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Santa Barbara Tourism a Bright Spot in Dreary Economy

Speakers at the 2012 Travel Outlook Conference say the area remains a draw for affluent and high-spending travelers

Despite national economic woes and global uncertainty, Santa Barbara’s tourism sector provides a light at the end of the tunnel, according to speakers at the 2012 Travel Outlook Conference held Tuesday at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.

The conference was organized by the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission.

“Leisure and hospitality accounted for 20 percent of the job growth over the last year in California,” said Dan Mishell, director of research for the California Travel & Tourism Commission. “Locally, in September there’s been a 2 percent increase in jobs year over year, whereas total non-farm jobs are down 0.3 percent, so it’s helping lead the way.”

Mishell discussed how such factors as gas prices and exchange rates relate to traveling.

He said it’s a healthy sign that California visits surpassed the pre-recession levels despite high gas prices, but the uncertain global economic outlook directly impacts people’s willingness to travel. International visits also are up, which is essential for Santa Barbara, Mishell added.

“Consumer confidence is down, gas prices are high and the stock market is low, but people are still traveling. It’s a priority for people,” said Mishell, describing it as a “new leisure economy.”

Corporate profit growth and low labor costs mean that businesses will travel more, benefiting the tourism sector, said Bruce Baltin of Colliers PKF Consulting. Although construction jobs are at a minimum, it means less building, higher occupancy levels and greater demand, he said.

“Even though the economy is dismal in many areas, I have to say the Santa Barbara hotel sector’s outlook is pretty good,” Baltin said.

The event’s keynote speaker, Destination Analysts founder David Bratton, discussed how the city’s tourism Web site attracts affluent visitors who spend twice as much as the average traveler.

“People who travel here are so affluent and willing to spend,” he said. “They’re spending a lot more than other destinations. Santa Barbara exceeded the results of five other (comparable) cities in every metric.”

According to a return on investment study conducted on Santa Barbara’s Web site from Feb. 18 to Sept. 30, he said, each visitor brought $49.18 of business, meaning about $14 million of business was generated by the site.

A little more than 63 percent of the people who visit Santa Barbara come for the hotels/accommodations, whereas the average traveler usually travels based on calendar events, Bratton said. Nearly 67 percent of travelers are staying in hotels in Santa Barbara, and those people are usually about 50 years old, employed, college educated, married and have an annual income of about $100,000, according to the study. 

“It’s good to have a high-spending group of people here to keep the Santa Barbara lifestyle going,” he said.

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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