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Winter's misfortunes help improve Tampa Bay's tourism

Winter's pain is Tampa Bay's gain.

Tourism officials had the good fortune and timing to launch their annual winter advertising campaigns in the Northeast and Midwest just as folks up there were battered in recent weeks by snow-packed storms, plummeting temperatures and all kinds of winter-related unpleasantness.

"Now they're getting more snow," said Pinellas tourism CEO D.T. Minich. "It's perfect."

This year Minich's tourism agency, Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, designed a campaign to speak specifically to the residents who live in certain ZIP codes in Pinellas' top winter feeder markets: New York, Chicago and Toronto.

Or rather, to taunt those snowbound residents using ads saturated with bright, warm hues and images of barely dressed tourists enjoying the sand and surf of Tampa Bay.

"Never mind Wall Street," read one New York City sign. "Invest in some sun."

"No Loop. But this circular thing called the sun," said one ad stretched across a bus that refers to Chicago's business district.

"We salt margaritas, not sidewalks," said one particular subway ad draped in snow outside a Canal Street station in New York City's Chinatown.

"From the tweets and some of the feedback we're getting is that they're loving the messaging," said Minich. "They're thinking we do need to come down there and salt some margaritas instead of sidewalks.

"It's resonating with them because it is speaking to them as New Yorkers instead of just a generic 'Hey it's warm, it's sunny, come on down' ad."

The new "Unlock Tampa Bay" brand — designed to sell Tampa as a warm-weather, urban and cultural complement to the Pinellas beaches — is also enjoying a strong reception up north, according to CEO Santiago Corrada of the Hillsborough tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay. Hillsborough's hotels enjoyed a strong fourth quarter in the end of 2013, and Corrada doesn't see that letting up in the first quarter of 2014.

"We're expecting increases in average daily rates," he said, "and we're seeing increases in occupancy rates."

In Pinellas, hoteliers are reporting that their bookings are already reaching full capacity for the next four months of the winter tourist season, according to Minich.

"There is some availability in the interior of thecounty," he said, "but the prime beachfront properties, the big properties, are already getting full on certain peak days.

"I think we're looking at a really great winter season. To the tourism industry, this is what the Christmas season is to retailers."

Tony Satterfield, the vice president of operations at Alden Suites resort in St. Pete Beach, reported more specific numbers: his bookings for January 2014 were up 25 percent compared to the same month in 2013. Right now February 2014 is up 6 percent, March 2014 is up 10 percent and April 2014 is up 17 percent compared to the same months in 2013, he said.

"We're off to a great start," Satterfield said. "Everything right now indicates a strong winter season."

Another metric of success is the number of people who are checking out Visit St. Pete-Clearwater's winter web address (ineedsun.com): Website visits were up 107 percent and page visits were up 120 percent in January 2014 compared to January 2013.

Winter storms, though, have also canceled or delayed thousands of flights across the United States and dozens in and out of Tampa International Airport. What kind of immediate effect is that having on local tourism?

Not much of one, actually. "It's a mixed bag," Minich said.

The disruption in air travel hasn't really led to a discernible drop in business, Minich said. Visitors whose flights are being delayed or canceled are not canceling their trips to the bay area. They're just getting here later.

Conversely, those who are already in Tampa Bay have to spend extra time here waiting to get a flight home, Minich said.

Satterfield said his resort's guests told him that even the bay area's less ideal weather — last week was cool, gray and wet — beats any of the cold, snowy and icy days back home.

"What I have been hearing consistently is that the weather is just so bad that they had to get out," he said. "Even last week, when the weather was questionable, I was told by a guest that 'It's 60 here and raining, but it's six degrees where I'm from.' "

Jamal Thalji can be reached thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.

Winter's misfortunes help improve Tampa Bay's tourism 02/04/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 11:16pm]
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