ST. PETERSBURG — Every year during National Tourism Week, hospitality industry professionals gather to recognize the success stories and stand-out leaders of their local hotel and attraction community.
But this year — after a tumultuous battle with the Florida Legislature over the future of the state's tourism marketing program — the local travel industry folks from Pinellas County just weren't in the mood.
Instead of hosting the routine luncheon where leaders from Visit St. Pete-Clearwater would honor the hotel managers and staff from the various tourism outlets in the county, VSPC is launching a campaign designed to educate and inform visitors and residents about the impact tourism has on the community and the state.
The tourism industry employs more than 100,000 people in Pinellas County, said David Downing, the CEO of VSPC, making the industry "the lifeblood of the St. Pete-Clearwater area." The 15 million visitors who travel here every year create more than $10 billion in economic impact for the region, he says.
"We failed at articulating our worth to the general public," Downing said. "So we thought it was time to launch an outward-facing campaign aimed at the public to express to them what we do is important."
VSPC launched a website Monday called 100K10B.com, which reinforces the economic impact and the employment power of tourism in the region. The website features confessional-style videos from leaders in the local industry.
"Without tourism, the downtown St. Pete area that we see today — this dynamic, beautiful area — would not be what it is," said Joe Jimenez, managing director of the Edwards Group.
Other testimonials come from restaurant owners, trainers from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, CEOs of real estate companies and craft brewery owners.
Fishing captain Cory Palmer with Florida Tarpon Fishing Charters said he probably wouldn't be a fishing guide without tourism.
"I'd probably have a boring desk job," he says in the video. "Tourism makes up 60 to 70 percent of my business."
To spread the word, VSPC has print, broadcast and online advertisements that will run through the week. But VSPC didn't spend a dime on the campaign — vendors and advertising partners donated ad spots for free.
The headwinds facing the tourism industry reverberated at events in the Tampa Bay area all last week. Maryann Ferenc, owner of the Mise En Place restaurant in Tampa and the incoming chair of the board of directors for Visit Florida, told an audience in downtown Tampa on Tuesday that tourists pay 25 percent of Florida's sale tax.
"It's tourists that inspire new restaurants and help locally-owned companies expand," Ferenc said. "To have our tourism budget slashed by legislators and to put all these restrictions on how we can spend it is unrealistic and scary."
Legislators are slated to slash Visit Florida's budget $75 million to $25 million, and institute a number of provisions and restrictions in how the organization can spend its budget on marketing.
"We don't have the budget to do some of the marketing campaigns we have in the past without Visit Florida," said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. "Marketing pictures of just beaches doesn't work anymore."
At a national level, tourism boosters are waiting to see what kind of effect President Donald Trump will have on international visitors' appetite to visit the U.S. this year and in the coming years. Data shared by Visit Tampa Bay showed a small drop in international visitors' "aspirations to travel" to the U.S. this year. Bookings so far in 2017 have slumped some nationally, said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, who spoke at the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association's Annual Global Convention which was hosted in St. Petersburg last week.
"It's on us to do the job that's not being done," Dow said. "We have to get the welcome message out or else all of this could be very damaging. It's on us to say, 'We welcome you. We want you here. We welcome anyone who wishes no harm to America.'"
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.