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Pinellas County tourism industry sees growth potential ahead

After weathering its weakest winter in years, Pinellas County's tourist industry is seeing some positive signs that recovery will take root this fall.

"We're at the bottom," said Walter Klages, president of Research Data Services Inc., a Tampa firm that for 25 years has maintained a predictive economic model of the county's tourist industry. "It's going to ratchet up a bit at a time, but the confidence is rising, migration into Florida is starting to come back, and the declines are getting smaller."

Klages' forecast got a warm reception Wednesday from the Pinellas Tourist Development Council, which manages the St. Petersburg Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In the quarter ended March 31, the number of overnight visitors dropped 6 percent to 1.2 million, and average daily hotel rates fell 11 percent to $129. With travel into Tampa International Airport down 12 percent, the rest of the bay area shared a dismal winter. Preliminary figures show April tourism was not much better. But Pinellas fared better than the Keys, Naples, Miami and Palm Beach, which had to discount deeper because of a falloff in business meeting and conference attendance.

"We were off, but we held our own," said Russ Kimball, general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort.

The upcoming summer promises to be even more price-driven. Convinced there is pent-up family vacation demand once school ends, theme park marketers promise to turn up the advertising to those within a day's drive. St. Petersburg-Clearwater will unleash a $1 million summer campaign that includes 10 signboard trucks driving around Orlando, 26 billboards in Central Florida, and radio, TV and print ads. Some hotel chains and travel Web sites are e-mailing weekend rate cut updates daily.

"Decisionmaking is spur of the moment," Klages said.

Lower visitation will cut the bureau's spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, because hotel tax collections that finance the effort have fallen.

This year's total budget of $31 million is expected to drop to $25 million. The tax is split three ways to pay for tourist promotion, beach renourishment and to pay off Tropicana Field and spring training stadium construction debts.

The council approved a $12.5 million tourist promotion budget that envisions reduced spending in most all categories. Ad spending will drop about $900,000 to $7.6 million, but cuts include laying off two of 36 bureau staffers, attending fewer trade shows, wiping out $600,000 divvied up among several small events and slicing to $600,000 what has been $1 million split among six large events, including the St. Petersburg Grand Prix and the Transitions Championship PGA tournament.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Pinellas County tourism industry sees growth potential ahead 05/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 9:37pm]
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