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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018 3 years ago

What will grow Sarasota tourism?

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Visitors who say good things about Sarasota constitute the big X factor in tourism.
by: Adrian Moore Contributor

Tourism is super important to Sarasota’s economy.

Adrian Moore

I can hear all the shocked voices out there — who knew!? Seriously though, given how important it is to Sarasota, there is remarkably little detailed discussion about what makes tourism grow.

There is a lot of interesting research on that question. The figure included here is from a highly technical review of studies evaluating what draws tourists to a given location. You can see it is a complex web of factors. Some are given, like good weather, natural features and history. Some are clearly driven by choices made by local individuals, businesses and government, like economic factors (prices), infrastructure and amenities.

We see around us every day the ways in which individuals and businesses try to influence the factors they can to make tourists happy. If you go to an event, a restaurant, a shop, or the beach, or kayaking on the bay in Sarasota, chances are the person next to you is a tourist. Tourists are crucial to a huge swath of Sarasota businesses, even ones that don’t specifically cater to them, their taxes support many local amenities, and they shape the context in which so many of local residents pursue their daily lives.

Which raises the question of what local government is doing about tourism. If you ask around, everyone points to Visit Sarasota County, the nonprofit entity that is mainly funded by the 5% bed tax charged in the county on stays of less than six months (state law requires that money be used for tourism-related purposes). This agency’s primary activity is advertising Sarasota around the nation and the world with ad campaigns, website info and social media, reaching out to attract tourists.

That sounds worthwhile, but you’ll notice “good advertising” is not shown in the figure — not one of the things that fundamentally drives tourism. So I went looking for other data and found a number of surveys of tourists showing why people choose a destination for vacation. Tourists pick a destination 38% of the time by hearing about it from friends, 32% because it is a world-renowned or famous destination, 15% for a cheap deal, and 14% because it is nearby. Only 5% choose a destination because they saw an appealing advertisement for it.

I’m sure those number vary, but I think the important bottom line is that visitors who go home and say good things about Sarasota constitute the big X factor in tourism, which is many times more important than a good advertising campaign.

So if Sarasota County were to use bed tax revenue to promote tourism, it would be better spent on creating a positive experience for tourists in Sarasota than on advertising. What would that entail?

From “Logistic optimization in tourism networks,” European Regional Science Association Congress, 2015.

Think about the tourist experience with public services here. Transportation is crucial — reducing congestion so you can get around town and providing adequate parking at beaches and downtown, for starters. Solving the county homeless problem, which among other things would reduce the chance of unpleasant encounters while shopping or walking around town, is another. Reducing crime and reducing theft, especially from rental cars and at beaches might be third. Clean and well-maintained facilities at every park, beach and event venue in the county, as well as clean streets and beaches themselves are also important. But it starts with plentiful and affordable vacation hotels, homes and apartments with lots of options for different sizes and types of families and groups, which a bed tax doesn’t foster.

These all may seem obvious, but the common thread among them is good policies by the city and county government and good use of adequate resources to accomplish those goals. First, let’s keep the doors open. The city and county should continue to work with groups that organize major events that bring new people to the area, though I would argue they should leave funding those events to the private parties. And it would be disastrous to constrain market-driven growth in the hospitality industry and vacation rentals. Limiting supply, restricting operations, raising costs and taxes on them would all be clearly counterproductive.

More important though, it takes money to improve our transportation system and recreational facilities, and to reduce homelessness and crime. Resources spent on advertising to tourists would be far better spent on tourist-specific aspects of improving these conditions in the county. Our best advertising is the word of mouth of every visitor who comes here.

Adrian Moore is vice president at the Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.

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