Every year tourists flock to Florida to visit the state's beaches and theme parks. But how can Hillsborough County compete for tourists when it has no beaches and just one theme park?
The answer: Tampa-Hillsborough doesn't have to compete. It just has to grab some of the dollars spent by those already visiting the area.
It captured more of those dollars than ever before in 2013. Last year visitors spent a record $4.4 billion, according to the county's tourism agency, Visit Tampa Bay.
That was a 19 percent increase in what visitors spent compared to 2012, when the Republican National Convention brought tens of thousands to the bay area.
"It means more people are buying merchandise at our shopping malls," said Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada. "They're spending more money on restaurants. They're spending more money on accommodations. They're spending more money on entertainment.
"It's the purest form of economic development because folks come here, they spend their money and they go home."
Pinellas County, which enjoyed a second-straight year of record tourism metrics in 2013, set its own visitor spending record of about $4.2 billion that year, a 6 percent rise from 2012.
Florida State University hospitality professor Mark Bonn, president of Bonn Marketing Research Group, put together the Hillsborough tourism report for January through December 2013. He built his model using data such as hotel occupancy numbers, spending in hospitality industries and detailed interviews with 5,000 visitors last year. Pinellas tourism officials use a different research company and methodology.
Hillsborough's record 2013 visitor spending came despite a decrease in the number of visitors. The county saw 13.9 million visitors in calendar year 2013, a 6 percent drop from the 14.8 million who visited during the RNC-fueled year of 2012.
So how can 900,000 fewer visitors to Hillsborough County spend $700 million more?
Bonn said the Tampa-Hillsborough area has become a great value for tourists attracted to the region by the Pinellas beaches and Orlando's theme parks.
That's why the economic recovery in Hillsborough tourism has been mostly expressed by visitor spending and not the total number of visitors. The number of visitors is down 22 percent from the record of 17.8 million set in 2005. But visitor spending has skyrocketed by 63 percent since falling to $2.7 billion in 2008. Spending figures were not adjusted for inflation.
In a survey of those 5,000 visitors from last year, they ranked their top reasons for visiting the area: No. 1, the Pinellas beaches; No. 2, availability of direct flights to the Tampa Bay area; No. 3, Busch Gardens; No. 4, proximity to Orlando's theme parks; and No. 5, Lowry Park Zoo.
Bonn said Busch Gardens is an economically attractive alternative to Orlando's theme parks for families. So are family attractions like Lowry Park Zoo and the Museum of Science and Industry, or MOSI.
"You have to understand that Tampa has so many diverse activities for people that are not expensive," he said. "You have MOSI and Lowry Park Zoo. Look at the price of getting into Busch Gardens compared to Orlando."
Tourism organizations track three kinds of visitors: those who rent hotel rooms or condos; those who stay with family and friends; and "daytrippers," those who just visit for the day. That was the leading category of Tampa-Hillsborough visitors in 2013, jumping to 58 percent of all visitors compared to 52 in 2012. In Pinellas County, daytrippers accounted for 61 percent of the 14.3 million visitors in 2013.
Other factors fueling the boom in visitor spending included a record number of tourists hitting the Pinellas beaches, the economic recovery fueling a pent-up demand for tourism and business travel and Tampa's rebounding convention business.
Last year Visit Tampa Bay unveiled Hillsborough's first-ever tourism brand: the "Unlock Tampa Bay" campaign was aimed at convincing beachgoers and other tourists that there's plenty to do on the Tampa side of the bay. Bonn said that pitch seems to be paying off.
"They're speaking with their pocketbooks," he said. "They're telling us there's good value here."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.