When does peak season in Florida not include the dead of winter? The answer, apparently, is when there's a stubbornly soft travel climate. These days, the relationship between dates and rates is clearly altered. "Typically, we would go into our high-season rates during the second week in January," says Mark Marker, vice president of sales for Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, FL. "But this year we'll begin them in February, because of the price sensitivity of the customer. Everything is so rate-driven right now -- buyers are looking only at the numbers."
Across the hotel and resort landscape, "There is clearly a transition taking place at the moment," says Bill Boyd, president/CEO of Dallas-based Sunbelt Motivation and Travel. "Three years ago, the division between peak and off-peak periods was cast in stone, and there wasn't opportunity to negotiate on that. But now there's leeway on the fringes of each period that planners can leverage; I'd say it would be the three or four weeks before or after the dates a property uses to define each season."
Accompanying this seasonal shift is the occasional shortening or elimination of the "shoulder" season. For instance, while Saddle-brook has extended its 2004 peak season from May 1 to May 20 because it expects improved leisure demand around that time, Marker notes that the property will go straight to low-season rates after that, and that shoulder rates will apply only to the autumn season.
In any case, planners may not want to wait around too long to mull their options at warm-weather properties. Why? Because "If we do start filling rooms for this winter—and inquiries are definitely picking up -- we could reinstitute peak rates in mid-January," Marker notes. "We're looking at it on a day-by-day basis."