While reservations are lagging behind previous years, tourism officials are wary of speculating on how many might come to the area for Georgia-Florida football weekend.
The traditional game between the two universities is set for Nov. 7 in Jacksonville.
“It remains to be seen whether the shorter booking window trend is having an impact for Georgia-Florida weekend as travelers, in general, are making last-minute plans now more than ever,” said Scott McQuade, president of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Whether going to see the game in Florida, partying on East Beach or watching it on TV, the annual rivalry attracts thousands to St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea islands.
As of Tuesday, hotel and motel reservations for that weekend were trailing last year around 30 to 50 percent, he explained. Lodging providers so far have purposely kept the rates at similar levels as last year, but the industry has simply not performed the same so far this year, likely due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are a lot of different factors happening beyond the pandemic being a concern,” McQuade said. “Attendance at the game is limited and we have heard that there will be no tailgating allowed this year in Jacksonville. Overall, we anticipate attendance will be down because of the limited capacity to attend the game in person.”
The Glynn County Commission banned alcohol on the beach during Georgia-Florida weekend in an attempt to deter the 5,000 to 8,000 people who typically congregate for frat beach. As to whether the county’s strategy will work, McQuade could not say.
“We do hope that it may cause people to spread out more and be more conscious of their behavior if the crowds do arrive,” McQuade said. “The ideal world is that we have a busy but safe weekend without incident.”
A strong weekend would have been nice after a “devastating” spring for the hospitality industry, but McQuade said a summer season that far exceeded expectations might soften the blow.
Hotel revenue on St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll islands was only off 5 percent from the previous year’s record during the July-August summer season, he said.
“Several lodging establishments are purposely keeping occupancy lower to ensure safety standards can be met,” McQuade said. “September will perform better than last year, and October continues to stay busy Thursday through Monday.”
Highway hotels — those along Interstate 95 — have not fared as well, he said. They rely heavily on FLETC students, business travel, tour buses and Florida-bound travelers.
“All these travel sectors have contracted significantly during the pandemic and highway hotels are currently averaging 24 percent down over last year’s performance,” McQuade said. “For the highway hotels to fully recover we are going to need those sectors to begin to perform in more normal patterns and that will not occur overnight.”
While lodgings are doing well, the way visitors make reservations has continued to follow the unusual trends noted earlier this year.
“Bookings made this September for arrival in September were up 416.4 percent versus this same time last year,” McQuade said.
Winter is also looking anemic, he added, but pandemic-related restrictions in other large markets will hopefully make the Golden Isles, where it is easy to eat, play and relax outdoors, “a very attractive proposition.”
“Undoubtedly the hospitality industry in the Golden Isles is focused on keeping us safe and our economy healthy,” McQuade said. “We are extremely grateful to the entire workforce and the sacrifices they have made to keep us going.”