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    Memorial Day weekend puts 'heads in beds'

    Tourists are returning to hotels this weekend as the summer vacation period starts. Many travelers are Florida residents.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 24, 2002


    Here are the customary signs that Memorial Day weekend has arrived: American flags, family barbecues, outdoor concerts, three-day road trips.

    Here's another sign: No vacancy.

    Hotels are booked for this weekend, restaurants are hopping, and beaches are teeming with sunbathers -- signs that tourism in the Tampa Bay area is returning to normal.

    That's welcome news for businesses that had a tough winter in the wake of Sept. 11.

    "There was a definite slowdown in business, post-9/11, but things have improved dramatically," said John Marks, general manager of the Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa in St. Pete Beach. "We're expecting a big weekend."

    For servers, bartenders and fishing boat captains, Memorial Day means extra money in their pockets. It's a major weekend for luxury resorts and mom-and-pop motels, for posh restaurants and tiny ice cream stands.

    The local tourist trade, which has been slumping, began to bounce back this spring. This weekend is the next big test of how well the industry has recovered.

    "We need a good, long, busy Memorial Day weekend. Hopefully, the weather will be on our side," said Debbie Stambaugh, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. "It's nice to see our beaches busy. Lots of heads in beds."

    Eight months after Sept. 11, the local tourist industry is still seeing changes.

    The number of visitors flying in from Canada and Europe is noticeably down compared with previous years, Stambaugh said.

    Pinellas County attractions are picking up the slack by marketing themselves to visitors from what they call "the drive market" -- people who live within a day's drive.

    That strategy works nicely for Memorial Day, which traditionally brings a lot of inland Florida residents to the beach.

    "We'll see a lot of people from Orlando. We're pretty much sold out, thank God," said Susan Kennedy, spokeswoman for the 1,100-room TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach. "We have focused our efforts a lot more on the drive market than in years past."

    Beach restaurants are preparing to feed the incoming tide of Florida residents.

    "This is a local holiday. We get a lot of people from Tampa," said Rick Falkenstein, owner of the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille. "I've got 2,800 pounds of fresh grouper coming in. We'll ice them down in vats and cut what we need each day."

    The tourist business in Tampa has also become more regional Sept. 11, said hotel managers.

    "Once we got through the first of the year, business began to slowly come back, but it was a lot more local business. It's staying closer to home," said Kurt Mehl, sales director for the Hyatt Regency Westshore, which doesn't expect to sell out this weekend.

    Memorial Day weekend is considered the start of the summer season, when local hotels and attractions stop seeing snowbirds and start seeing Florida families on summer vacation.

    "In the summer months, we have more visitors from Florida. That's been true for quite some time," said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    The tourist industry can use a boost.

    Resort tax collections were down 20 percent in March and, because of an early Easter, the industry stayed in a funk through April.

    But the people on the beach most looking forward to this weekend are the workers who live on tips, the bellmen, busboys, cabbies, parking attendants and servers.

    "The servers are looking forward to massive crowds," said Dan Casey, owner of Snapper's, a seafood restaurant in St. Pete Beach. "For them, it's the difference between making $90 a night, or $225."

    -- Staff writer Ryan Meehan contributed to this report.

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