June 21 marks the first day of summer, ushering in what is for San Diego the busiest season for tourism.
A decade ago, it was relatively easy to predict how well San Diego's visitor industry would fare during the summer months. Each year brought a hefty increase in summer travelers to our region as San Diego's reputation grew as an ideal leisure travel and convention destination.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed our lives and our industry. The attacks, coupled with a softening economy and a general drop off in business travel nationally, took a major toll on San Diego's visitor industry in 2002 -- as they did on leisure and business travel and convention and meeting activity across the nation and around the world.
The first quarter of 2003 also saw a softening of tourism activity nationwide, due predominantly to the war in Iraq coupled with low consumer confidence and a continued weak economy. People stopped traveling unless they had to for business or personal reasons. If they did go on a vacation, it was usually to a destination that was close to home and which they could reach by car.
Fortunately for San Diego, our aggressive marketing initiatives and appeal as a close-in drive and short-haul flight destination, have kept our visitor industry afloat during these challenging times. San Diego consistently ranks among the top five cities in the nation with the highest hotel occupancy rates. Some 70 percent of the region's overnight visitors come from the Western region of the United States. San Diego already enjoys a strong reputation as a popular destination for couples and families and it is hoped that a pent up demand for travel this summer will send many of these vacationers to the region, either for a new or return trip.
International tourism, which suffered a decline over the past several years due to world unrest and the cutbacks in international flights, is expected to increase this year due to the drop in the dollar's value, especially against the euro. San Diego was among the top 10 destinations for overseas visitors in 2002, according to the Commerce Department Office of Travel & Tourism -- a remarkable ranking since we are not an international gateway.
The availability of daily non-stop service on British Airways from San Diego to London Gatwick will continue to help us attract overseas visitors to our region. Thanks to this great service, visitors from countries from all over Europe can connect in London and enjoy a comfortable, direct flight right into San Diego -- without having to change planes or go through the time and hassle of clearing customs in another U.S. airport.
We're also excited about the addition of JetBlue Airways' two daily nonstop flights between Lindbergh Field and New York City's JFK beginning in just a few days.
The availability of a low-fare carrier providing direct service to the East Coast will open up a market for San Diego among budget-conscious travelers in that region who may not have otherwise considered a West Coast vacation destination.
Thanks to the expansion of the San Diego Convention Center -- which came none too soon to provide a much-welcomed boost to our economy -- we can expect an absolutely stellar summer of strong convention business. We expect some 110,000 convention delegates from June to August of this year, which is more than double that of last year for the same three months.
Convention visitors to San Diego spend more than twice that of their leisure tourist counterparts. These delegates will not only spend nights in our local hotels and dine in our restaurants, but they will also spend money utilizing all the many and varied services offered by San Diego businesses to orchestrate their convention and the special events surrounding it.
As far as our leisure traveler is concerned, we are looking at dramatic changes in the way people are booking their vacations and choosing their destinations. Basically, today's traveler is looking for stress-free vacations. Many are looking for quality time spent with family and visiting relatives. More than ever before, value is king. People are looking for bargains and planning vacations on ever-shorter notice. According to a recent report by the Travel Industry Association, 80 percent of Americans indicate they are still planning summer vacations, but 68 percent said they had not yet decided where to go.
The Internet has now become the vacation-planning tool of choice for the nation's travelers. Expedia reported that it set a single-day record a few days ago, selling 69,000 room-nights -- equivalent to filling every hotel room in San Diego County and then some.
An estimated 84 percent of leisure travelers who have Internet access plan to take a vacation this summer, according to a new national poll by Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russel. They also reported that visiting friends and relatives (45 percent), beach vacations (23 percent), and theme-park vacations (14 percent) topped the list of intended vacations. Some 40 percent of leisure travelers plan to take at least one vacation this summer with children. So, it is easy to imagine why, given all those trends, San Diego is in an excellent position to attract the vacation "surfers" on the Internet.
To that end, we are constantly updating and improving our Web site at www.sandiego.org to offer the potential visitor the option of not only getting the most up-to-date visitor information on our region, but also the best deals on hotel rooms, all-inclusive vacation packages, and other visitor services.
To stimulate travel demand to San Diego, getting our message out will be key. Toward this end, ConVis will continue to implement various marketing campaigns designed to keep visitor volume steady as the nation pulls itself out of fear and recession and the pent up desire to travel again motivates public sentiment. Blessed by Mother Nature with the nation's best climate, diverse scenery, outdoor attractions and activities, beaches and parks, an abundance of arts and cultural offerings, a vibrant restaurant scene, and excellent shopping and entertainment options, San Diego is well positioned to offer the visitor an exciting, rejuvenating, and fun experience while vacationing here.
Our branding campaign has also helped immeasurably in creating top-of-mind awareness of San Diego among time-starved vacation and meeting planners. Faced with information overload on a daily basis, these planners are ready to reach out to a proven brand that they know and trust. Through branded advertisements and other promotions directed at meeting planners and the leisure travel market, ConVis reinforces the fact that San Diego -- with its unique blend of first-rate facilities and an unparalleled lifestyle -- spells "success" every time, whether you are planning a vacation or a meeting.
The road ahead for San Diego's travel and tourism industry still has some short-term challenges but the overall picture looks promising as summer vacation travelers flock to our region in search of a vacation experience only San Diego can offer.
Reinders is president & CEO of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. E-mail him at email@example.com.