Officials hope for a turnaround as event gets closer
By Kimeko Mccoy
With the kickoff for St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary celebration only 30 days away, demand and bookings for hotel rooms in the city over that weekend have been slow, according to Richard Goldman, CEO and president of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau.
While St. Johns County was reported to have enjoyed a robust period of tourism in May, Goldman said the bottom line is there are still plenty of rooms available for the Labor Day weekend and Celebrate 450!, set to kick off Sept. 4 and run through Sept. 8.
Goldman said the lag in demand could be attributed to steep booking costs or just the timespan of the celebration.
“We’re hoping this will turn around and hoteliers will start looking into the production and opening up some things and things will pick up,” he said.
Kanti Patel is owner and CEO of Jalaram Hotels Inc., a collection of hotels located in St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Patel oversees hotels in the historic district, Spanish Quarter, on the beach and on the bayfront.
“We don’t have a high demand at this point,” he said. “Maybe some people don’t want to come to a crowd.”
Patel and others in the business are comparing the September celebration to Mumford & Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road stopover in 2013 where hotels fared well.
“When Mumford announced they were going to hold a concert here, most hotels sold out in four to five hours,” Patel said. “It looks to me like that’s not going to happen that weekend.”
Although the two are often compared, Goldman said the stopover and the city’s celebration are different.
“It’s a much more complex sale when you think of it from a transactional standpoint, but I think we’ll be fine,” he said.
Both he and Patel remain hopeful as travelers often make quick decisions and could come last minute.
St. Augustine has been recognized for a number of accolades in a number of publications including FamilyFun Magazine, National Geographic and USA Today’s travel section. A feature in the August 9 edition of Parade magazine lists the city as one of the country’s “National Treasures.”
But it’s unclear if the city’s marketing efforts have reached far enough to round up the tourists in time for the celebration.
Patty Jimenez, leisure communication specialist for Visit Jacksonville, said there has been communications concerning the 450th but no marketing efforts in the neighboring county.
“When it comes to advertising St. Augustine’s big events we have not done any paid ads since our focus is Duval County,” she said in an email to The Record. “But I can tell you that St. Augustine is a very popular destination with our visitors so we do tell them about the many wonders the city offers in our Visitors Guide as well as our website.”
As for the hotels booking numbers, Jimenez said Visit Jacksonville doesn’t have a way of tracking those staying in Jacksonville with intent to visit St. Augustine.
However, they do know day trips to the historic sites are popular with their visitors.
As for Daytona Beach, Lori Campbell Baker of the convention and visitors bureau said in an email, “While some of our visitors might very well be timing their early September bookings to coincide with St. Augustine’s 450th, we’re not hearing anything specific just yet.”
Dana Ste. Claire, director of St. Augustine 450th Commission, said it’s likely people will come in for a day of the five-day celebration.
He’s confident bookings will pick up as the celebration gets closer but the important thing to keep in mind is the celebration of St. Augustine’s history.
“At the end of the day, this is a celebration for the community, by the community,” he said. “Tourism is important but we want to focus on what is really important to us.”