Despite a budget increase for Visit Sarasota County, county officials signaled an interest in scrutinizing the resources devoted to the group.
Sarasota residents may have taken note of an ongoing increase in tourists visiting the area, but Virginia Haley warns against overestimating the region’s prominence as a destination.
Haley, president and CEO of Visit Sarasota County, is preparing to lead the tourism bureau through a year of ambitious marketing and promotion. Visit Sarasota has set lofty goals for 2018-19: increasing the total number of visitors by 5% over the previous year and increasing tourist development tax collections by 11%.
For context, visitor numbers increased 4% and tourist tax revenue went up 6% between fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Haley is eager to capitalize on the addition of more than 1,100 hotel rooms in the past two years. That’s why Visit Sarasota asked the county for an 8.3% increase in its budget for next year, giving the bureau $6.9 million to enhance the area’s profile among prospective tourists.
During a June 20 budget workshop, some county commissioners suggested that Sarasota had begun to establish itself on a national scale. Haley, however, dismissed that notion. When Visit Sarasota representatives attend travel trade shows, they usually have to start off by explaining where, exactly, Sarasota is.
“They know nothing about us,” Haley said. “They’ve never heard of us. The word’s just not out.”
Visit Sarasota’s strategy for the next year includes a mixture of increased promotion and targeted work to bring in events and group visitors. The organization is prioritizing filling those new hotel rooms and ensuring that the average room rates don’t sink as competition in the market increases.
Commissioners said their constituents often question the value of using public funds to fill private hotel rooms. Haley said the goal is to increase the money generated from the tourist development tax, a 5% tax the county collects on rental properties of six months or less. A portion of that fund is dedicated to advertising and promotion, transferred to Visit Sarasota.
Although the commission approved the Visit Sarasota budget for next year, board members signaled an interest in re-examining the allocation of tourist tax dollars going forward. Commissioner Charles Hines mentioned a long list of organizations interested in using tourist tax funds for new projects, including Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium and Selby Gardens.
Considering the circumstances, Hines said Visit Sarasota would have to clearly demonstrate the necessity of its fund distribution.
“To have an automatic increase every year just because we collect more, you have to really be able to defend that,” Hines said.
Commissioners Paul Caragiulo and Mike Moran expressed a similar desire to have a broader discussion about the strategy for spending tourist tax funds. Moran said the county is getting attention for its natural resources and for projects such as Nathan Benderson Park and the BMX track on 17th Street. In that light, he said it was important to establish clear spending priorities.
“Past boards and my fellow commissioners have made conscious decisions to bring this ‘build it and they will come’ attitude,” Moran said. “Some of that’s working.”
Haley, however, does not think a “build it and they will come” model is viable. She believes that elected officials understand the importance of tourism, but they may undervalue the role that promotion plays in generating that tourism. Entities that locals consider prominent may not make an impact elsewhere without a proper marketing strategy, she said.
“You can have the nicest new assets, the most gorgeous new bayfront in the world,” Haley said. “Someone’s going to have to let people outside our area know it’s here.”
On Aug. 22, the county is scheduled to have a discussion regarding tourist tax allocations. Haley said Visit Sarasota is undertaking a strategic planning effort to make recommendations about the most effective way to spend that money. Even if there’s some skepticism about the value of marketing, Haley hopes the commission will listen to recommendations regarding its importance.
“Coca-Cola is Coke — everyone knows Coke,” Haley said. “Why do they continue to advertise? Because once you have a portion of the market share, you don’t want to lose it, because it costs so much money to get it back.”