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When the coronavirus pandemic halted much of the travel industry earlier this year, Carin Kiphart and her husband saw their international tour guide business dry up and largely stay that way.

But the couple’s vacation rental on Navarre Beach is another story. Initially shuttered in March, vacation rentals in Florida were allowed to re-open over Memorial Day weekend. Since then, the Kipharts’ five-bedroom house on Navarre Beach has been “slammed” all the way through the recent Labor Day weekend.

“It’s pretty much our main income now, so we’re really glad we made that (income) diversification,” Kiphart said Tuesday after the long holiday weekend that marks the unofficial end of summer.

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A rebound in short-term vacation rentals has been one of the few bright sports as the local tourism industry recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the Kipharts, while revenue from their rental isn’t as high as it was in 2019, their house has been consistently booked and they’re seeing solid bookings during the shoulder season through mid-October.

“People want to get away and be somewhere where they feel safe in a private home,” Kiphart said. “We’re fortunate that we have a pool and a hot tub so then people also wanted that private pool. That was a big deal for them.”

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Pensacola Beach visitors on Sunday take advantage of the beautiful weather over the Labor Day weekend. (Photo: John Blackie/[email protected])

Nicole Stacey, director of marketing and communications for Visit Pensacola, said vacation rentals have seen a strong rebound, perhaps because people feel safer in individual units, rather than ones with shared common spaces like hotels.

That suits areas like Navarre Beach particularly well, which is a primarily vacation rental market with only one hotel on the beach. Santa Rosa County’s July bed tax collections were up more than 12% from the previous year, totaling $650,314.58.

“The spring was pretty difficult for us, but once the governor lifted the restrictions and our vacation rentals opened up, we bounded back very quick,” said Nicole Dees, tourist development special with the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Office. “Vacation rentals are the majority of our bed tax collections.”

She said four RV parks in Navarre, another source of bed tax dollars for the county, have also been almost fully booked for the entire summer.

The hotel industry, however, hasn’t seen the same rebound as vacation rentals, with many hotels reporting shorter average stays and lower rates. But good weather over the long holiday weekend helped give the industry a boost at the end of the traditional summer season.

Ted Ent, CEO and president of Innisfree Hotels, said this Labor Day weekend is difficult to compare to previous Labor Day weekends because recent years have been affected by bad weather. He said occupancy and room rates this holiday weekend were much closer to normal than the rest of the summer, and he hoped strong travel would continue through the shoulder season for people looking for long weekend getaways.

“The summer went OK. We certainly didn’t perform to budget or to historical numbers, but we did a lot better than the general hospitality industry so we can’t really complain right now,” Ent said. “But it’s still nowhere near what we’ve historically done.”

Saturday was the third-busiest day of the year for cars passing through the toll onto Pensacola Beach, said Escambia County Commissioner Robert Bender. 

A total of 21,759 cars passed through the toll Saturday, with a weekend total of 76,169 cars from Friday through Monday. That’s higher than the previous three Labor Day weekends, which saw 70,224 vehicles, 62,837 cars and 65,882 vehicles, respectively.

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“I don’t know if vehicles actually equate to tourism,” Bender said, adding that tourist development tax dollar figures won’t come in for August until late in September. “But I think what’s been holding true for the last few months is that people can spread out on the beach.”

Ent said Innisfree Hotels hasn’t yet done much forecasting into what next year’s booking may be like because October is its budget season, which is when that’s determined. But he said no matter what, forecasting what occupancy and room rates will be like into next year will be difficult because no one has a handle on when things like corporate or group travel will return.

Bender said he believes the county will be able to extend the beach season by a few weeks this year to better support businesses. Visit Pensacola will continue marketing efforts in drive-able markets during the shoulder season to help bolster travel in the off months after Labor Day. 

“We are slowly returning. We are seeing travel sentiment return. We’re seeing that our drive markets are speaking to us,” said Stacey with Visit Pensacola. “This is traditionally that last weekend of summer, if you will. So that being said, I think that our locals and our vacationers were coming out to just enjoy the beach.” 

The July bed tax collections, which were received in August, were down about 11% from the previous year and totaled about $1.8 million. That is better than June numbers, which were at $1.588 million.

So far, the county is about at $8.8 million in collections for the year, Bender said. Last fiscal year, the county collected a total of $12.3 million. 

That makes it difficult for vacation marketing efforts for the area because bed tax dollars fund Visit Pensacola. This year’s Visit Pensacola budget, which is unified with Pensacola Sports and ACE Pensacola, was reduced by $2.375 million or 25.7%.

Next year, the group is expecting its budget to be down another $1.37 million or 20% from where it ended this year.

“I think there’s still that hesitation to travel or people will still take precautions regarding COVID, and as long as that is out there, that will still play a factor in any of our numbers,” Bender said. “I think it’s important for us to put our best foot forward and again, we have the beach that people can utilize and spread out and not feel on top of each other.”

Madison Arnold can be reached at [email protected] and 850-435-8522.

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