New Year’s Eve in Key West and throughout the island chain saw the highest occupancy and hotel rates of the holiday week. CAROL TEDESCO/Contributed

By Mandy Miles, Jim McCarthy and Alex Rickert

Oh, the weather outside was frightful. Well, at least by the standards of the Florida Keys, where temperatures for the Christmas and New Year week dropped to the 50s and 60s and the sun took a few days off.

But that didn’t stop visitors from piling into the island chain, filling hotels and frustrating drivers with traffic on U.S. 1. 

A busy holiday week seems to have foretold a busy winter tourism season, as the Keys remain packed with visitors and community calendars continue to fill with events. But still, the crowds and room rates aren’t as elevated as they were in 2021, a year that one local tourism expert called “an anomaly” with how “psychotically busy we were,” said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West.

“I don’t think this year, on any level, will match 2021,” she added. “But we’re doing really well. Our rates are higher than in 2019, but they’re nowhere near last year, which is fine because that simply wasn’t sustainable. And it’s better overall for the destination because no one wants it to be that crowded.”

Also, Weinhofer pointed out, “Think about how many people first got here in 2021 and have nothing to compare it to.”

“Last year was the ‘revenge spend,’ as we’ve been calling it,” said Tourist Development Council chair and Dolphin Research Center CEO Rita Irwin. “We’re not going to see those numbers again, and from a budgeting perspective for both the TDC and DRC we didn’t even pretend it would be like last year.”

Irwin called the week a “nice steady stream” of guests at DRC that met the facility’s budget crafted from pre-COVID numbers, noting in particular that guests in a post-COVID “hell week” were more patient and amicable than in the past – possibly just happy to be taking a vacation for the first time in years. Just up the road, Sheldon Suga, Hawks Cay Resort managing director, had similar comments, complimenting “great guests from the north.”

Reports were largely similar for Middle Keys businesses. While Castaway restaurant owner John Mirabella noted that his nights have tended to end earlier since the pandemic, his December 2022 numbers beat out the same month in 2021 by 6 percent – even with weather-related flooding the day after Christmas causing him to forfeit an estimated $10,000 in sales.  

Marathon pizzeria Coast to Coast Pizza Company logged its highest-grossing day since opening its doors in late March 2022, while Brutus Seafood owner Elise Mucha told the Weekly her “kitchen tickets were hitting the floor every evening.

“I’m extremely grateful to be busy, but hell week is a lot,” she said. “It’s not even manageable. … You just have to try to manage guest expectations and cross your fingers they aren’t grumpy after the holidays.”

The cold snap to start the week kept water enthusiasts on land, affecting water sports and fishing charter activities throughout the Keys. But Judy Hull, Islamorada Chamber of Commerce executive director, said that although there were a few days where visitors couldn’t enjoy the water with the cold spell, the holiday season for businesses in the village was nothing short of spectacular. 

She added that the Visitors Center in Islamorada hadn’t seen a dip yet since the new year.

“Usually there will be a rush the first of January and see a little dip in the middle of the month, and pick back up in February. I always look at Valentine’s Day as the peak,” she said. 

Elizabeth Moscynski, Key Largo Chamber of Commerce president, said the weeks leading up to and after the holiday were bustling in the northernmost Keys. 

“Hotels were almost at full capacity. Our visitor center was hopping. We were seeing hundreds of guests a day,” Moscynski said. “We have not seen these amounts of folks in years.”   

The Keys Weekly obtained visitors and hotel statistics for the week of Dec. 24-31 from STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company that compiles hotel, guesthouse and vacation rental information for destination markets, including occupancy percentages and average daily room rates.

New Year’s Eve saw the highest occupancy throughout the Keys, with 96% of all lodging establishments occupied, with an average daily rate of $806, STR reports. Throughout the week, between Dec. 22 and Dec. 31, average daily room rates more than doubled, starting at 

$347 on Dec. 22 and ending at $806 on Dec. 31.

“This year was unique in that Christmas and New Year’s Eve fell in the same week,” said Haley Luther of STR. “For the week ending Dec. 24, 2022 (the week before Christmas), the Florida Keys had the second-highest occupancy among all U.S. STR-defined markets, coming in slightly behind New York City.” 

That same week, the Florida Keys also had the third-highest average daily room rate among all U.S. STR-defined markets, coming in behind only Maui Island and Hawaii/Kauai Islands.

For the entire 10 days between Dec. 22 and Dec. 31, the Florida Keys’ average daily room rate was $613. That average includes lodging establishments throughout the island chain.

While occupancy percentages tended to be higher for the holiday week in 2019 (before the pandemic skewed visitor data), average daily room rates this year were significantly higher than in 2019.

Vehicles slowly cross Snake Creek Bridge in Islamorada during a busy holiday week that saw crawling traffic. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

The list below shows the occupancy percentage and average daily room rates throughout the Florida Keys for Dec. 22-31.

Dec. 22: 77% occupancy | $347.04 average daily rate
Dec. 23: 68.9% occupancy | $431.31 average daily rate
Dec. 24: 71% occupancy | $457.04 average daily rate
Dec. 25: 71.2% occupancy | $487.40 average daily rate
Dec. 26: 76.4% occupancy | $595.22 average daily rate
Dec. 27: 85.4% occupancy | $702.18 average daily rate
Dec. 28: 91.5% occupancy | $741.02 average daily rate
Dec. 29: 92.1% occupancy | $772.57 average daily rate
Dec. 30: 92.5% occupancy | $790.66 average daily rate
Dec. 31: 95.6% occupancy | $806.05 average daily rate