The Gasparilla Pirate Festival has for decades attracted crowds of bay area residents to downtown Tampa. This year, Hillsborough County's tourism agency is casting a much wider net.
Visit Tampa Bay hopes to lure travelers from across the nation and even overseas to what has become "Gasparilla season," a two-monthlong period of community and cultural events throughout the region.
This is the first year Visit Tampa Bay has actively pursued marketing Gasparilla as a seasonlong event to different places around the world, said president and CEO Santiago Corrada.
"It really has become its own season. Over the years, we've added event after event," Corrada said. "So for the first time this year, we've become more focused on that season element and have been marketing it as yet another reason to visit Tampa Bay."
The tourism group's annual marketing campaign is focused on the theme of "Florida's Most" this year, Corrada said, and Gasparilla fits well into that. The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is the third-largest parade in the country (behind the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City), Corrada said, but few know much about it outside of the state.
The $1.7 million campaign launched in November and focuses on Tampa Bay's bragging rights as a destination that combines the greatest Florida experiences, from craft breweries to theme parks, all in one place. The campaign targets potential tourists from the Northeast, Midwest and Texas, along with Canada, Germany and England.
"Gasparilla season" includes the pirate festival outdoor concerts and parades in downtown Tampa in late January, the Gasparilla Distance Classic race in February, the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in early March, the Gasparilla Music Festival in mid March and the Gasparilla Film Festival in late March-early April. The idea is, if you're not up for the traffic and the rowdy crowds at the parades, there are other worthwhile events to attend.
With these new additions, Visit Tampa Bay hopes to attract more tourists, fill more hotel rooms and draw interest for future conventions.
The cultural events in March have branded the month "Gasparilla Arts Month" as a way to support each individual festival, said film festival executive director Monica Varner.
This is the film festival's 10th year in Tampa, which has grown from attracting 2,500 attendees and 50 films to 15,000 moviegoers and 120 films, Varner said.
She has noticed that a growing number of film festival attendees are coming from out of town.
"I think people are coming to Tampa specifically for cultural events. They want to experience that while they're here," Varner said. "Not every city has a film festival, so that's a unique experience."
For the second time this year, the Gasparilla Pirate Festival will host a pre-invasion charity concert in downtown Tampa on Friday night before the parade, instead of what has traditionally been an after-party event on Saturday, said Darrell Stefany, president of EventFest and project manager for the Gasparilla Pirate Festival events. The Swon Brothers, Hip Abduction and special guest Howie Day will perform.
"We've noticed in recent years, people are coming into Tampa the night before the parade but don't have anything to do," Stefany said.
Participants in the pirate festival are coming from as far as Philadelphia to join in, said J. Rex Farrior III, captain of Ye Mystic Krewe, a band of local business leaders who founded the festival in 1904. They partner with EventFest to run it each year. More than 60 other krewes come to Tampa to participate, Farrior said.
"Over half of the attendees are from out of the county," he said. "And we've had upwards of 300,000 people attend when the weather is good."
Much like Hillsborough County's year after year of record-shattering bed-tax collections, the Gasparilla events continue to grow. A 2008 study showed that the Gasparilla Pirate Festival generated $22 million in economic impact for Tampa Bay in 2004. Farrior said that the festival has grown a lot since then, so he can "comfortably say the impact is well in excess of that now."
But there's no clear-cut way to tell if visitors who come to Tampa Bay during this time period are here specifically for the pirate fest, distance run or other events.
Nevertheless, Hillsborough County has seen a 43 percent spike in bed-tax collections from 2011 to 2015 during the months of January through March. Hotel occupancy in Tampa rose by 15.6 percent over five years for the same months. At Tampa International Airport, the total number of passengers passing through the airport during the first quarter of the fiscal year has risen every year since 2011, with the largest gain, of 7.3 percent, in 2015.
January and February have historically been high travel months for Tampa Bay, thanks to annual snowbird traffic.
"Tampa Bay has become a year-round destination," Corrada said. "Gasparilla season has something for everyone and we hope it will drive more people here."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] Follow @SunBizGriffin.