Local restaurants, hotels and attractions feel optimistic about 2021 after long pandemic period

Posted at 3:59 PM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-27 17:22:28-04

A year ago, Tampa Bay area businesses were booming and tourism was as hot as our Florida sunshine.

"We were setting tourism record numbers month after month, year after year. In fact, last February, which is not so long ago was our second best tourism month ever," said Visit Tampa Bay's President and CEO Santiago Corrada.

Corrada says in February 2020, hotel occupancy was at 88% and tourism was incredible in Tampa Bay. But the coronavirus pandemic quickly crushed those record-setting numbers.

"March, we start seeing things shut down, conventions canceling, international borders closed, travel coming to a dead stop," he admitted.

Corrada had to lay off 40% of his team, as those tourism numbers tanked.

"So in March, occupancy went from February of 88% to 50%, and then April was 22% occupancy," Corrada explained.

Despite an uptick in numbers recently, Corrada admits we still have a long way to go.

"We still don't have international travelers. The cruise industry is still not back. Big conventions, groups and meetings are still not back 100%," he said.

But he's confident tourism will spike again with new hotels, restaurants and attractions continuing to open in the Tampa Bay area.

"I'm very, very optimistic. That's why when they say 2024 will be normal. I'm saying 2022 is going to be normal for us," he said.

Meanwhile, along with Florida's beautiful beaches, local attractions bring in thousands of visitors. But the coronavirus shuttered their businesses, as well.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, owned by Sea World Entertainment, released its 2020 financial results.

Combined with its seven other properties, overall attendance dropped by over 16 million people and total revenue sank over $966 million.

Traffic at the Florida Aquarium also declined by 30% in 2020, compared to its three and five year average. But the aquarium says attendance continues in an upward trend since reopening in May.

Despite shutting down for almost three months in 2020, ZooTampa at Lowry Park reopened with full employment.

ZooTampa says it matched 2019 operating revenue of $26.1 million thanks to repeat guests, donor contributions and funds applied through the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program. And its 2021 operating revenue has already exceeded 2019 by over 23%.

Meanwhile, Tampa International Airport took a hit in 2020 because of the pandemic, seeing about 13 million passengers coming through compared to over 22 million in 2019. But TPA is optimistic about the future, expecting almost 20% more travelers coming through this year than last year.

Just down the street from Tampa International in Avian Park is World of Beer. It's one of 50 locations James Buell helps market as Chief Brand and Innovation Officer.

But when all his restaurants unexpectedly closed in 2020, he had to figure out how to advertise "To-Go Orders" only, a service they'd never provided.

"We furloughed roughly 90% of our staff system-wide. We had many, many locations kind of shutter their doors because we had to change from being a dine-in experiential brand to strictly a 'To-Go' model, without the mechanisms in place to provide 'to-go' for the consumer," Buell said.

But Buell credits his employees who went above and beyond to keep the World of Beer locations in Hillsborough County up and running.

"It starts really with the hospitality. I think without the right employees and we call them 'WOB Stars' in place, if they're not providing that heart of hospitality for the customers, then the customers don't want to come back. And I really think, you know, it's really them," he said.

He thanks some generous customers, who'd leave large tips just to help out his staff.

"I just think humanity showed its best in the last year. And that's been really for me the most heartwarming part of everything," he said.

Down in South Tampa at Datz, Wendy Ryan sat down with owner Roger Perry.

Perry owns and operates six brick-and-mortar restaurants total including three Datz locations, Dough in South Tampa, Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg and Donavan's Steakhouse in Riverview.

"We ended the year about 38% down total volume. And for us, that's a lot of dollars because we have big restaurants," he admitted.

And the pain from the pandemic came swiftly as Perry was forced to furlough 400 employees.

"We had a lot of sleepless nights and we felt bad for our employees because, you know, they're family. We had people that have been with us since the day we started Datz in 2009. How do you look somebody in the face and say, 'I'm sorry, you don't have a job. And I don't know when you're coming back.' That's tough. That's tough," he admitted.

He kept only 27 workers employed to run all six restaurants and his catering business got hit the hardest.

"We had half a million dollars on the books that just disappeared and that didn't include what would have been booked for the rest of the year. So it would be fair to say we lost a million dollars right there in the catering business," Perry explained.

So, Perry figured out a way to expand his brands by opening what's called "Ghost Kitchens" or virtual restaurants.

"We have a chicken concept called 'Cluck Yeah.' We have a pizza concept called 'Bougie Pizza.' And we run Dough concepts out of the two Datz's in St. Petersburg and Winthrop. So we have the same amount of labor, but we've added a whole, basically restaurant that only exists online," he explained.

Despite Florida's unemployment rate at 4.7% in March this year, Perry says he's having a hard time finding anyone to hire.

"The whole hospitality industry is struggling right now, getting employees to come back to work. I don't know if they're making as much with the government assistance and unemployment as they would be working, but every one of our restaurants is hiring," he said.

Still, Perry is optimistic about the future and has learned from this unprecedented time.

"I guess you can't take anything for granted. You know, you've got to look at each day, be thankful for where you're at today because tomorrow could change in a flash," he admitted.