Beyond Spring Break

Panama City looks to take the next big step.

Long held as an unofficial host of spring break for countless college-age visitors, Panama City Beach developed a reputation as a location for offering unbridled, uninhibited activities while creating a short but profitable annual window of opportunity for those in the tourism industry. But with a surge of development and a new international airport ready for takeoff, options for calculated expansion of year-round, upscale and family-oriented tourism efforts are begging to be explored.

And thus, Panama City Beach, which is located on the sparkling-white sand shores of the Gulf of Mexico, finds itself at a crossroads of sorts that some say will determine whether many of the local restaurants, hotels and related tourist attractions will sink or swim.

Spring Break or Bust
Over the past several decades, as the beachside fun and debauchery ensued for teenagers flooding in from many of the regional high schools and colleges, the tourism industry grew to meet the demand. Nestled among the dance clubs and bars, brassy neon motel signs glow on the city’s Front Beach Road, the main street for spring break action. For many of the operators of these businesses, catering to college-age clientele with discretionary funds to burn on a good time remains a way of life.

Paul Wohlford, vice president of sales and marketing for The Resort Collection of Panama City Beach, a company that owns and operates six local upscale resorts, says: “Spring break has done a lot for the Panama City Beach community for years and years and years, and it is hard to let that go for many people because it is so successful.

March has been one of the highest bed-tax-collections months of the year.”

In fact, the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that more than 500,000 visitors hit the 27 miles of beach last March. And despite the current economic crunch, the city is one of the country’s few tourism destinations that experienced a year-over-year increase in visitors for the month. Early indicators suggest that 2010 may see even more spring-breakers staying and playing in Panama City Beach.

Julie Hilton, a local attorney and hotelier, says that history in other markets, such as Cancun and Orlando, Fla., has shown that no matter how upscale or family-oriented a destination may become, being recognized as a spring break location is vital to its economy.

Those few hectic weeks in March account for approximately 30 percent of the annual business for Hilton’s four hotels located on Panama City Beach.

“If the city chooses to drive out spring break, it will also mean that a lot of people will not be employed and a lot of businesses will not survive, and there won’t be anything to replace them,” Hilton says.

Yet while there are obvious benefits to the spring break reputation, some business owners say it’s not a one-size-fits-all economic lifeboat.

Dave Trepanier is the owner of Firefly, a restaurant at the Shoppes of Edgewater in Panama City Beach. Trepanier opened the fine-dining establishment, complete with wine-locker service, two years ago because he saw the need for an upscale restaurant in an emerging market.

“There are two sides of spring break – the college and the family,” Trepanier says. “The family spring break is great for everyone; it’s the wild college spring break and the high school kids that are a problem for some people. I don’t mind it, and I realize it is a vital part of the economy here, but does it work for me at that time? Absolutely not.”

And he’s not alone.

The Panama City Beach CVB has recently shifted its focus on the image it builds for the area. The CVB spent $150,000 promoting spring break last year but has reduced that portion of its budget to $25,000 for this year, causing some businesses to retort by forming a private co-operative to pick up the gap in marketing efforts.

This group of merchants, restaurateurs and other hospitality-related businesses formed after the CVB dropped its standing relationship with cable network MTV, which provided national spring break coverage.

The Upside of Upscale
While the very public debate continues, for many, Panama City Beach is viewed as at its coming of age, and the doors to re-establishing the area as something more than a bargain-basement vacation spot are wide open.

There are more than 28,000 rental units in Bay County, where Panama City Beach is located. Much of that inventory, including luxury condominiums and nationally recognized hotels, has been recently developed and is a true departure from the economy motel offerings that shaped the city’s beachfront for the past 40-plus years.

“Over the last five to 10 years, new condo resorts have opened,” says Dan Rowe, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach CVB. “We opened Pier Park two years ago, and it has a million square feet of dining and retail space. [These additions have] really helped push along the renaissance of Panama City Beach.”

Adding to the influx of accommodation-and-amenity development, the area has just opened the much-anticipated Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. Located in the West Bay Sector, near Panama City Beach, this new airport, which will be the first international commercial-service airport built in the country in the past 15 years, has many in the community looking toward the skies to establish a year-round tourism effort.

And with the October 2009 announcement that Southwest Airlines would provide service from several metropolitan cities to the new airport, expectations of those in the hospitality industry are high.

Stephen Hilliard, vice president of resort and club operations for the St. Joe Co., which ranks as one of the largest landholders in Florida and developer of several planned communities in the Panama City Beach area, says: “It’s access – really. It’s access and affordable prices. We can now get to 67 different locations through Southwest and at fares significantly more affordable for people.”

Diversification of a Destination
By looking to other successful tourism destinations, it is possible that Panama City Beach does not have to travel one direction at its current crossroads but could merge its options for an entirely different path to its new identity.

For example, New Orleans’ hospitality industry thrives during the Mardi Gras season – which, like spring break, is a matter of weeks out of each year – yet the city doesn’t rely on parades and parties 365 days a year.

“Some people feel we need to move toward a family spring break scenario rather than a kids’ spring break,” Wohlford says. “I’m employed by six resorts that don’t rent to guests 25 or under while at the same time, I understand why others support the college spring break crowd. My belief is it is never going to go away. We may not market to it from a city perspective, but it’s always going to be a part of Panama City Beach.”

Hilliard references South Florida, often credited as the birthplace of spring break, as a case study for Panama City Beach. “I suspect if we look back at Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, we would find there were a whole group of folks concerned about their product and clientele – that would be a very valid concern.”

Both cities have branched out to include year-round promotions, but spring break continues in the marketing efforts. “I suppose, in the end, that is what’s going to happen,” Hilliard adds. “There are very few destinations that can survive on a single market segment, and it is just a matter of finding the balance.”

For those in Panama City Beach who think that the identity of the area should remain the same and for those who advocate a move toward promoting more upscale amenities, Hilliard says:  “Do they really have to be mutually exclusive? I think that is the question.”

And the answer lies within the direction the community, as a whole, decides to go.

“It is our experience that we don’t have to be all or nothing,” says Hilton, who has been in the hotel business for more than 40 years. “Like a number of other destinations, we can have different markets in different seasons.”

Harnessing the community’s efforts to create a future identity will take time and energy, as well as cause some significant growing pains. However, the result could create a whole new perception from the beach-town-gone-wild destination to a metropolitan resort that draws a variety of demographics throughout the year.

Rowe, who is passionate about the CVB’s strategic plan to expand the tourism calendar, says: “We are way more than one thing, and that’s part of our efforts to continue to tell the story of Panama City Beach. Spring break is an important part of the mix, but it does not define us.”

Fasten Your Seat belts

Vacation – just hearing the word can make your stress levels drop a little and your mood lift a lot. Our hard-earned time spent away from work and the daily chores of life isn’t meant to be wasted. So when traveling, getting from point A to point B with little to no downtime is of the utmost importance.

Unfortunately, for many years, potential visitors to Panama City Beach found themselves facing out-of-the-way layovers, sometimes more than one, and expensive fares when considering air travel to the northwest Florida beachside town. With a commercial airport built in 1948 that had many restrictions, the area was left to primarily concentrate on regional drive-in tourism.

But the opening of a new $330 million international airport is expected to be the ticket to Panama City Beach’s emergence as a nationally sought tourism destination, delivering fast and affordable transportation to the area.

Under the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, scheduled to open on May 23 under the call letters ECP, is part of an overall vision community leaders have for the future of the area.

Randy Curtis, executive director of the Northwest Florida – Panama City International Airport and Industrial District, which owns and operates both airports, says: “I see it as a very important infrastructure element of the community.

The new airport is going to be unparalleled as far as competing with other facilities at other airports in the panhandle and really across the country.”

Discussions for a new airport began in 1998 after plans to expand the existing facility were scrapped, mainly because of environmental concerns. By 2001, the St. Joe Co., Bay County’s largest private landholder, donated land that included 4,000 acres for the new airport facility, in accordance with Florida’s sector-planning process.

Stephen Hilliard, vice president of resort and club operations for the St. Joe Co., says the company looked at appropriating the land for the airport as a move that met many needs: “When our company looked at it from a regional standpoint, it became an opportunity. We can provide land that will help the region over time by having this airport that is not in an area surrounded by homes and such and can be master-planned so the commercial, industrial and residential interests can be blended in a fashion so they won’t infringe upon one another.”

The announcement last fall that Southwest Airlines will serve the new airport – offering flights to and from such markets as Nashville, Tenn.; Houston; Orlando, Fla.; and Baltimore – has spurred hopes that the facility will be the much-needed catalyst for change. In fact, the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau recently signed an agreement with the airline to jointly promote the area.

“With a good, solid airline service and cheap fares, that is going to open a lot more possibilities than we had previously,” Curtis says. “I think you’ve got a unique opportunity here right now. We’ve sort of got some room to plan for the future and to look at what the vision of the community is for the future.”

Digital Sponsors

Become a sponsor ...

Sign up for our FREE

New Orleans Magazine email newsletter

Get the the best in New Orleans dining, shopping, events and more delivered to your inbox.