DAYTONA BEACH SHORES, Fla. – It was a familiar scene as Javon Chaney and his friends arrived for spring break on Monday in the parking lot of the Hawaiian Inn Beach Resort, stretching their legs and hoisting tote bags jammed with supplies from the back of their SUV.
“I work a lot and I needed the time off to relax,” said Chaney, 25, a UPS employee from Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I figured the beach was the place to go.”
On their cross-country trek, Chaney and his wife, Kaitlyn, 25, a biology major at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, stopped to pick up a friend, Hope Smith, 21, in Fort Worth, Texas.
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They were among a student-powered 20-something crowd that has been arriving in noticeably smaller numbers this year in Volusia County, Florida, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic affects college schedules and travel policies for students, said Scott Edwards, manager at Daytona Beach Welcome Center, a company that has booked spring break students into area hotels for decades.
Although videos of spring breakers wreaking havoc in the streets of Miami Beach have gone viral nationwide, that’s not the scene in Daytona Beach, Edwards said. Instead, there are more families than students on the beach this year, he said.
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“It’s down substantially,” Edwards said of this year’s student influx. “Probably 80% of the traditional universities have canceled traditional spring break. Most have made it almost impossible for kids to take a break.”
A short list of schools that have canceled or altered spring break plans includes Ohio State University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, Baylor University, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Purdue University, the University of Kentucky and Davidson College, according to the website Inside Higher Ed.
That means the usual rhythm of the season, weeks dominated by clusters of students representing the Big Ten, SEC and other regions, isn’t happening. Nor is there the promotional push of national sponsors with an eye on the student demographic, he said.
“There are hardly any corporate sponsors this year,” Edwards said. “The big companies just didn’t want banners and signs up in the news media with the COVID pandemic going on; they didn’t want to be part of it.”
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'Not a lot of partying'
In the parking lot at the Hawaiian Inn, meanwhile, the friends were looking forward to spending most of their time on the beach, a plan that sounded appealing amid the health guidelines tied to the coronavirus pandemic, they said.
“I hope the weather gets better,” Smith said, bracing in her hoodie against a blast of chilly wind as temperatures hovered Monday in the low 60s.
On the Daytona Beach Boardwalk, there were more families than students early this week along the stretch from the Daytona Beach Pier to the Bandshell.
“I think the spring breakers all went to Miami,” said Neil Howell, vacationing from Cincinnati with his wife, daughter and granddaughter. “This is my first time to the ocean in my life, and my daughter’s first time.”
Nearby, Rich Mielbye, 38, of Orlando, was tossing a foam football with his young daughter. Mielbye, a U.S. postal employee, traveled from Orlando for spring break with his wife and three kids.
“Pretty much everywhere else was booked, but it wasn’t here,” he said. The Mielbyes had some initial worries about the mass presence of vacationing college students, he said.
“That’s originally why we didn’t want to come here,” he said. “But I’ve noticed that there’s not a lot of partying going on. I’m pretty happy about it.”
Hoteliers also are upbeat about the number of families making reservations for spring getaways, said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County.
“It’s all family-oriented and it’s marvelous,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, we had bad weather over the weekend and that resulted in a lot of checkouts and cancellations. Without that, it would have probably been the biggest weekend of the year. People are more confident; they want to take that vacation, so we are going to see a lot of family spring break visitors for the next month. That’s my prediction.”
Couples and families also dominate the mix at the 212-room Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach Shores, said general manager Rob Burnetti.
“Almost the day after Bike Week, it was like flicking a switch from the Bike Week folks right into families with the beach towels and beach buckets. They came, and they came in droves. We’re seeing it through the middle of April.”
Burnetti also pointed to an encouraging sign that guests are starting to book rooms further ahead of planned visits, a change in a trend toward last-minute travel decisions that have been prevalent during the pandemic, he said.
“The booking window is starting to stretch out,” he said. “It has been three to seven days but now it’s as far out as 21 days, so that is starting to pick up a little.”
“The biggest factor is people just want to get out,” he said. “They are sick of being in the house.”
'A welcome change'
The outlook is a far cry from the bleak situation at this time last year, as Volusia County hoteliers suffered a record-setting 80% drop in occupancy and tourism bed-tax collections for April, as the pandemic exerted a vise grip on the tourism industry here and worldwide.
As the pandemic surged in March, Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry took the unprecedented step of urging spring breakers not to come to Daytona Beach.
“We all know how bad last April was, so it’s definitely a welcome change,” Burnetti said. “Folks are definitely getting out. It’s predominantly families and couples, not college-age people, at least here at The Shores. It’s not the college crowd and it’s a good change for us.”
As a tourist destination, Daytona Beach has been working hard for years to move beyond its long-ago reputation as a spring break Mecca during the days of MTV-fueled mayhem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Davis said.
“It has taken us 15 or 20 years to erase that,” he said. ”Right now, everything we have been doing not just today, not just last year, but for the past 15 years, has been about promoting ourselves as a family spring break destination.”
This year, families are driving business at hotels such as the 744-room Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, the area’s largest hotel.
“We have been very busy here at the Hilton,” said Jim Berkley, the hotel's general manager. “Our guest demographic right now is a hybrid of groups, families and spring break students. Certainly lots of traffic and high demand right now.”
There have been relatively few college spring breakers at properties owned and operated by Ormond Beach-based Premier Resorts & Management, said Domien Takx, vice president of operations.
“Certainly not a large number,” Takx said. “That mix is there this year, with more families and couples than spring breakers.
Premier properties include Hilton Garden Inn; Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites; Best Western Daytona Inn Seabreeze; and Ocean Breeze Club Hotel, all in Daytona Beach; as well as the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Daytona Beach Shores.
At One Daytona, across from Daytona International Speedway, occupancy is on par with 2019 levels at The Daytona Marriott Autograph Collection hotel and the Fairfield Inn & Suites, said Nancy Guran, director of sales for both hotels.
“Most of our guests are families,” she said. “Certainly, our occupancy during this time period is much better than last year (when) COVID had caused most guests to cancel.”
At the 91-room Sun Viking Lodge in Daytona Beach Shores, longtime owner Gary Brown hasn’t seen the usual crowd of college kids this year along State Road A1A.
“Riding up and down the street, I typically see a lot more of them than I have this year,” said Brown, who caters to families at the Sun Viking. “We typically only take families here so that’s what we get.”
Phones have been ringing this year with guests making reservations for spring vacations as well as advance bookings through June, Brown said. In those conversations, there’s one question he doesn’t hear as much anymore.
“Ten years ago, I’d get phone calls from families asking, ‘Will this be the week all the kids from college will be down there?’ I don’t get that many questions about spring break as we used to, so I think we’ve been successful in finally getting over the hump of that stigma.”
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Daytona Beach: Spring break 2021 has fewer college students amid COVID