The last week of August is usually a slow one for local hoteliers. This year, thanks to the Republican National Convention, there was nothing slow or usual about it.
The more than 50,000 delegates, visitors and journalists who descended on Tampa Bay for the RNC generated record bed tax revenue in August for both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, according to figures released by both tax collectors.
Travel industry analysts already declared the RNC a success for bay area hoteliers, who enjoyed record room and occupancy rates during the convention, held Aug. 27 to Sept. 1 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in downtown Tampa.
But the bed tax — a 5 percent surcharge tacked onto every hotel bill — is the most concrete measure so far of the RNC's economic impact, said David Downing, deputy director of Pinellas' tourism agency, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.
"We have a lot of metrics in this industry," Downing said. "But this is where the rubber meets the road."
It was already a record-setting year for Pinellas County bed tax collections before the RNC. But the convention propelled Pinellas to another record month, collecting $2.2 million in bed tax revenue in August. That's 22 percent more than the same time period last year, making it the best August on record.
That record August propelled total bed tax collections for this fiscal year (October 2011 to September 2012) up to a record $27.1 million, a $1.5 million increase from the year before. August's bed tax numbers are the most current figures available.
That makes 2012 the most prosperous bed tax year in county history, besting 2008's revenue record of $26.4 million — and there's still a month left to be counted this fiscal year.
Hillsborough's hotels enjoyed a similar RNC boost in August, generating $2 million in bed tax revenue. That's a 25 percent jump from August 2011.
It also puts Hillsborough on track to collect the most bed tax revenue in five years. August's figures bring total 2012 bed tax collections up to $21 million with one month left in the fiscal year.
The convention's timing boosted local hotels at just the right time, said Doug McClain, vice president of marketing and communications for Hillsborough's tourism agency, Tampa Bay and Company.
"It's filling a period that is typically slow for us," McClain said. "That's what was so fantastic about this — to go into a month that might be our slowest and just fill it with record demand."
Said Downing: "It didn't displace any business we might have had. It was a pure win."
McClain said his agency is using the RNC to showcase Tampa to meeting planners, hoping to reignite the area's moribund convention business. According to Smith Travel Research Inc., groups made 46 percent of hotel bookings in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market in 2006.
Then the recession hit. By June 2012, group bookings fell to 33.5 percent in Tampa-St. Petersburg. The rest of the bookings were made by families and small groups, a market segment that spends less money.
"We're showing off how we did with the RNC to help book future conventions," McClain said. "We're using it as a case study of how we can pull off a convention of that complexity."
There is hope on both sides of the bay that record bed tax years in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties mean the tourism industry is finally emerging from the downturn.
"Our thinking is," Downing said, "this is what recovery looks like."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.