Where the Breakers Are

By Published on .

Call it the endless Mardi Gras. In the five-week period between late February and early April, some 1.5 million college kids will hit the road, staging drinking sprees and volleyball games on beaches from Florida to Mexico. Corporate sponsors of rock concerts, sports competitions, and other events will be one step ahead, deluging students with free T-shirts, beach towels, and product samples.

Despite their potential economic value, the partyers aren't welcome everywhere. And while the number of kids traveling on spring break has held steady throughout the 1990s-approximately one-third of the 5.3 million full-time undergraduates attending four-year colleges-more and more are heading outside the United States. Last year, 8 percent left the country, up from 4 percent in 1992, according to a semiannual survey of undergraduates conducted by the Student Monitor, a Ridgewood, New Jersey-based college student research organization.

Panama City Beach, Florida, remains the nation's leading destination, drawing 500,000 kids in 1998 (including high school students who arrive in the latter part of April). But that's a decline from previous years, due to competition from Mexico and Jamaica, which offer both a lower drinking-age limit-18 years, compared to 21 years in the U.S.-and affordable prices, says Jayna Leach, a spokesperson at the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The market is getting even more fragmented, according to a Student Monitor survey: 10 percent of the 1,200 students surveyed in 1998 visited Panama City Beach; 8 percent went to Cancun, Mexico; 6 percent hit Daytona Beach, Florida; and 4 percent traveled to South Padre Island, Texas. These top four destinations collectively attracted just 28 percent of the total number of traveling students.

And factors are conspiring to fragment it further. A small but burgeoning niche is being carved out by tour operators marketing alternative destinations. Spring break accounts for about 30 percent of the growing student travel market, so this segment is potentially lucrative, according to Bill McGuinness, vice president at Council Travel USA, a network of 65 travel agencies located on or near college campuses. "A lot of kids who used to go to Mexico or Florida to get drunk now go to Europe or ski," says McGuinness.

Bruce Bitnoff, who heads the spring break division at USA Student Travel, a tour operator that introduced spring break packages five years ago, agrees: "Kids have access to more money and credit, travel is cheap, and travel overall is up."

Northeasterners head to Florida, the Caribbean, and eastern ski destinations; Midwesterners visit Gulf of Mexico towns and Florida resorts; while students in the West flock to beach communities in southern California, Mexican border towns, and Colorado ski resorts, according to tour operators and visitor bureaus. Cancun appeals to college students from all over: At the University of Central Florida, Penn State, and Berkeley (where Hawaii also rates high), it is the number one spot for students booking a package tour, according to local travel agents.

Be there! Still, spring breakers aren't picky about where they go, provided there's sun, low prices, other kids, and copious amounts of alcohol. Cheap hotel rooms and relatively easy access by motorists from the eastern and central regions of the country helped put Panama City Beach on the map in the early 1990s. Last year, 73 percent of the Panama City Beach spring breakers came from the central states east of the Mississippi River, followed by 13 percent from the eastern seaboard, and 2 percent from states west of the Mississippi, according to a survey of 1,000 kids by InterCollegiate Communications, a Leonia, New Jersey-based event marketing firm.

Typically sleeping five to a room, these students paid $30 each for a $150-a-night room at the Best Western, Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, or Ramada Inn in Panama City Beach, the ICC survey found. Last year, they spent an average of $252 on food, drink, and entertainment in the town-not much, when it's spread around. "Sparky" Sparkman, owner of a popular local club called The Spinnaker, says the kids generally plunk down less than $20, including cover charge, at his place. "They're drinking all day on the beach," he explains. Indeed, about six years ago, March surpassed June and July as the peak sales month at Panama Beverage Company, a local beer distributor. "We distribute approximately three times the amount of beer in March, compared with June or July," says sales manager Randy Armstrong.

Texas's South Padre Island has also seen a drop in the number of spring break travelers-125,000 in 1998, some 25,000 fewer than in 1994-but remains heavily dependent on the rowdy visitors. According to the South Padre Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, the $116.9 million earned in 1998 spring break revenues made up half of the money earned by businesses throughout the year.

South Padre visitors are a bit more affluent than their Panama City Beach counterparts, spending an average of $435 on food, beverages, and entertainment during their week of vacation, according to ICC. "Texas Week"-the week when the Texas colleges are out (this year it's March 15-21)-obviously is the busiest time. According to a survey conducted by the visitors bureau, 39 percent of the spring breakers last year came from within the state of Texas; 20 percent arrived from schools in the Midwest-the largest group of which, 7 percent, originated in Minnesota-and 6 percent were from the South.

Despite the short-term economic boost, some resort communities don't want the business. After drawing a peak of 350,000 students in 1985, the city of Fort Lauderdale had had enough. "Hotels had 15 people to a room. There were Coke machines in the pools and vodka bottles in the beds," says Cindy Malin, communications manager at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Kids were jumping to their deaths from balconies. It was not pretty." The mayor asked the students not to come back. To help pull in other types of visitors, Fort Lauderdale built both a convention center and performing arts center and upgraded its beach. Malin says the effort has paid off: In 1997, an estimated 10,000 spring breakers came, but the city reaped $3.6 billion in tourism revenues-a notable increase over 1985's $2.2 billion.

Further north, Daytona Beach has started targeting families, says Tricia Savard at Jiloty Communications, which represents the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. It's not actively discouraging college students, but the city is trying to "change the image of spring break" by hosting such wholesome activities as a Christian rock concert and a career fair, adds Savard. (Last year, Daytona attracted 140,000 spring breakers-60,000 fewer than the peak reached in the early 1990s-many of whom came from Penn State, Michigan State, Purdue, and the University of Tennessee.)

Corporate marketers also remain enthusiastic. At Ormond Beach, Florida-based Hawaiian Tropic, the nation's number-three suntan-lotion company, promotional spring break efforts have intensified in the last few years, according toproduct manager Stephanie Mellenberndt. "We're getting stronger responses from event marketing," she says. The dramatic climb in national sales of sun-care products-in 1998, sales were $21.5 million in March, compared with $9.4 million in February, according to Murray, Kentucky-based HT Marketing-is a tribute to the spending power of the massive migration of college students.

MTV Networks, whose tapings have become an integral part of the seasonal excitement, is pumping up its spring break programming. Last year, for the first time ever, the network taped at multiple locales during the prime weeks of spring break. The ten-hour segment-which aired a week later and was rebroadcast throughout the year-"was the highest-rated spring break in ten years," says Bob Kusbit, MTV's senior vice president of production. This year, the network is leasing a cruise ship to host its on-air party.

Could this spark a trend in student cruising? At least one cruise line won't have to worry about a potential invasion of beer-guzzling kids. Carnival Cruise Lines-perhaps wearying of its reputation as the "party line par excellence"-has instituted a rule requiring passengers under age 21 to share a cabin with someone age 25 or older, effectively sounding the death knell to cruise-aspiring spring breakers.

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