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Departing Pinellas tourism chief talks about selling sand, surf

CLEARWATER — D.T. Minich grew up in Colombia. He grew up in Canada. He grew up in Great Britain and the American Southwest, too. That's because his father was in the mining industry and took his family with him wherever he went.

"Travel is in my blood," Minich said. "They'd pull us out of school and let us travel with them because they thought travel was the best form of education."

It was only natural that Minich ended up in the tourism business. He spent the past seven years as the CEO and executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the public agency that uses bed tax revenue to promote the Pinellas County tourism industry.

His tenure as Pinellas' top tourism official ended Friday. On Monday, he starts work for Osceola County. That county's tourism arm, Experience Kissimmee, hired him away with a big raise and a new challenge: transition the public agency to a public-private hybrid.

Pinellas is in the midst of a three-year tourism boom that shows no signs of receding in year four. Dana Troy "D.T." Minich, 50, is one of the figures most closely associated with those record numbers of visitors and tourist tax dollars. He's spent two decades marketing beaches, starting as an intern in Lee County before rising to become executive director there.

When he arrived in 2007, the agency was the Pinellas County Convention and Visitors Bureau and its slogan was: "Florida's beach." But, Minich wondered, wasn't that every beach in Florida?

So Minich changed the name of the agency to better identify the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area. The brand itself is constantly being refined. The latest campaign, "Live Amplified," was designed to attract younger, more adventurous tourists.

Under Minich, Pinellas continually honed its brand and its marketing, focused its attention on visitors from key feeder markets and advertised the beaches using old and new media: online ads, a glossy magazine and, most recently, 12 million cartons of orange juice.

He was also a pioneer in bridging Tampa Bay, using Pinellas tourism dollars to help Tampa International Airport attract new overseas flights — and new overseas tourists.

Before he left, Minich chatted with the Tampa Bay Times about his tenure, tourism and selling sand and surf.

What was your biggest challenge as Pinellas' tourism chief?

Pulling all the different communities together. Putting the chambers (of commerce) together, the industry together. It was somewhat fractured. Everyone was doing their own thing. I think that was the biggest challenge, just to get everyone working together and cooperating.

So your first sales job was to sell Pinellas County's tourism agency to Pinellas County?

I went out and met with all the groups. I had luncheons for the chamber directors and the chambers. We were selling to them what we were hoping to do and what we wanted to accomplish. We were selling the brand and what our focus and our vision was, and the direction we wanted to go in.

Why did you change the name of the agency and the brand?

The problem with "Florida's beach" is that it could be any beach. … I knew immediately we had to change the brand, that we should not be marketing ourselves as "Florida's beach." We immediately did some focus groups, and it backed my gut instinct 100 percent. I knew we had to make some big changes.

What did you think Pinellas County was doing wrong?

The advertising was very broad-based. It wasn't targeted. It was more of a shotgun approach, and we wanted to pull it in and target certain geographic areas. We wanted to do specific markets like Chicago, New York and Boston.

What was the biggest external threat to Pinellas County tourism? Was it the Great Recession? The 2010 BP oil spill?

I think the hardest thing was when the recession hit and we had to downsize. I had to let people go, not because they weren't doing a good job, but because of budget constraints, budget cuts.

And I had to make a big decision because we were not going to cut back on any staff or dollars out of the overseas markets. Most bureaus around then were actually slashing those budgets, but we made a concerted effort not to. I think that paid off because our European business rebounded much quicker than other destinations because we stayed in the market.

You've marketed the beaches throughout your whole career. What's the secret to marketing something that everybody already loves?

You say that, but look at it from the flip side. Look at how many beach destinations are out there advertising. What I've told my folks and advertising people is, I don't want to see a beach chair on a beach with a beach umbrella. I don't want to see two kids building a sand castle on the beach. We've got to make this stand out. We've got to separate ourselves from every other beach destination and focus on what makes us unique.

When I got here seven years ago, we were branding beach beach beach and that's all we advertised. And the two times I stepped into St. Pete was not for the beach. I came to see the Dalí (Museum) and the Chihuly special exhibit. There's so much to this destination that's so unique.

That's what sets us apart. We've got some of the best beaches in the world, but we also have a lot of these cultural gems and wonderful museums and the Clearwater Aquarium. That's what sets our beaches apart.

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

Departing Pinellas tourism chief talks about selling sand, surf 08/15/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2014 6:57pm]
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