Coronavirus Impact

Just when you begin to think you’ve seen it all something else pops up. And, so it was around mid March as I was in the process of gearing down my 43rd winter season hosting the Canada Calling radio broadcasts to Canadians throughout Florida and other sunny and warm destinations “down south”.

If you’ve never stumbled across Canada Calling on your radio dial (or in more recent years on line) it’s a daily 5 ½ minute dose of news-from-home that’s uniquely Canadian. It all began 66 years ago and over that period of time it’s never missed a day! While the daily hook up with home can be heard everywhere nowadays, Florida has been its reason for being since day one, January 4th of 1954.

In the 43 years that I’ve been at the helm from my base near Toronto we’ve witnessed just about every impact imaginable on the winter season tourist business in Florida. Among other things, we’ve stick handled through the fallout from Gulf Wars, an oil shortage, the collapse of the housing market, several recessions and a Canadian dollar that’s been in the tank in relation to the Greenback for most of the past 40 years. An exchange rate this winter in the range of 1.35 was certainly not helpful. I thought I had seen it all. Things were about to change. In a hurry!

As Canada Calling is unique to the radio business in Florida so is the Canadian market to Florida. It’s always been the number one “international” source of tourism and it probably always will be providing things get back to normal.

Canada is the only “international” market that has traditionally featured a 40 to 45 per cent drive segment. People in the business of counting tourist numbers can’t get a handle on us. They can’t just access airport arrivals and departures or depend on numbers out of hotels and car rental companies to get a definitive count. That works with the European market and other overseas sources of Florida business…not with Canada. Once we’re in the state during the winter staying in accommodations we’ve arranged privately, we’re all over the place visiting family and friends who make the annual trek south. It’s virtually impossible to track our movements. For that reason and others I’ve always taken numbers published by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, and various counties with more than a grain of salt. The honest to goodness truth is no one knows what the actual numbers are each year.

What we do know is the market is huge…relatively speaking. While the Canadian numbers each winter are probably in the range of three million, we’re a drop in the bucket when you consider in a normal year tourist numbers in Florida top one hundred million. What makes us unique is many Canadians stay long term and many own property contributing to local economies year round.

What does the state do to attract all of this business from north of the border? In the overall scheme of things very little. As far as most Canadians are concerned, Florida is a word-of-mouth market. Many of us go to the “cottage” up north during the summer. We go to Florida during the winter. Many of us drive or take the cheapest flights we can find and we go to familiar spots year after year that have hosted our grandparents, our parents, friends and business associates. Many families do multiple visits each year.

While Visit Florida has maintained a contracted representation office in Toronto in one form or another for years it has no public presence. A handful of Florida destinations undertake assorted low budget marketing initiatives once a year north of the border. But, where the rubber meets the road, with the exception of Walt Disney World, their marketing presence in Canada is all but non existent. It should be noted that for years a number of prominent businesses in Florida have targeted the Canadian market in-state, and they’ve done very well by it. Lakeland based Publix is the most notable having done it for decades. Bradenton based Bealls is one of many others that have done it for years.

There was a brief period about ten years ago when Visit Florida launched an intensive Canadian promotional campaign that was, I’m told, highly successful. (Full disclosure: I was asked to be a part of it and made a contribution). Aside from that initiative there’s been far more talk out of Tallahassee than action. There’s an occasional promotional visit north of the border arranged by the state but these trips gear primarily to the travel trade and have little if any contact with the general public. Bottom line: Florida gets the bulk of our tourist business through tradition and word-of-mouth and the fact that it’s warm and inviting in Florida in the winter when it’s cold and snowy in most of Canada.

It’s been my experience that a vast majority of people in the Florida tourist business really don’t understand the market. Yes, they know about the lousy state of our dollar. They know we head south in early November and head back home at the end of March. They know we own property throughout the state and we spend a lot of money while we’re away from home. With a few exceptions they don’t understand why we go where we go or what we do when we’re there. And, most importantly, they don’t comprehend the one thing that stands between us going to Florida and not going to Florida. It’s called travel medical insurance.

On March 13th the government of Canada issued a Global Health Advisory related to coronavirus. Florida’s tourist business got a wake up call the following day. One e mail from a retired teachers group in Ontario all but spelled the end to the winter tourist season. With that one e mail and others that followed the winter tourist business dried up in a matter of hours. Canadians in Florida who had their travel insurance arranged through RTO were given ten days to get home. They had to be back in Canada by 11:59PM, Monday, March 24th or their insurance would be cancelled. Canadians could stay down south (and a few did) if they wanted to but ignoring insurance company warnings could lead to crippling medical bills should a health emergency arise. No one from Canada wants to run that risk!

Over the past seven decades Florida’s tourism out of Canada has revolved around retirees and those about to enter their so-called Golden Years. Just about everything else flows from it. The sixty plus crowd, the so-called Snowbirds (jeez, I’m one Canadian who hates that term!), and everybody else vacationing abroad used to have their out of country medical expenses covered by Canada’s provincial medicare systems. But that ended back in the early ‘90’s. Out of country expenses were bleeding the system dry. One by one provincial governments put a very low ceiling on out of country coverage to the point where last December, Ontario, for example, (the prime source of Florida business in Canada) got out of it altogether with the exception of matters related to kidney dialysis. Everyone travelling outside of Canada has to buy travel medical insurance before departing. Many private firms are in that business.

So, Florida’s Canadian tourist business depends on those travelling south being able to access out of country medical coverage. If you’re young or middle aged and in good health, coverage is easy to get and relatively inexpensive. Once a traveller gets on in years, costs rise. If a pre existing condition is involved in the equation all of a sudden costs go up to the point where a trip south becomes unaffordable or strict out of country time limits are put in place.

Good times in the Florida sun, the happy hours, morning and evening walks on the beach, golf outings with friends, spring training ball games, visits to attractions, fairs and theme parks all hinge on one thing….the ability of Canadian winter visitors to get travel insurance.

Where do we stand today? The borders are closed to all but essential movements back and forth. While the supply chain stays open for obvious reasons, tourism is closed.

Many destinations in Florida count on the Canadian market showing up every November. The destinations range from an RV park in Milton at the far west end of the Panhandle to the trendy boutique hotels in Key West….from Redington Beach to New Smyrna Beach. For decades Canadian long term visitors and their families have supported local economies in major centres such as the Pinellas County beaches from top to bottom, the beaches of Greater Fort Lauderdale and the Palm Beaches and smaller communities from Zephyrhills, to Englewood and Port Charlotte.

Will all of those Canadians be back in fall? That’s the big question right now. This has never happened in seven decades.

Thousands of Canadians had flights booked for their March school break. The flights were cancelled at the last minute. All of those people are now stuck, unable to get refunds. All they can access is a voucher for a flight at some later date. Thousands of Canadians who own houses, condos and RV’s in permanent positions in RV parks are now paying utility and maintenance fees and taxes for something they can’t access and may not be able to access for months.

All they and everyone can hope is this pandemic is short lived. And, we can all hope that when current problems ease there isn’t another flare up in the summer, fall or next winter. As mentioned earlier the state of Florida has bounced back from everything thrown at it in the past and it will in the future.