Pinellas County's sugar-sand beaches have never been so popular — or so lucrative.
The county's unprecedented tourism boom has resulted in another bed tax record: Pinellas collected $31 million in fiscal year 2013, according to the county's tax collector office.
The tax is a 5 percent surcharge tacked onto the bill of every accommodation rented for less than six months. It funds tourism marketing, beach restoration and other projects. The $31 million is an 8 percent increase from the $28.7 million collected in fiscal year 2012.
"If you look at some of the other destinations around the state, they're not having this kind of year," said Pinellas tourism chief D.T. Minich. "Everyone is up, but not to this extent."
The 2012 record was set thanks to the Republican National Convention, a historic event that attracted tens of thousands to the bay area — and Pinellas' beach hotels.
So how did Pinellas County set a new record in 2013 without having an RNC-sized event to boost the numbers?
"I think we're being extremely aggressive in our marketing," Minich said, "and we're being very, very targeted in our marketing."
Minich, the executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said new online tools have given the county's tourism agency the ability to target those most likely to visit the Pinellas beaches.
That also has changed how the agency spends its $12 million advertising budget.
"The stuff we're doing online has really, really changed considerably," Minich said. "Five years ago, 27 percent of our media budget was print. Now only 9 percent of our media budget is print. We're shifting the funds to more targeted advertising with the Internet."
That's how Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has been able to focus on certain ZIP codes in New York and Chicago to boost Pinellas' No. 1 and No. 3 feeder markets, respectively. That's also how the agency has drilled down its marketing efforts to specific demographics: families and couples, average age around 40, minimum household incomes of about $80,000.
"We're not doing a shotgun approach anymore," Minich said. "It's targeted to household income. It's targeted to our demographic profile. It's targeted to our geographic profile."
Minich thinks Pinellas can keep the momentum going. Copa Airlines will start flying from Panama City, Panama, to Tampa International Airport four days a week starting Dec. 16. It will be Tampa Bay's first direct flight to a major Latin American hub. To grow the Latin American tourism market, last week the agency hired its first director of Latin American sales, Ana Fernandez.
The success of Pinellas tourism also could result in even more tourist tax revenue. Under state law, if the county hits $600 million in taxable sales in calendar year 2013 — which tourism officials say they are on track to do — Pinellas could join Broward, Monroe, Orange, Osceola, and Walton as the state's "high tourism impact" counties.
That designation would let Pinellas raise the bed tax to 6 percent, adding millions to tourist tax coffers. But that would require a vote of the Pinellas County Commission.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, [email protected] or @jthalji on Twitter.