While Florida appears poised for a major tourism rebound this summer, business travel is still lagging and could act as a drag on the state economy. The state’s once-thriving business travel sector, where as recently as early 2020 saw industry associations and large trade groups booking convention centers and filling dozens of hotels in Florida’s destination cities every day of the week, has been clobbered harder by the pandemic than most other industries.
Travel experts say Florida’s major highways will likely be choked with tourists this summer, as higher-than-usual out-of-state drive in traffic is expected, even though air travel to the Sunshine State is also starting to pick up. A study released last week showed that online searches for Florida hotels were higher than for any other state, and short-term home rental company Airbnb says Florida ranks among the top destinations for its users in 2021.
But whether people travel her for business or leisure, they’ll likely find that even Florida, despite being less restricted than many other states, is still only a shell of its former self. A March 2021 survey of the hospitality industry showed that most companies had still not rehired many of the workers lost during the pandemic. Federal employment data last month showed roughly 181,100 total hospitality and leisure sector employees compared with about 278,500 just prior to the onset of the pandemic shutdown.
More than a quarter of all travel spending comes from business travelers, which can include everything from routine sales calls requiring an overnight hotel stay, to full-blown industry conventions that bring in thousands of business-related travelers to fill convention centers, book hotels, eat at local restaurants, and often sneak in a little bit of tourism during their visit.
“Full recovery to 2019 levels are still not expected until 2023,” said American Hotel & Lodging Association President and CEO Chip Rogers during a press conference yesterday to promote the Save Hotel Jobs Act. “This industry cannot survive with leisure travel alone. Business travel must return as well so that we can create even more jobs.”
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who represents Clearwater and Saint Petersburg in Pinellas County, is backing the measure in Congress, which he says will provide relief to hotels through direct payroll grants. Hotels would be required to use the cash to help employees return to work, and hotels would also receive a Personal Protective Equipment Tax Credit to help promote safety on the job.
“Hopefully this legislation and others will bring to bear the appreciation to the hotel industry we have here in the Sunshine State,” said Crist during an online appearance to promote the bill. “How much we appreciate it. How much we need it.”