As the Santa Barbara hospitality industry gears up for UCSB graduation weekend, businesses are banking on more summer travelers who could stimulate the local economy.
There have been four consecutive monthly gains in transient occupancy tax revenue year-to-date, and Santa Barbara is on pace to set a record for hotel tax income. The city gained $1.13 million in TOT in April — a 6.4 percent increase from last year. Santa Barbara recorded $947,977 in TOT in March, a 14.9 percent increase from March 2011, and recorded an 11.9 percent increase in TOT in both February and January as the city netted $831,055 and $774,725, respectively.
The tourism industry has rebounded faster than expected as hoteliers noted increases in occupancy and room rates, according to Kathy Janega-Dykes of the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission.
Annmarie Rogers, director of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, said hotels are nearly booked up for next weekend, and she expects more domestic and international visitors this summer than last year.
“Now, with the university graduation and Summer Solstice, it’s going to be really busy,” she said. “I called a lot of the hotels and they said there is hardly anything available for this weekend, so by the middle of the week they will all be full.”
The Eagle Inn has filled up more rooms than expected this year, and General Manager Paul Bullock predicts 95 percent occupancy throughout August. He said occupancy is up 5 percent from last year and has steadily increased during the past two years.
“Santa Barbara is lucky because it’s such a destination,” said Bullock, who also serves as president of the Santa Barbara Lodging & Restaurant Association. “The weekends are always packed, and we’re definitely busier than a couple of years ago.”
The conference bureau is working on incentives to support Santa Barbara’s most frequent travelers — Southern California visitors — and marketing the area as a family destination. The cities of Carpinteria, Goleta and Santa Barbara formed the South Coast Tourism Business Improvement District, or TBID, at the beginning of last year to promote Santa Barbara. The regional body placed a small fee on rented rooms that went to the SBCVB & FC to market the area. The bureau also recently launched a visitor’s psychographic study to better understand why people come to Santa Barbara.
“We and the hospitality industry need to identify specific strategies to attract the right visitor during certain time frames,” Janega-Dykes said.
She added that while local restaurateurs and hoteliers have noticed an uptick in business, increased summer traffic isn’t a given like in years past.
“Four years ago, we knew business will be strong in summer and attract visitors, but now our travelers have a lot of choices and there’s increasing competition from areas with larger marketing budgets than us,” Janega-Dykes said.
In terms of commercial real estate, Santa Barbara retail vacancies dipped from 2.1 percent to 1.6 percent in the first quarter, according to a quarterly report from the Radius Group. But city officials said sales-tax revenues haven’t reached pre-recession levels, and property taxes are expected to hover around 3 percent growth for the next several years.
Steve Hyslop, owner of Chuck’s Waterfront Grill & Endless Summer Bar-Café, said it’s going to take a collective community effort to attract more visitors.
“We should all be thinking about making someone say ‘Wow’ when they leave,” he said. “Some of the things I see are the parking garage staffs manning the kiosk who always project hospitality. If someone makes you feel a bit better and if we can all do that as a town, that would be the best thing that can happen.”