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Hernando officials look to define county's tourism niche

BROOKSVILLE — What is Hernando County's niche?

What would draw visitors to stay in local hotels and eat in area restaurants when other nearby locations offer roller coasters, beaches and opportunities to swim with manatees?

Those are questions the County Commission pondered during a joint workshop with the Tourist Development Council earlier this month. They were trying to decide whether to replace longtime tourism coordinator Sue Rupe, who retired, or find a new way to market the county to outsiders.

What they found was that Rupe and her council knew exactly which county features entice tourists.

Trails for canoe and kayak enthusiasts, motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle riders, and walkers and bicycle riders wind through the county. Attractions such as Weeki Wachee Springs State Park pull people in to learn about mermaids. And unique events such as the Brooksville Raid and the annual Family Motor Coach Association rally are big draws for out-of-towners.

Getting those visitors to stay awhile is the goal for the TDC.

Hernando County's tourism development activities are funded through a 3-cent tourism or bed tax paid by those who stay in hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and short-term rentals. Those taxes generate about $310,000 annually.

Commissioners asked whether TDC members or anyone in the community had new ways to sell the county's assets to outsiders that haven't been tried before. Bobbi Mills, who heads the council, explained that there have been new efforts made.

Sometimes those are successful, like the massive annual gathering of motor coaches. Others, like a plan to use text messaging to offer deals at local businesses, have fallen flat.

Mills said the features that make Hernando attractive, such as its natural setting, also lend themselves to a hands-on, personal form of tourism development. She expressed concern that such contact would be lost if the county decided to contract out its tourism marketing.

"There needs to be something that Hernando County is known for that can really attract,'' said commission Chairman John Druzbick. "How can we turn it up a notch?''

Area resident John Scharch suggested that the county might need a slogan like "Charmingly rustic and close to everything.'' He said Hernando County grabbed his attention when he was seeking to relocate from the Florida Keys because it is close to major cities and the people are friendly.

His sole complaint: The county needs a bookstore, he said.

"We should have never done away with chicken plucking. It's part of our heritage,'' Commissioner Dave Russell said, referring to Spring Hill's annual Chicken Pluckin' Festival that was held for years.

"We're looking at what makes us different,'' he said.

Commissioners also talked about how to measure whether the county's tourism development efforts are working. Past efforts to track why people choose Hernando County for a visit have been spotty, officials said.

County Administrator David Hamilton suggested county staffers revisit existing tourism development protocols and move forward with hiring Rupe's replacement. Then, after tweaking the tourism development approach and implementing it, he said he would bring back an update.

"Give us about a year and set some goals,'' Hamilton said.

Commissioners agreed to that approach.

After the workshop, officials offered their top candidate for the tourism coordinator job, subject to County Commission approval.

The candidate is Tammy J. Heon of Zephyrhills. She most recently worked as director of marketing and public relations for the Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation in Maine, and prior to that was the manager of creative services for a promotions company in New Hampshire.

In her cover letter, Heon wrote about the importance of a multi-pronged approach to luring visitors to the county, one that relied on partnerships with the community and its businesses. Creating inviting destinations and adding a social media approach were among her ideas.

"In short,'' she wrote, "one must not only draw tourists to a locale, but also unite the local business community in establishing a 'Welcome to our Place' mentality that is always at work to ensure their stay is not only memorable, but also recommended and repeated.''

The County Commission will consider hiring Heon on Jan. 11.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando officials look to define county's tourism niche 12/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 8:09pm]
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