The Florida Keys are considered by many anglers to be the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” and charter fishing has long been a driver of tourism for the area. One of the reasons for the continued popularity of charter fishing is the rise of websites specializing in booking fishing trips. While people have been comparing and buying anything from books to plane tickets on the internet for years, charter fishing stayed behind the curve — until recently.
One of these online services for booking charter trips, www.FishingBooker.com, shares some revealing data about these trends in the Keys. The revenue local captains get from online bookings is rising rapidly. In 2015, 51 guides in the Keys earned $160,000 from booking sites. In 2017, a total of $1.3 million went to 170 guides, eight times more. This means that guides got $7,600 on average through this source.
For Key West, the increase was nearly tenfold — from $52,000 in 2015 to $500,000 in 2017. This was shared between 59 Key West captains, who earned an average of $8,500 from online bookings in 2017.
Michelle Baumgarten owns and runs Cowboy Charters in Key West together with her husband, Capt. Mark Baumgarten. First founded over 50 years ago, theirs is a third-generation family operation. She says that “booking sites have positively impacted our business.” About 15 percent of their bookings came from booking sites last year. “We have three boats and we run 600-700 trips a year, or even more. We’ve been having really big years.”
Up in Key Largo, Capt. Kevin Mitchell of Just Ducky Charters comments that booking sites have “taken the phone out of my hands,” giving him more time to focus on fishing and other aspects of his business. He knows several guides who don’t get a lot of bookings through these sites, but he is personally satisfied. “They’re booking me quite a bit, they’re about 30 percent of all my bookings.”
Capt. Eric Scoble with Blackwater Charters in Islamorada says: “I’m satisfied with them and it seems like my customers are satisfied with them. They don’t have to go through different websites to find fishermen where they’re going. They go right with the booking site and all their questions are answered there.” Like the other guides, he does still get most of his bookings from word of mouth, repeat customers, and his own website. 10 percent of his 250 annual trips come through booking sites.
At the same time, it’s a growing trend. The Lower Keys Guides Association reports that in 2011, anglers spent $19.2 million on guided fishing trips in the Florida Keys. No more recent data is available, but according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spending on sport fishing in the entire United States rose only very slightly (by 2.5 percent) from 2011 to 2016.
It’s safe to assume, then, that guided fishing trips in the Keys were worth about $20 million in 2017. This means that the $1.3 million of revenue from booking sites represents about 6.5 percent of the total amount spent on fishing trips in the Florida Keys, compared to less than 1 percent two years earlier.
It might be expected that this growth is largely due to visitors from overseas or the coastal states, as they can have little information about the area and prefer a booking website with a familiar concept. Interestingly, however, the city with most anglers booking trips in the Keys was Miami with 120 bookings since 2016. Although you would think that people who live close by are more likely to know a guide in the area and book directly with him or her, it seems that doesn’t have to be the case. ¦