NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County tourism leaders shouldn't fret because they don't have a big beach or theme park to draw visitors, the county's top economic development official said this week.
"We can substitute imagination and a little bit of guerilla warfare," John Hagen, chief executive officer of the Pasco Economic Development Council, told those attending the county's annual tourism summit. The meeting focuses on efforts to draw more visitors to the county, which sits just north of Pinellas' beaches and Tampa's Busch Gardens. A couple of hours east, Belle's castle and Harry Potter beckon in Orlando.
Hagen's suggestions included a "welcome back" party for returning snowbirds, an event with the Joy-Lan north of Dade City, among the nation's few remaining drive-in theaters, and finding obscure events other areas are not promoting. One example: pickleball, a sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. (The national tournament was held this year in Buckeye, Ariz.)
"Find something nobody else is doing and you can own it," he said.
The kumquat, the tiny fruit that serves as the centerpiece of a Dade City festival, is one of those ideas, he said.
Also, Pasco can draw international visitors by piggybacking on marketing done by Tampa and St. Petersburg, which have much larger tourism budgets.
"All you need to do is get them across the line," he said. An example of a promotion that could appeal to Orlando tourists could be "Spend a Day in Old Florida," encouraging them to spend an extra day — and more money.
"How many of these people would like to see an alligator?" he said.
Going the extra mile for guests also is critical, Hagen said.
"If you do not have stellar customer service," he said, "people do not come back."
The 52 attendees included county commissioners, county staffers, hotel operators, resort representatives, festival organizers and sports venue owners. Also attending was James Talton, president of Blue Marble Strategic, the company negotiating with the county to build a megasports complex at Wiregrass with $14 million in hotel taxes that have accumulated over the past 22 years.
Negotiations are ongoing and an agreement should be reached soon, he said.
"I was extremely happy to see that there was real effort being put towards selling Pasco to the rest of the world and that the value of destination marketing was at the forefront of the discussion," he said.
The summit is held to educate attendees on industry trends and brainstorm ideas. This year's was especially important as Pasco is nearing the end of its five-year strategic plan that began in 2010.
The current plan ranks sports tourism as the top priority, followed by ecotourism. But that might change in the wake of a recent report by the Urban Land Institute in which the consultants said ecotourism should get more emphasis.
The county also is outgrowing its adolescence, said Ed Caum, interim tourism director. Changes afoot include adding a sports marketing coordinator and a public information director. Currently, the tourism director is in charge of public information. The new position would free up that person to do tourism full time.
Caum said the county should look at becoming a "destination marketing organization," rather than a small tourism office.
These groups, called DMOs, market an entire area to outside visitors. Pasco's tourism office and its tourism development council has mainly focused on doling out grants to event organizers.
"Even though our office is small, we can have a large economic impact," Caum said. "We really want to become a regional player."