Tourism remains sluggish in Hernando County

BROOKSVILLE — For Hernando County tourism development coordinator Sue Rupe, there's no denying that the sluggish economy continues to plague efforts to lure visitors to the area.

Despite tried and true methods of trumpeting the area's natural beauty and its reputation as a prime locale for outdoor activities such as canoeing, hiking, fishing, biking and golfing, getting visitors to choose Hernando County over more popular Florida spots remains a somewhat elusive goal in tough economic times.

"It's really a challenge," said Rupe. "Once we get (tourists) here, they're pretty happy, but we're pretty much representative of the whole state. People just don't have the money to vacation like they once did."

For the most part, the area's reputation for natural beauty, outdoor activities and off-the-beaten-path attractions continues to be a strong draw for Central Florida locals looking for low-cost "stay-cation" getaways. But pulling in out-of-state tourists on their way elsewhere in the state is tougher.

Though her agency, the Hernando County Convention and Visitors Bureau, has long relied on traditional mail-out brochures, Rupe said many new visitors first learn of Hernando County via its Web site, www.naturallyhernando.org, which underwent a complete makeover last year.

She has been looking into other information sources as well.

One idea that didn't work, however, was the tourism bureau's attempt last fall to plunge into modern technology using a series of billboards on Interstate 75 that beckoned passersby to send text messages in order to get a special deal at a local hotel or motel, restaurant or attraction.

While the proposition, which cost Rupe's office more than $17,000, may have sounded good, only 32 text messages were received through December. Although the campaign was aimed at passengers riding in vehicles, critics felt it encouraged people behind the wheel to text while driving. Rupe now admits it was a mistake.

"It was one of those ideas that on the surface looked good but in the end wasn't," she said.

One thing that has worked well is the growing partnership with tourist development bureaus in Pasco and Citrus counties, all of which vie for eco-tourism dollars. Rupe said sharing resources makes sense.

"We are all looking to attract essentially the same type of visitors," she said. "By promoting the area as a whole, I think we all benefit."

Rupe, who has been at the helm of the tourism development office since 1996, said she wishes that some of the county's landmark destinations, such as Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and Rogers' Christmas House and Village, were a bit more aggressive in promoting themselves.

"We get calls all the time asking if those places are closed," she said. "It's a shame, especially when you think of the people who don't bother to call and ask."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Tourism remains sluggish in Hernando County 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 8:04pm]

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