News Herald Reporter
Updated Jun 4, 2016 at 11:42 PM
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Officials say new projects aimed at year-round crowds — and continued strict adherence to this year’s Spring Break laws — will lead to “a new normal” for Panama City Beach.
“The laws aren’t going to change, so Spring Break as we have known it in the past probably we’re looking at it in the rearview mirror, and there is a new normal,” said Dan Rowe, the executive director of the Bay Tourist Development Council (TDC). “We’re focused on how we can drive as much business as we can throughout the year, knowing that the visitor spending in March is going to change.”
The TDC and Beach officials are looking forward to several projects — including a sports complex expected to open in the first quarter of 2018 and a possible events center that could open in three or four years — as options to diversify the tourism industry and reel in new visitors.
The plan is to focus on increasing visitor spending 12 months a year, Rowe said, “so we’re not as reliant on any particular month of the year.”
“A rising tide floats all boats, and so we’re looking not just at March-specific strategies, but how do we increase visitor demand to Panama City Beach?” he said.
In the near term, the TDC has focused on bringing in new events and growing existing ones. Rowe said SpringJam, which was funded by the TDC and held for the first time in April, helped change the national conversation: People began noticing Panama City Beach as a locale that attracts world-class country musicians rather than the home of Spring Break controversy.
“It really did accomplish our goals of creating a new opportunity for people to come and give us something to talk about from a public relations standpoint,” Rowe said.
The recent Memorial Day weekend also gave credence to the TDC’s efforts. Hotels and businesses reported increased traffic compared to the same weekend last year.
Blowback from businesses
However, hoteliers and businesses that cater to spring breakers say officials have a case of wishful thinking if they believe family business in March can replace the lost business from college Spring Break. They said spring breakers were a reliable customer base who would come down even during the sometimes chilly month of March. Some also have argued families are not going to come in March if their children are still in school.
“You can spin it however you want,” said Julie Hilton, whose family owns three hotels on the Beach at which revenues were down 50 percent in March compared to last year. “The bottom line: It hurts our team members and it hurts the economy. In the end, we’re all connected. We are all in this community together. It will affect all of us one way or the other. Even though you think you are insulated from it, if you have nothing to with the tourism industry, everyone in Bay County is affected by tourism.”
But Beach officials stand by their decisions. Panama City Beach Mayor Mike Thomas said he’s confident March business will pick back up once people understand the city has taken care of the crime problems that were associated with Spring Break. He believes the strict rules of the last few years were necessary to get the city’s point across.
“I don’t believe the rules ran people off,” he said. “I believe our actions ran people off, and I believe when we show that we are going to be a good destination, that we’re going to be a respectful destination and a fun, family destination, I believe a lot of those people will come back, both young and old.”