Summer season on the Emerald Coast wraps up strong with record numbers across the board

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

From heavy traffic on the roads to people on the beaches and in the restaurants, there’s no question the Emerald Coast had a great summer season. 

“The summer was strong,” said April Sarver, public information officer for the Okaloosa County Commission. “Occupancy was up across the board and the average daily rate for lodging was up.”

People enjoy the beach and Gulf of Mexico in Destin earlier this summer.

RealJoy Vacations, which manages 900 properties on the Emerald Coast and 450 in the Destin area, has seen some of those great lodging numbers. 

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“Summer was record-breaking, just like the rest of the year has been,” said Ryan Olin, chief operating officer at RealJoy. “Occupancy was at 97%, similar to past years but the big difference was rates.”

He said they noticed back in February that the summer was booking up quickly so they were able to raise their rates.

The dolphin cruise boat Hannah Marie heads out of a busy Destin Harbor four a tour in July.

“We were able to raise our rates on average 45% higher than our best past summer,” he said. 

And the people still came. 

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“We had more visitors than we’ve had in years past,” said Sarver, who noted the numbers were up from 2019, which was a record year. 

Why so many visitors? 

“We have so many outdoor activities that people can do. ... That’s why people love it here,” she said. 

Steve and Wendy Wilson, owners of the Buccaneer Pirate Ship and the Southern Star dolphin cruise boats in Destin, saw some of that “outdoor” activity firsthand and in abundance. 

“It was amazing, over the top … mostly because we are a drive-to economy,” Wendy said of the summer season. 

"For us and many people here, it set record numbers,” Steve added. 

A group of smiling anglers pose with their catch after returning from a fishing trip aboard the charter boat Anastasia in July.

The people who came had the resources to do the different activities, whether it was fishing or dolphin cruises, he said. 

“Everybody seemed full to capacity,” Steve said. 

Nevertheless, the year had challenges. 

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“We suffered from a lack of labor force,” Steve said. “We had to find ways to get people to come back to work. ... That was kind of an issue we had.”

And because of the high demand with so many visitors, “it took a great energy to service so many people,” Steve said. 

“It was more work than we had to do before to keep up with the demand for people who were coming from all over the country, literally,” he said. 

Steve added that at one time or another during the summer, he saw every state represented on the roads. 

“Whether it’s through the social media or what, Destin is definitely on the map,” he said. “People came and enjoyed our beaches, restaurants, fishing. It was just a terrific year.”

Kale Stevenson, left, dives for a shot while play spike ball on the beach in Destin with siblings (left to right) Kobe, Elli and Teague at the start of the tourist season in March.

In addition to the labor problem, Steve said that getting merchandise for the pirate ship and Southern Star posed some problems. 

“There were breaks in the supply chain … just not being able to get anything,” he said, noting they still have merchandise held up in customs in San Francisco. “We just had to be very creative to make everything work. And it all worked out beautifully.” 

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Many of the restaurants experienced the same kind of summer. 

“We had a great summer,” said Chester Kroeger, owner of Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar and Grill on Emerald Coast Parkway in Destin. “The numbers were awesome, but labor was a real issue.”

Fudpucker’s has been serving up Fudburgers, hot wings, seafood and more for almost 40 years. 

Captain Cannonball of the Buccaneer Pirate Ship poses with a family during an excursion in Destin in this Daily News file photo.

“Our numbers were fantastic … way above last year and better than 2019 and 2018. It was one of the best we’ve had in a while,” Kroeger said. 

But because of the labor shortage, Kroeger was not able to open Fudpucker's lower level. 

Kroeger said his kitchen is set up to accommodate 25 people, but at times this summer there were only eight. 

A group of people motor their rental personal watercraft near the Destin Bridge in July.

“I think COVID has changed the employment landscape. So, I’m not holding out a great deal of hope for a change in that regard,” he said. 

However, Kroeger said he was “aggressively changing” his strategy and looking into the J-1 visa program and others for next year so they can open fully.