Richard Tamborrino

Richard Tamborrino is Publisher and Editor of the Key West Citizen and Free Press newspapers

Regardless of what transpires between now and the beginning of high season, which also coincides with the vote on the cruise ship referendums, it’s safe to say, in the short term, Florida Keys tourism will continue to lag. Even with the lower COVID-19 incidence rates, visitors are simply not traveling as freely now as before the pandemic.

There is no way to know whether this becomes our new normal or whether it’s a temporary condition. If it’s temporary, it probably becomes a matter of survival of the fittest, as in, what businesses have the financial wherewithal to wait this downturn out. But if it’s not, businesses may have to reinvent themselves.

As a tourism destination, Monroe County relies heavily on revenue from visitors. That’s been the ‘business’ model for decades. But now we may be faced with a difficult decision; operate in a business-as-usual mode, pray that business returns to a pre-COVID level, and we survive along the way. Or, we try something different. One is a safe, hopeful approach while the other is based on action and vision.

Our nation’s business landscape changes at light speed. People laughed at the first Amazon business models. Many were deeply skeptical about what Apple and Facebook would become in their early days. How many people knew anything about Tik Tok less than a year ago? Consider how deeply embedded in our culture these business are today.

If you look at how businesses have succeeded during the most turbulent times, what they all share is vision and risk-taking.

The New York Times ran a story last month which featured how several countries with fragile tourist economies (sound familiar?) have started to offer visas that allow foreign nationals to live and work in their countries for a period of at least six months.

Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley of Barbados is extending an even warmer welcome — and a special visa — for those whose jobs are now 100% remote; an opportunity to work remotely from the island paradise through their 12-month Barbados Welcome Stamp program.

Consider how innovative this vacation destination’s marketing approach is. Instead of trying to force traditional tourism messaging on deaf ears, they’re using the lure of relocating and working from one of the world’s most beautiful destinations to attract visitors. And although these are not visitors in the traditional sense, they will be dining, shopping and otherwise contributing to the local economy in ways tourists simply are not right now, and for an extended period of time.

Now, promoting the Keys as a destination residence for remote workers will never work as our cost of living is out of control, even if we do provide significant social advantages like a low crime rate and a moderately-sized school system, which for families with school age children is comforting. And relatively speaking, rents here are cheaper than in midtown Manhattan, Silicon Valley and other hubs around the country.

However, if the market self-regulates longer-term as a result of the pandemic, is it remotely possible we see housing coming down? Many former Keys workers have left the county and the inventory of housing is increasing, so landlords may be forced to take 20-25% less because three-quarters of a loaf is better than none.

But even if the Keys and Key West were to try to reinvent itself, how would it have to happen? First, there would have to be a collective will to accomplish that, and everyone, business and government leaders alike, would have to be ‘all in’. That might be a reach since we can’t seem to come together on far simpler tasks like regulating leaf blowers or containing the iguana population.

Second, what could we become if not a tourism destination? We’re never going to become a manufacturing hub, except on micro-levels for individual businesses making tchotchkes and souvenirs.

But take a local business like the Key West Rum Distillery. They have completely reinvented their business since the pandemic struck in March. They are directing more attention to their wholesale rum business, have teamed up with another local business, Kermit’s Key Lime Pie, to create rum cakes and pies, and have even turned their rum distillery into a hand sanitizer production line. They now report their June and July 2020 sales are equal to the same months last year. This is what reinventing a business looks like.

This will not be an easy process or solution for many businesses. It will require nerve, smart risk assessments, patience, and certainly, capital.

But let’s face facts; if tourism remains soft, more businesses will fail, more workers will leave the Keys and our county will be transformed, possibly forever.

We must think three-dimensionally for the future. Just in case.

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