State of Tourism: locally strong despite economy

“You have done exceptionally well despite the economy,” said Walter Klages of Data Research Services, who presented the State of Tourism to the Manatee County Tourist Development Council Dec. 10, at Bradenton Beach City Hall.

“The reality of the economy is not exciting,” said Klages. “At best, it’s slugging through very rough waters. Unfortunately, the recovery is slow. There is no inflation yet, but if you go into the grocery store, you probably have a different opinion and gas prices are so volatile no one can predict prices for tomorrow.”

Despite a struggling economy, Klages reported increased tourism throughout the county, especially on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key.

Through 2012, visitation to the county was up 9.9 percent from 2011, and the total economic impact to the area was up 12.9 percent. Occupancy in area hotels was up 8 percent.

Visitor origin was up across the board, especially from Europe. Klages said European visitors to the county rose by 23.3 percent in 2012. European visitors to the area in 2011 were 53,296 compared to 65,720 this year.

Florida and Midwest visitors remain the highest percentage of visitors, accounting for more than 100,000 people from each area.

“What is most impressive of all is how well we have marketed into the off-season,” said Klages. “There’s no secret in marketing the high season. The trick is driving the other side of the shoulder.”

Klages said the sports marketing effort in the county is paying dividends.

“It’s the sports market that has been the key to driving those numbers in the off-season,” he said. “It’s been a fabulous year in spite of the economy.”

Bradenton Area Sports Commissioner Joe Pickett told the TDC board he is “very excited about where we’ve been and where we are going, as we continue to grow.”

Pickett said it’s important to understand the value of sports, youth sports in particular, “because sports isn’t going to go away.”

And in Manatee County, the effort is to attract a variety of sporting events. Pickett said the county offers a “totally balanced sports schedule.”

Baseball and soccer represent the two largest categories making up 40 percent of events recruited by the sports commission.

The remainder of the events recruited are from a variety of sports from softball to bowling.

“For the most part, we are a youth type sports area,” said Pickett. “We have 84 events secured for 2013 and we have already secured 64 events for 2014. We also are already booking events into 2017.”

Pickett said the county should understand its weaknesses, too.

“Some of our weaknesses include transportation issues, more team-suited hotels and our BASC budget,” he said. “We just lost a bid to Polk County that we worked on for 18 months because of transportation. It’s our No. 1 factor for losing bids.”

Pickett did have good news. Manatee County will host the baseball Travel Ball Select World Series in July.

“And US Soccer will see a lot more things going forward, and the same with USL Soccer,” he said. “Bowling also has had a tremendous impact to our communities.”

TDC vice chair and local businessman David Teitelbaum said he would like to see TDC be more proactive in assisting BASC with securing bids on events to make Manatee County more competitive.

The biggest sporting news came from Elliott Falcione, who announced the effort to secure the International Rowing Federation world championship took another positive step forward.

“Manatee County was well represented when we met with the federation in Switzerland,” said Falcione. “The U.S. rowing director joined us.”

Falcione said the event would draw competitors from more than 100 countries, “So this isn’t a Manatee County or Sarasota County event, this is a USA event.”

Falcione said the meeting to host the event in 2017 went well. The United States has not hosted a FISA world-rowing championship event since the 1990s, so “FISA is ready to have this in the U.S., and we are as well.”

He said two test events will take place in 2015 and another in 2016.

“This is a branding opportunity that our aquatics center can host a major world event,” he said.

Hotel space remains a concern, but Falcione said, with events such as this, “the hotels will come. This is an eight-day event so hoteliers will gain 500 rooms by 2015 or no later than 2016.”

He expects a minimum of 2,000 hotel rooms would be needed for the full eight days of the world championship.

Falcione said he would address the TDC again to discuss a budget for travel as efforts to secure the FISA world championship continues.

“Some of us will have to go to South Korea for the championships, because they will award the 2017 games there,” he said. “We would need to be there to accept that.”

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