Sarasota-Bradenton Int'l Airport Making Push to Attract Europeans

Airport President Fred Piccolo wants to give new meaning to the "international" in Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Airport officials are aggressively targeting European tourists by attending trade shows and talking with overseas industry officials. The spillover effect of marketing overseas is already being seen. This week, a team of Dutch developers, along with local developers, met to talk about building a condotel for overseas visitors in Bradenton. Condotels are individually owned condominiums that are operated like hotels.

Piccolo believes the airport can build on its success in attracting new domestic airline service to the area by expanding the airport's international lure. Unlike domestic service, enticing a European carrier or tour operator can easily take five years, Piccolo said. A lot depends on developing relationships, something he and other airport officials have been concentrating on.

Seasonal flights to Canada now are the airport's only direct international offerings. Canadian flights will begin Nov. 12 and are scheduled through May.

While the use of private and corporate-owned aircraft from the U.S. and abroad increased by 42.5 percent in September, those flights have a limited appeal, said Bill Myers, a local recreational pilot.

"People who have large amounts of money and don't want to be patted down charter a jet and fly in. A car picks them up at the stairs and they walk away," Myers said.

Mike Walley, director of development at Sarasota-Bradenton International, attended a trade show in Holland last month for people interested in investing abroad.

"We spoke to several developers about adding to their inventory here," he said. "This is in line with the airport's objectives."

Walley would like to see international flights that include the U.K., Germany, Holland and increased traffic from Canada.

A Boeing 767 with 215 passengers would inject $638,000 into the economy, according to tracking by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Tourism and Travel. Multiply that by one flight a week for a year and you're talking about $33 million, Walley said.

More international flights are compatible with efforts by other Manatee County businesses and agencies who say international visitors fill a vacuum during Florida's off-season - Sept. 15 to Dec. 15.

Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, has been pursuing European consumer business at large travel trade shows in London and Berlin, one family at a time. Most foreign visitors, he said, come here by car from other destinations like Orlando, Miami and Fort Myers.

"I'm all for getting more European business," he said. "In Europe you haven't been on vacation until you've been to the beach. We're looking for the second and third-time customer who's waited in line for 1½ hours for a ride on the Tower of Terror."

Hoteliers like Jeff Gerry, co-owner and manager of the Gulf-front White Sands Resort on Holmes Beach, have come to depend on European business, especially welcomed after what many here are calling the worst September in memory for tourism.

International visitors have increased at least 5 percent in the past year, Gerry said. About 30 percent of the guests at the 21-unit White Sands Resort are Germans, Britons and Canadians.

"European business is a great help this time of year," he said. "Without them, businesses would suffer."

Dutch developer Mike Welter is looking at riverfront property near downtown Bradenton with a view to putting up a condotel complex to accommodate European travellers and support tour operators.

Judy Schomaker with Re/Max Properties in Sarasota said she has met five times with Welter and a local developer whom she declined to name.

"A site is being considered very seriously," said Schomaker, who is president of the Sarasota Association of Realtors. "They've been looking all over the state. The feel of the community is exactly what they're looking for in terms of arts and beaches and restaurants. They like the walkability."

A dearth of accommodation makes it more difficult to attract tourists, Schomaker said.

"We are losing hotels," she said. "New hotels won't hurt if we can get some."

Recent hotels-turned-condo include Longboat Key's 149-room Holiday Inn and Sarasota's 178-room Holiday Inn Airport-Marina.

Smaller boutique resorts like Siam Garden and Anna Maria Beach Cottages are also succumbing to the greater yields of condo conversion.

European tourists stay longer and spend more than Americans, White said.

Bradenton Herald

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