Tampa Bay's most coveted beach tourists are the locals

Sparky, 5, from Brandon takes a big yawn while relaxing in his owner’s lap, Karen Sellner, 63, at the dog park area near the Bay Pier at Fort De Soto Park on Memorial Day. Sparky, who is a west highland terrier mix, gets to visit the dog beach once a week. “We come every Monday, no matter what,” Sellner said. “It’s incredible here today. This is the place to be with your dog and your family.”

DIRK SHADD | Times

Sparky, 5, from Brandon takes a big yawn while relaxing in his owner’s lap, Karen Sellner, 63, at the dog park area near the Bay Pier at Fort De Soto Park on Memorial Day. Sparky, who is a west highland terrier mix, gets to visit the dog beach once a week. “We come every Monday, no matter what,” Sellner said. “It’s incredible here today. This is the place to be with your dog and your family.”

The three-day Memorial Day weekend marked more than just the start of the summer tourism season for Pinellas County's beaches.

It's also when county tourism officials pull back their focus on attracting visitors from Europe and up north and start concentrating on another important source of visitors: the folks who already live here.

"It's not a staycation; it's a vacation," said David Downing, deputy director of the county's tourism agency. "It just happens to be in the place they live in."

During the summer, the most important sources of beach-going tourists are the Tampa Bay and Orlando regions, according to county tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Studies conducted by Research Data Services Inc. show that the Tampa-St. Petersburg area was the beaches' top feeder market in 2012, just edging New York. Chicago was third and the Orlando region was the fourth-largest. So two of the top four feeder markets are right here.

The agency spends approximately $1 million annually just to get residents of central and west Florida to visit the Pinellas beaches. But in the summer it gets a lot more bang for its marketing bucks targeting locals.

Locals are easier to reach, and they don't have to book plane tickets to get to the beach; they can just get in their cars and drive.

"When you look at New York and Chicago, those are the most expensive media markets in the country," Downing said. "But here we're able to drill down locally, and on top of that, locals know our product. It's not like we have any explaining to do as to who we are.

"People around here get it."

The summer is big business for Pinellas. About 40 percent of those who visit the beaches — about 5.4 million last year — show up in the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They have an economic impact of about $1.7 billion.

The summer market is also a growing one. There's been a 13 percent increase in summertime tourism since 2010. That trend is expected to continue as Pinellas tourism enjoys a record run of growth.

The county collected a record $4.9 million in tourist bed taxes in March, which is traditionally the strongest tourism month of the year. That made March 2013 the best month in Pinellas history.

The county has collected a total of $15.7 million in the first six months of the fiscal year, an 11 percent improvement from last year. That puts fiscal year 2013 tourist development tax collections on pace to break the record set in fiscal year 2012.

Downing said it has taken years of marketing and research to help turn locals into such a strong source of tourists and to make the summer almost as lucrative as the "high" tourism season at the beginning of the year, when Northerners hit the beaches to flee winter.

"Not that many years ago, the 'high' was the season and the rest of the year was filler," he said. "That's not the case anymore. We have developed and worked hard to develop the destination as a place to hang out in the summertime if you're a Florida resident."

Still, Pinellas County has to compete with the rest of the state's top tourism destinations, which also spend the summer marketing to Florida residents.

This year's campaign, titled "Where Summer Rocks," kicked off this weekend. The agency prepared TV spots and graphics emphasizing Pinellas' links to rock 'n' roll history: Jim Morrison's time attending then-St. Petersburg Junior College in 1961; the Rolling Stones writing (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction in a Clearwater hotel in 1965; and Elvis Presley performing at St. Petersburg's old Bayfront Center in 1977.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Tampa Bay's most coveted beach tourists are the locals 05/27/13 [Last modified: Monday, May 27, 2013 11:35pm]

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