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A mix of winter-only residents and visitors are boosting business's bottom lines much later than usual, and already planning an early return to the region.

They’re going, going, but not all gone.

While Easter traditionally marks the end of Southwest Florida’s busy season, some part-time “winter” residents are hanging around longer than usual, in part due to unusual cold snaps up North.

That’s just fine with Janet Nebus, an owner/manager for Rock Creek RV Resort and Campground off Airport-Pulling Road, near Naples Municipal Airport, who feels lonely when they all leave.

“It’s terrible for us,” she said of season’s end. “It’s desolation. They take off and it’s like, wait, it seems like a ghost town.”

While some local residents may be eager to say goodbye to season because it means less traffic, shorter lines at the grocery store, faster appointments at the doctor’s office, and an easier time getting a seat at a favorite restaurant, the exodus can be bittersweet for local businesses.

In February alone, Collier saw 191,900 visitors, who injected nearly $225 million into the local economy. Those statistics reflect only “heads in beds” — visitors staying in hotels or other short-stay vacation rentals. Tourists generated $1.6 billion in 2013.

As for seasonal residents, Collier’s population of about 330,000 increases by more than 100,000 during peak season, according to census figures and the county’s website.

For many area businesses, the end of season means slower times ahead. After one of the busiest seasons in years, some are ready for a break, including the rental agents at Premier Sotheby’s International Realty.

“It was up,” said Scott Dougherty, director of Premier Sotheby’s rental division, about the demand for seasonal homes this year. “I could kind of tell because most of my leasing associates are worn out.”

Winter residents already are booking rentals for next year, earlier than usual, he said.

With Easter falling later this year, some part-time residents have used it as another excuse to stay longer. Some will still be here in May, even June.

“It seems that people are staying longer through season and enjoying some of the quiet time, when Naples slows down a little bit,” Nebus said.

Jill Martin, a professor from New York, and her retired husband stayed a few weeks longer than usual this year at Rock Creek, but they expected to leave this weekend.

“Small groups are fun to be in sometimes,” she said. “It’s very quiet now, very peaceful.”

While enjoying the sunshine last week, she laughed at the weather up North, which brought snow to New York. “It’s crazy,” she said.

Jennifer Semro, owner of Critter Sitters of Bonita Springs/Naples, said she hasn’t said goodbye to all of her seasonal customers just yet. She watches dogs, cats, birds, and an occasional hamster or iguana.

“Some people are telling me this is their last visit, they will be going home, but I’m still very busy,” she said.

The lines between season and offseason are blurring, with a growing number of homeowners and year-round residents, said Rick Virdinlia, owner of Property Service of Naples LLC. While his handyman services slow with the exit of seasonal residents, it means greater demand for his home watch services.

“People are staying longer,” he said. “In fact, we have some clients who have recently left in the past 10 days, who wish they had stayed three weeks longer because of the recent snowfall from the Midwest to Connecticut.”

A good gauge of the changing seasons is the number of car haulers spotted on local roads.

Jeanne Phillips, a dispatcher for Young’s Auto Transport Inc., off Alico Road south of Fort Myers, said business started picking up in March for seasonal residents returning up North, but it will remain strong through June.

It has been an unusual year, with more cars delivered later in season.

“Normally, we would take a little breather in February and we never got that,” Phillips said. “They were still coming down. I think they were just so tired from the snow.”

Seasonal residents are also coming earlier than they used to.

“It used to be they would come after Labor Day, and we saw quite a few booking in August this year,” Phillips said.

May is the company’s busiest month for hauling cars back up North and it has no more spots available until June. Its customers are mostly from the Midwest, and the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

Gregg Taylor, owner of Snowbird Car Service in New Jersey, said his northbound deliveries will go until the end of June. His service take cars from Florida to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Cars await the arrival of their owners at the airport.

“We just get busier every year,” Taylor said. “It keeps snowballing, if you will.”

We think season now has expanded almost through the end of May.”

Randy Smith, owner of Naples Transportation & Tours, said season isn’t over for him either.

“No matter when Easter falls it doesn’t really matter for us,” he said. “We think season now has expanded almost through the end of May.”

Besides providing private transportation, his company runs Segway, trolley and Everglades tours. Overall, he said, sales this season were up by at least 10 percent. While he gets some business from seasonal residents, more of his business actually comes from tourists and visiting groups.

“The group business has been very strong. Each year, it’s getting better and better,” he said.

Tourists are still here, too.

“The hotels traditionally have strong Mays for leisure and group business and we’re also getting some bookings for group business in summer, which is a great sign,” Smith said.

Jack Wert, Collier County’s tourism director, said a survey of hoteliers earlier this year found advanced bookings for March through May looked strong, with 56 percent indicating they were better than last year.

“Over 90 percent of the hoteliers are indicating it will be at least as good or better than last year, and last year was a record year for that three months,” he said.

Year to date, the number of visitors staying in hotels or other short-stay vacation rentals is up 6.4 percent over last year, with spending up 13 percent, according to the county’s tourism consultant.

“The traffic will improve dramatically after Easter, which means the seasonal residents have left, but the short-term visitors are still here, and the hotels are pretty much running fully, even through May,” Wert said.

Peter Sereno, an owner of M Waterfront Grille in Naples, said his customer count was up 5 to 8 percent over last season, and he’s heard similar reports from other restaurants.

Phil Wood, president and CEO of John R. Wood Realtors Inc., said it was a strong season for home sales in Southwest Florida.

“It will be our best season since 2005, in terms of sales. It was a terrific first quarter. The million-and-over market was especially strong,” he said.

He expects the spring and summer months to be busier than usual too, attracting more northern buyers.

“I just think a lot of those people are going to be here in the summer and say, ‘I’m just totally over this winter weather and I’m going to move to Florida,'” he said.

(c)2014 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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Tags: florida

Photo Credit: Naples, Florida, from the Bay Front Inn on Fifth Avenue. Sue / Flickr

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