well with patient counts,” Ryan said, “which is an indication that people are here to use the services, and they’re not putting health decisions off. We make health decisions based on our economic situation too.”

“Our community is a very attractive community. We have a lot to offer, and I don’t think people are going to stop coming.”

Optimism abounds.

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