Space Coast Restaurant & Lodging Association

Brevard County is retooling for change. With the economic downturn and dollars spent from visitors on the decline, the local tourism industry is looking to accentuate the positive aspects of the area and focus its efforts on niche markets. Hotel and restaurant owners are optimistic that sunny days are still ahead for the Space Coast.

The direct impact of tourism revenue in Brevard County is estimated at $2.8 billion, of which lodging accounts for $839 million and dining (eating and drinking) is $509 million.

The Space Coast Chapter of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA) is working to make a difference in their business. The chapter was revitalized three years ago and is experiencing a resurgence of growth. “We noticed that much of the Association’s leadership had retired. With the downturn in the economy, the timing could not have been more perfect to come together as a group,” said Samir Patel, the Association’s past president who serves as general manager of the Holiday Inn Melbourne-Viera Conference Center. Once a month, approximately 200 members have the opportunity to gather and discuss pertinent industry and tourism issues.

The position of Association president alternates between restaurants and hotels. Rhett Fischer of Rusty’s Seafood serves as the current president, and its impressive board list represents a broad group of stakeholders including local proprietors and tourism officials.

Fischer commented, “We really work together to advance the hospitality industry and also offer several fundraisers each year that support scholarships for students in the area who want to make a career in the business.”

Taste of the Space Coast, Celebrate Brevard and a bowl-a-thon are a few of the events that bring restaurant and lodging professionals together. Not only do they seek to promote their businesses locally and to out-of-town visitors, they also participate in issues that make an impact across the State of Florida.

The Issues

The Space Coast Chapter of the Restaurant and Lodging Association is part of a state organization that represents industry issues in Tallahassee. The local chapter’s strong voice has moved the Florida Association to take a position for state-wide support on a number of concerns.

One issue that is paramount to the Association is the Online Travel Companies (OTC), like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, who don’t pay the full resort tax collected from their customers. At this time, online companies are not required to disclose what customers pay for their rooms. Currently, OTC only pay tax on the wholesale price that they actually paid when purchasing the room from the hotel. When the OTC resells a room to the consumer at a mark-up, the difference in price is not accounted for in the tax remittance. According to the Florida Association on Counties, our state is losing out on that revenue, estimated at $20 million.

Each county imposes an occupancy tax; the rate varies from county to county. In Brevard, the tax rate is five percent. The monies collected fund a number of initiatives including the Brevard County Tourist Development Council (TDC), the restoration of the beaches, improvements for area attractions and cooperative funds for marketing initiatives.

FRLA President Carol Dover said, “Our board voted clearly in favor that this is a tax that should be collected and remitted. It should be noted that this is not a new tax. It is an evaded tax. What the consumer pays for the room is what should determine the tax.”

Furthermore, Dover explains that the Florida statute needs to be clarified because at the time it was written, cell phones and the Internet did not exist. This topic was recently debated during the Association’s fall board meeting in Orlando.

Another issue that is important to FRLA and being discussed in Tallahassee is immigration. Some lawmakers believe that non-citizens should not be hired. However, Dover notes, “Even with the high unemployment rate, there are so many jobs in the hospitality industry that we struggle to fill. We do not need anyone boycotting travel to our state, like in Arizona, because of our immigration policy. We are not suggesting opening the borders for a free-for-all. We do support the employment verification process.”

There should be something for everyone to do in Florida but the FRLA wants to maintain its reputation for being a destination that is appropriate for all ages. Opposed to a massive expansion of gambling, Dover commented, “We don’t want to see the entire state of Florida in the gambling business. We are family-friendly and we want to be a beautiful vacation spot where you want to come.”

The Association has their own website (www.flra.org) with links to their chapters. It also has partnered with VisitFlorida.com to enhance their marketing efforts. Its current promotion,

“Share a Little Sunshine,” encourages website visitors to invite their friends and family to visit the state and offers discounts and deals when they sign up.

Local Efforts

Within a county 72 miles long, there are several niches worth marketing.

Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, sees a number of opportunities in the region but notes, “We want to continue to take advantage of what is here, but we will have to redesign how we approach our marketing efforts.”

For instance, Titusville has the opportunity to capitalize on the ecotourism trend by promoting its natural beauty and diverse wildlife. The Space Center will still be a draw but the overall encounter will be different. According to Varley, plans are already in the works to move the Astronaut Hall of Fame closer to the KSC Visitor Complex and to upgrade the Port Terminal so that visitors have an enhanced experience.

Patel says that his colleagues are constantly reevaluating their businesses and looking at new marketing trends. One example is customer service. He explains, “We look at what is most important to our customer and where our business can benefit the most by refocusing our efforts.”

Association members agree partnerships are integral for the continued success of the tourism industry. Board member Jim Ridenour, general manager of Courtyard by Marriott, remarked, “It is so important for us to work together as a group to explore new markets such as weddings and small business meetings and to take advantage of pockets of areas that combine shopping and dining.” Places exist all over the county for unique combinations of dining, overnight accommodations and activities.

The Space Coast Restaurant and Lodging Association wants locals and tourists alike to have a good experience at their establishments. Efforts have been made to upgrade local properties, which they see as being just as vital as attracting visitors to the area. The reopening of The Mango Tree and having signature restaurants like Dixie Crossroads and Squid Lips are also important. “Most restaurants only have a 5 percent profit margin, so if it wasn’t for our visitors, our local restaurants wouldn’t be sustainable for our local residents to enjoy,” remarked Varley.

The beautiful Space Coast has something for everyone.