Local tourism rebounds in 1st half of 2021

More people — including tourists — are visiting The Villages’ town squares to hear nightly entertainment like Rocky & the Rollers, who got the crowd dancing during a recent performance at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square.

Packed hotels, lively recreation centers and an increase in excited travelers showed The Villages was a popular destination in the first half of the year. Those indicators suggest greater interest in the community’s lifestyle among not only residents, but visitors, and that the trend likely will continue as busy season approaches. Occupancy at Sumter County’s hotels from January to August 2021 averaged 68% and generated more than $15 million in revenue, according to STR, which tracks data on the hotel and lodging industry.

The data also showed that occupancy, demand and revenues in 2021  in Sumter County already have outperformed 2019 and 2020 overall.

It not only points to a larger trend of an increase in lodging demand, but also shows the tourism value of The Villages among those visiting family and those who are curious about the community’s lifestyle, said Jan Freitag, national director of hospitality analytics for the CoStar Group, the parent company of STR.

One of the most interesting trends Freitag observed in Sumter County and The Villages was that hotel occupancy from March to July ranged from 70% to just under 77%. Occupancy only reached the 70% mark once in all of 2019 and 2020, during February 2020, according to STR.

“It’s a clear indicator of the attractiveness (of The Villages) to leisure travelers,” Freitag said.

Numbers released Monday by tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida show that statewide, the estimated total of 32.517 million tourists between July 1 and Sept. 30 of this year is slightly more than the number of visitors in the third quarter of 2019 before the pandemic began, by just over 0.3%. Those numbers should get another boost now that the federal government has reopened borders to international travelers.

Another indicator of tourists returning to The Villages is the number of guest passes issued. The most recent numbers are an increase from last year and are close to pre-pandemic levels.

The Villages issued 236,700 guest passes in the 2020-21 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from the 200,900 issued from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, said Bill Skidmore, staff coordinator for The Villages Recreation and Parks Department. However, last year’s number is about 61,000 fewer passes than the most recent pre-pandemic period, Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2019.

John Rohan, director of The Villages Recreation and Parks Department, attributed the greater number of guest passes to people having confidence that The Villages is a safe place to visit.

Recreation staff members feel optimistic about the coming months with the holidays and the return of snowbirds and international travelers. The same can be said for Workman Transportation & Travel, which has seen interest in its airport shuttles to and from The Villages and day trips from The Villages approach pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s coinciding with people coming back from up North to The Villages,” said Scott Workman, owner of Workman Transportation & Travel.

Interest in the shuttle service between Orlando International Airport and depots at Lake Sumter Landing and Brownwood squares weathered challenges such as the delta variant in the late summer, he said. But now, the amount of passengers Workman transports to the airport is currently about 65% of its pre-pandemic business, he said.

Demand also is up for the day-trip side of Workman’s business, which involves organizing bus trips from The Villages to tourist spots in surrounding areas.

“I think people are just ready to get out and about, and that The Villages has got it under control,” he said.

Such optimistic outlooks build on trends that Freitag thinks will mark the coming holiday travel season: “The American leisure consumer isn’t going anywhere.”

“There will be healthy demand for consumers,” he said. “It will be very interesting to see if this can be sustained through 2022.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com. News Service of Florida contributed to this report.