PANAMA CITY BEACH – Visitors have a new, more convenient place to stay when traveling through Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP).
The Hilton Garden Inn opened on Thursday, near the intersection of Venture Crossings Boulevard and West Bay Parkway. The development was led by the St. Joe Company and is the first hotel to open near the airport.
It has over 140 rooms, meeting space, swimming pool, fitness center and full service restaurant.
“It’s great for our community and great for the airport,” said Parker McClellan, Executive Director of ECP. “This will provide an advantage to our passengers for early morning departures, as well as late evening arrivals. Early morning departures will not be (similar) so early if you stay at the hotel.”
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While the hotel is convenient for tourists, David Demarest, spokesperson for St. Joe’s hospitality industry, said it would also benefit the local economy by making it easier to visit Bay County on trips to ‘business.
The hotel is located about 12 miles from Pier Park, arguably the heart of the beach, and about 7 miles from Latitude Margaritaville Watersound, a Jimmy-Buffett themed community geared towards those 55 and over.
“The airport is going to be an important aspect of how people visit the area and how people do business in the area,” Demarest said. “No one has a hotel within probably 10 miles.”
According to Katja Chatfield, the hotel’s general manager, the property welcomed its first guest within three hours of opening at 2 p.m. Thursday. That number rose to around 20 later that night.
Chatfield added that the hotel is open to everyone, not just those passing through the airport.
“If you are on a plane or taking family or friends to the airport, you can’t miss us,” she said. “If you’re going to the airport for anything, we’re right here… a nice, shiny new dime.”
Among the first wave of guests to stay at the hotel was Ian Andrzejewski, who came to install the computer software used to manage the hotel’s bar and restaurant.
Andrzejewski said he travels around the country often and virtually every airport has a hotel nearby for guests.
He noted that the airport restaurant, Garden Grille & Bar, is about double the size of restaurants he has visited at other Hilton Garden Inns. It is not only open to guests, but to all members of the community.
“Having an airport a short drive or walk from (a hotel) is very convenient for overnight stays, for layering, for business travelers,” Andrzejewski said. “I think it will be great for the local business community and for anyone who passes by.”
Panama City Beach Mayor Mark Sheldon said the Hilton Garden Inn would be “a launching pad” for the construction of other hotels around the ECP, which continues to experience steady growth and has surpassed the million mark. passengers for the first time in 2019.
Sheldon said he expects more hotels in the area to be announced later this year.
“Having more accommodation options near our busy airport gives more flexibility to everyone in the region,” he wrote in an email. “It also results in more activity for people out of state who have an early morning flight to stay overnight near the airport.”