TORONTO — The party may be over for Spring Breakers in Panama City Beach, but for snowbirds and leisure travellers, it’s only just begun.
While on an official visit to Toronto, David E. Demarest, Public Relations Manager for the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Travelweek that the destination – not to be confused with Panama City, Florida located 20 minutes away – is moving away from its reputation as Spring Break mecca and instead putting a renewed focus on its family-friendly offerings.
Of course, shedding its party reputation completely will take some time, said Demarest. But the destination is off to a good start, having enforced a drinking-on-the-beach ban last year, effectively ending Panama City Beach’s 10-year run as the capital of College Spring Break. While some local businesses are still actively welcoming partygoers, the destination as a whole has graduated, so to speak, to tamer pastures.
This is welcome news for the countless snowbirds and families who make the trek down south each year. In 2016, Panama City Beach welcomed approximately three million visitors, slightly down from the previous year (-0.67%). But with Spring Break now largely out of the scene, snowbirds – who previously would return home each March due to quadrupling hotel rates – are now free to stay much longer, which will hopefully bring numbers back up.
According to Demarest, fall visitation has doubled in the past five years, thanks to increased marketing efforts and a jam-packed calendar of events. Now, the destination is investing US$1 million in marketing dollars towards the spring season to fill the gap left behind by College Spring Break. He said it will take anywhere from five to 10 years for the plan to gain traction.
This spring, families and leisure travellers can enjoy a wide array of events, including UNwineD, a celebration of wine, craft beer and gourmet food that runs from March 24-25, and Seabreeze Jazz Festival, named one of the top 10 Jazz Festivals in the USA by ‘JazzIZ Magazine’ and taking place from April 19-23. Also on the agenda are the Pepsi SpringJam Music Festival on April 28-29 and the PCB summer Concert Series at Aaron Bessant Park amphitheatre, which runs every Thursday night in the open air.
Several big name hotel brands have also set their sights on Panama City Beach, with a recent survey spotlighting more than a dozen projects in the works. A new 182-room Hampton Inn & Suites is set to open this spring within walking distance of Pier Park, while a 200-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott will debut in spring 2018 with a lazy river and family-friendly amenities.
A US$30 million renovation of the Sheraton Bay Point, home to an award-winning Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, was recently completed in November. Currently underway as a new build is the 156-room Holiday Inn Express on Front Beach Road, a $16+ million project that will debut this March. A new Fairfield Inn & Suites is also under construction and architectural plans have been unveiled for a 160-unit development by The Continental Group priced at $60-$70 million.
“Panama City Beach is poised for tremendous growth over the next three years as the investment community has taken notice of the value available in our scenic Gulf coast communities,” said Visit Panama City Beach president and CEO Dan Rowe, who also noted the destination celebrated its 80th anniversary last May. “I look forward to the continued growth and investment evolving Panama City Beach into a recognized world-class destination.”
For more information go to visitpanamacitybeach.com.