Episode 4: “On Deck” with Chris Davison of the historic Island Inn

April 23, 2020

Chris Davison is General Manager of Sanibel Island’s oldest hotel, the historic Island Inn. After living through the devastation of Florida’s recent water crises, Davison joined the fight for clean water, even co-founding a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of the business community and shines a light on the economic impacts of water quality to Florida’s economy.

“With this Coronavirus experience, the financial impacts to all businesses are substantial. If we have a water quality issue again that impacted revenue—if our natural resources are degradated—it’s going to be the nail in the coffin for most businesses.”

About Island Inn

Established in 1895, the Island Inn is the oldest inn on Sanibel Island. For over a century the Inn has served guests and residents on its 10 beachfront acres and pristine beach abundant in shells and silky sand, facing due South on the Gulf of Mexico. This quaint beachfront resort serves island adventure and relaxation. Learn more about the history, accommodations, and amenities of the Island Inn.

Diving Deeper with Chris Davison

General Manager, Island Inn, Sanibel Florida

Q: Tell us about the history of Island Inn and the challenges it has faced.

A: Established in 1895, Island Inn is the oldest hotel on Sanibel and the original owners were Sanibel Island homesteaders. At 125 years old, the Island Inn has seen everything—recessions, the Great Depression, World War I, World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War, countless hurricanes, and has weathered the storm, no pun intended. I think now… you can add COVID-19 to that list.

Q: What is your involvement with the Island Inn?

I started as General Manager 10 years ago and it’s important to me to ensure the Island Inn exists for another 125 years. When I’m looking at our business and the threats to it, water quality and the degradation of our surrounding natural resources—that’s the number one threat to our business as a whole.

Q: Why do visitors come to Sanibel over other beach destinations?

A: Sanibel is definitely a unique destination considering the fact that the City of Sanibel has restrictions on development on the island. It’s catered towards today’s traveler in the respect that the density is low on Sanibel. There are no stoplights and only a handful of stop signs on the entire island. It’s naturally nostalgic. People fall in love with Sanibel Island and create memories that are going to last their lifetime with their families and friends here. I think that’s why it’s one of the best destinations in Florida and has such an appeal.

Q: What’s special about the natural resources on Sanibel?

A: Along with development restrictions put in place decades ago, the City of Sanibel also had the foresight to designate roughly half of the island as a wildlife sanctuary. It’s comforting to know as a business owner that our natural resources are going to be kept in place. I think that’s why a lot of guests choose Sanibel Island over maybe another destination, because it is such a natural and pristine environment. It gives you that feeling of being one with nature. Having pristine beaches and waterways is extremely important to Sanibel Island and to our business here at the Island Inn.

Q: How often do you hear somebody honk the horn on Sanibel?

A: Very rarely do I hear a horn honk on Sanibel and it’s usually a honk of hi-hello. People tend to be pretty happy when they get out here and let their guard down. Being surrounded by such nature and beauty, it tends to get you re-centered and refocused and gets you back to you.

Q: Tell us about fishing, one of your big hobbies.

A: The whole reason I’m in the hospitality industry is because of my love of being on the water. I wanted to be a fishing captain, but as a young adult, got the advice from other captains who said if you really love to fish, don’t become a captain because then it becomes your job.

So I found a job that could provide for me and my family financially, but also kept me close to what I love. I’ve come to focus on inshore fishing, chasing tarpon, snook and redfish. Sanibel, really for my lifestyle, provided the best of both worlds—a career that I could grow and make a decent living in the hospitality industry.

Q: Are there fishing opportunities at the Island Inn?

A: Yeah, absolutely. Fishing is ingrained in the history of the Island Inn. The emergence of tarpon fishing is what put Sanibel Island on the map and I believe the first tarpon caught on line, rod and reel, was right here in Tarpon Bay. Some days I walk down to the beach and see hundreds of tarpon rolling… so close, you can touch them.

From our balconies, you can see snook swimming right on the shoreline in the crystal clear waters. It’s no wonder why Island Inn and Sanibel Island have been such special places for so many people for the last 125 years.

Q: Why did you get involved with Captain For Clean Water?

A: I think it came out of desperation initially. During my first experience with our water crisis, I was very naïve and figured that the processes to fix this issue were already in place. The more I learned, it seemed to be the opposite, where the solutions were known, but nobody was fighting to put them in place.

During CFCW’s infancy, I saw Daniel and Chris and they were speaking my language. They were saying the same things I was thinking and they were out there doing it, committing their life to it.

Water quality is the number one threat to the long-term sustainability of the island and Captains For Clean Water was basically fighting my fight for me. It was natural for me to get involved personally and through the inn because they were addressing the number one threat to my business.

Q: What’s your favorite piece of Captains For Clean water merchandise?

A: The red trucker hat is my favorite. And the onesies. I have a picture of me and my daughter, I’m wearing your hat and my daughter is wearing the CFCW onesie.

Q: You’ve gotten involved beyond Captains For Clean Water, too. Can you talk about the Florida Economic Council (FLEC)? What it is and how it’s affecting you?

A: Seeing the progress that Captains has made and the impactful message gave me some confidence to go further. So, myself and other local business owners started the Florida Economic Council, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the economics of clean water.

Captains For Clean Water has done a great job of rallying non-profits and getting a message laser focused and keeping that around the preservation of our natural resources. But, I do think there’s a need for the economic voice concerning the usability of our beaches and waterways and what that translates to into dollars and cents.

While FLEC is separate from Captains For Clean Water, we walk hand-in-hand. Folks like Captains, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and the Everglades Foundation, they provide the science behind the solutions and the policies that are needed. And then organizations like the Florida Economic Council helped put dollars and cents to that.

Q: How is FLEC using its voice?

A: During the 2018 water crisis, myself and other business owners were getting into dire straits. We made calls to organizations that we assumed were representing our best interests in the political arena, with policymakers. We contacted the NFIB and the Florida Chamber of Commerce and, despite great conversations, we never heard back. Their silence was deafening.

It became evident that we needed an organization to represent the best interests of the business community, that is able to reach policymakers and get involved with legislation. So that’s why the Florida Economic Council was founded and funded. And as a 501(c)(4) organization, we have a voice in Tallahassee and in Washington.

Q: How can other businesses get involved with FLEC?

A: Any business owner in Southwest Florida whose success is directly tied to the use of our natural resources, I would urge them to check out the Florida Economic Council. It’s been wildly successful and I really can’t think of too many businesses in Southwest Florida that wouldn’t benefit from it. Whether it’s a contracting business or a hotel or restaurant, we all live and die by water quality and the usability of our beaches and waterways here.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: One point I want to make is why it’s so important to have great water quality coming out of this Coronavirus experience. Businesses in Southwest Florida have become almost used to dealing with a crisis of some sort every other year. But, if we have a water crisis stacked on top of Coronavirus—arguably the greatest challenge many businesses have ever experienced—my fear is it will be too much to handle. Keeping water quality the number one focus is critical to giving our economy a way to bounce back.

About “On Deck”

“On Deck” is a short film series sharing the stories of guides and businesses dealing with COVID-19 and the importance of water quality, presented by Captains For Clean Water. Check out more episodes.