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County working on new ways, new events to bring in tourists

BROOKSVILLE — A little more than a year ago, Hernando County's newly hired tourism director, Tammy Heon, faced a daunting task. A prolonged economic recession and deep cuts to public services had stifled the area's ability to move beyond its singular reputation as an ecotourism destination.

Sure, the area could attract canoe and kayak enthusiasts, hikers and bikers, and all-terrain vehicle riders. And attractions such as Weeki Wachee Springs State Park were still big draws for out-of-towners.

But was there something missing? Was there more that could be done to lure visitors to the area?

Heon, who had worked as director of marketing and public relations for a popular playhouse in Maine, thought so. She wanted to focus on a multipronged approach that invited partnerships with the community and its businesses, and focused on new ways to reach the public through social media.

In addition to going after established markets, Heon wanted to tap opportunities to draw in new visitors, including more amateur sports events.

Heon assembled a committee that included representatives from the county's Parks and Recreation Department and the county's youth sports leagues to look for ways to attract the kinds of events the county could handle with its existing sports facilities.

The Florida Dixie Double-A Machine Pitch State Tournament in early July proved to be a winner. The weeklong baseball competition at Ernie Wever Youth Park in Brooksville translated into an economic impact of at least $118,000 that players, coaches and family members spent during their stay.

Heon said accommodations alone accounted for $31,750 of that total and returned $954 in bed tax revenues to her department's coffers.

"It was a positive shot in the arm for us," Heon said. "It delivered the kind of success we were hoping for, and it showed us how we could improve and make these events better."

Heon believes that similar efforts can and will put "heads in beds" and produce long-term benefits that can be felt year-round.

"The great thing about sports, especially youth sports, is that the impact is far-reaching," she said. "You have entire families coming in. They eat at our restaurants, stay in our hotels and visit our attractions. That's a win-win for everyone."

But Heon says that more infrastructure improvements are needed if the county wants to attract major outdoor soccer, softball and baseball tournaments sponsored by organizations such as AAU Baseball, Dixie Softball, the U.S. Fastpitch Association and the Florida Youth Soccer Association

"The facilities those groups are looking for aren't here right now," she said. "And until we somehow build them, they'll be going elsewhere."

In addition to targeting specific large groups, Heon and her two-employee staff have also worked toward increasing her agency's outreach efforts to first-time visitors.

An attractive new welcome center just off Interstate 75 features interactive video presentations touting the area's highlights. A new area guide map containing more detail and information than before is now available. And visitors can now learn about Hernando County through Facebook and Twitter, Heon said.

In addition, the agency is about to open an information kiosk at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

Finding more ways of reaching potential visitors is essential in a competitive and ever-changing tourist marketplace, Heon said.

"Tourism is 24/7," she said. "We're competing with other counties and cities, so we need to use every way possible to reach people and bring them here."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

County working on new ways, new events to bring in tourists 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 4:10pm]

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