Sarasota County’s hotel operators might not see a September like 2017’s again for some time.
Tourist numbers and hotel bed-tax revenue for September — typically the slowest month for the county — exceeded past years, largely because of Hurricane Irma and the World Rowing Championships.
“The hurricane was strange, because it emptied every hotel room out at one point or another, and then it filled them up,” said Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley.
She said Irma’s predicted course favoring the eastern half of the state drove evacuees here, filling hotel rooms. Then, when the storm forecast shifted to the west, some local hotels were evacuated and many people left.
Days later, rooms filled again after the storm with residents waiting for power to be restored.
Then came the visitors for the World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park.
The result was a month where revenue from the Tourist Development Tax was about $200,000 more than September last year. What is typically the slowest month of the year for visitors was suddenly more comparable to January or February — the height of tourism season for Sarasota County.
“In the end, combined with World Rowing, it was a huge net gain,” Haley said, adding the disclaimer that’s not how she usually prefers to do business.
Thanks to Irma and the World Rowing Championships, which brought 1,500 athletes and 42,000 spectators to Sarasota and Manatee counties, September 2017’s total tourist tax revenue was $1.04 million.
Outside of September’s success, Visit Sarasota reported a 6% increase in tourist tax revenue overall for the year, and a 5% increase in visitors coming from another state.
In a year of overall improvements, the one figure that stayed relatively stable was international travelers. Still, it was something Haley saw as a plus.
“A lot of other destinations saw big drop offs,” Haley said. “That matters because they spend more than a domestic visitor, stay longer and tend to come in the off season.”
Additionally, visitors spent a total of $1.8 billion in Sarasota County this year, which Haley said outpaced the organization’s predictions.
She attributes some of the year’s gains to new digital advertising and software to track the advertisements’ reach. This way, Visit Sarasota County can determine the most effective way to draw in visitors.
“It helps us in understanding what messages have the most relevant influence, and when to deliver the message,” she said. “That’s the power of digital advertising.”