With millions of holiday lights about to be turned on in downtown St. Augustine, those in the hospitality industry are hoping to flip the switch to a more profitable mode this fall.
Ahead of the official start of the Nights of Lights celebration, indications are this year’s event is going to be an essential boost to the tourism economy.
Just like last year, the industry needs a kick-start because it’s again recovering from the impact of a hurricane.
“We have every reason to believe this will be another banner year,” said Richard Goldman, CEO and president of the county’s visitors and convention bureau.
The annual celebration, which has been going on for more than two decades, kicks off Saturday. The first weekend is always a popular one, and local innkeepers said the demand for this weekend and beyond is high.
“Nights of Lights has been a great addition to the city of St. Augustine for a long time, but the interest has really increased in recent years,” said Joe Finnegan, owner of the St. Francis Inn and Casa de Suenos Bed & Breakfast.
“The word has spread about Nights of Lights in St. Augustine.”
Both the Red Train Tours and the Old Town Trolley Tours are also major beneficiaries of the celebration. Both companies find their vehicles in high demand this time of year as riders check out the lights and sing Christmas songs while riding around town.
Like the hotels and other attractions, the trolley/train tour companies suffered difficult Septembers, so seeing high demand again is encouraging.
“Our phones generally start ringing in August with people looking to book tours,” said Kim Kiff, regional manager for Ripley Entertainment, which operates the Red Trains.
“We even had some book a year ahead. We are very positive about the upcoming holiday season, and are ready and waiting with our holiday cheer.”
There hasn’t been much cheer the last two falls for the hospitality industry. Just like last year, visitor-based businesses need the Nights of Lights to assist in their financial recovery.
And while Hurricane Matthew might have dealt a bigger hit to St. Augustine’s image because of the heavy flooding here, this year’s Hurricane Irma caused even more loss of business for some.
“One of the things that was different this year in terms of cancellations because of Irma compared to last year … so many of our neighbors throughout the state of Florida were negatively impacted by Irma,” Finnegan said. “We saw many, many more cancellations this year than we did last year. The cancellations were significantly greater because so many Floridians were impacted.”
But as the holiday season approaches, Finnegan said his reservations through at least December are looking solid.
Goldman said, due in part to the popularity of Nights of Lights, he expects a very good end of the year for the lodging industry in the county.
“It looks like a very thorough fall recovery and we’re excited about that,” Goldman said. “(Nights of Lights) is really an enormous help. And as it gets refined each year, each step tells people, ‘I can do that, I can have a good time with that.’”
Among the local optimists is Irving Kass, owner of the St. George Inn. He said he’s full, as expected, for the weekend.
“We’re seeing very strong pickup for, obviously, this weekend and all through December,” Kass said. “It feels very normal. The demand looks the same as the last few years. It’s starting to really kick in.”