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Ban on Spring Breakers? Not This Year.

By Michelle Higgins
March 1, 2009
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SPRING break is back. After years of shunning the traditional college crowd in favor of a more affluent, tamer clientele, hotels and resort destinations are once again rolling out the welcome mat for party-hearty students.

The Sheraton on Grand Bahama Island, which had stopped taking student groups for the last couple of years, is now working with StudentCity.com, an online student travel agency, and accepting student groups for four-night stays in March for the agency’s Bahamas Party Cruise package priced at $589, including taxes and fees.

The Pro Family Spring Break Coalition of Panama City Beach, Fla., which in 2007 put out a press release about its efforts to “fight back against college spring break,” has disbanded, though the businesses that made up the group still actively market to families. For the second year in a row the city has teamed up with mtvU, MTV’s college network, with two weeks of live performances and undulating student crowds from March 8 to 21.

“We’ve realized that we need to encourage college students to come but make sure we’re not excluding families,” said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even Daytona Beach, Fla., which continues to market to families rather than students, acknowledged that their business would be welcome. “We’re going to try and hold out,” said Tangela Boyd, a spokeswoman for the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Of course,” she quickly added, “if students came we’re not going to turn them away.”

The change of heart is a significant reversal for many of these beach destinations, which have been trying to shed their wild-child past as spring break meccas by courting families and hipsters with a new message and upscale developments. But the tough economy is forcing tourism-dependent areas to come up with new ways to attract visitors. And as the luxury market slumps, corporations cancel conventions and families tighten wallets, student travel is showing a certain resilience.

“The student market is always going to be there,” said Jacqueline Lewis, managing director of StudentCity.com, which reports “robust” bookings for spring break this year. After working hard at school and saving up, she said, “kids are going to go away.”

This year, many are opting for shorter trips — five nights instead of seven — or weeklong trips departing on off-peak travel dates, like Mondays, to keep the trip affordable, she said. Traditional spring break locales like the Bahamas, Florida, and South Padre Island, Tex., had been leading the list toward the end of last year, when early bookers were facing pricey flights. But more recently, destinations like Jamaica, Cancún and the Dominican Republic are getting a boost as flight and hotel costs drop.

Fares for spring break travel from now through April 5 are down more than 15 percent compared with 2008, reaching roughly the 2007 level, according to Farecast.com, which tracks airfares. Nationally, the average airfare for a spring break trip — departing on a Saturday and returning on a Sunday — is $308, down $60 from last year. Average rates at upscale hotels in popular domestic locations are also down, to about $202 a night, or roughly 15 percent less than last year’s prices.

For the college crowd willing to bunk four or more to a room, the savings can be even greater. STA Travel, which caters to students, is offering seven-night hotel deals as low as $199 a person with four people to a room in South Padre Island and three-night packages from Chicago to South Beach from $301 a person, based on double occupancy.

Travelers who want to avoid the spring break crowd might consider Acapulco, which has dropped off the party circuit this year. Bookings are down about 20 percent from last year’s, partly because of relatively high flight costs, according to StudentCity.com. By contrast, bookings are up about 10 percent to Cancún and 20 percent to Jamaica.

An influx of students could help struggling tourism regions like Florida, where annual visitor numbers dropped for the first time in seven years to about 82.5 million in 2008, 2.3 percent less than 2007, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing company. Student bookings to Panama City Beach are up by more than 20 percent, according to StudentCity.com.

BUT even if they are courting the college crowd, few hotels and resort destinations are eager to promote that fact. When contacted for comment on the new partnership with StudentCity.com, a spokesman for Sheraton Grand Bahama Island Our Lucaya responded in an e-mail message, “We do not provide comments to media as per company policy, even positive news.” And Fort Lauderdale, which has moved away from its past as the spring break capital, with luxury hotels edging out wet-T-shirt concert venues, is sticking to its new slogan of “beach chic” and promoting itself mostly to couples and families with young children. “It is no longer the kind of place that college spring break activities really fits," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We spent the past 20 years rebuilding, reinventing, recreating. We’re not interested in looking back.”

Countering the local government’s strategy, however, is a small but growing contingent in the beach community working to keep spring break alive. Don C. Meyer, a marketing consultant for local businesses, has railed against Fort Lauderdale’s move to stifle spring break. Starting in October in each of the past several years, he has sent e-mail messages and faxes to more than 300 college and university newspapers each week to encourage students to come back to Fort Lauderdale. He compiles a list of spring break accommodations, restaurants and resources on his Web site, www.springbreakftlauderdale.com, and offers a spring break hotline for students. This year he expects even more businesses to quietly open their doors to the student crowd. “They don’t like to say it,” Mr. Meyer said, “but now, they’ll be happy to take anything.”

In Panama City Beach, family-oriented establishments echoed that statement. “It’s not my niche,” said Mike Bennett, a partner in the Towne of Seahaven, a resort development with more than 500 vacation rentals that caters to families, “but as a business owner that thrives during spring break, in this economy especially, you want to welcome every person.”

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