CLEARWATER — A former Visit Tampa Bay executive will return to the area to lead Pinellas County’s tourism marketing arm.
Steve Hayes, who spent more than two decades in Tampa Bay tourism marketing, will take over as Visit St. Pete/Clearwater president and CEO on Dec. 16.
For the last six years, Hayes, 56, has held a similar role at Visit Pensacola. County Administrator Barry Burton said Hayes’ knowledge of the Tampa Bay market and his time as the head of another Florida tourism bureau made him the ideal choice.
Burton has been looking for the next CEO since February.
“It was a long wait,” Burton said. “But look at what we got. What a resume."
Hayes started working with Visit Tampa Bay — the tourism bureau for Hillsborough County — in the late 1980s. Over 25 years he held a handful of leadership roles, including executive vice president. He began at Visit Pensacola in 2013.
“I feel very blessed I have this opportunity,” Hayes told the Tampa Bay Times. “There is so much to talk about when it comes to St. Pete-Clearwater. Part of it, I already know the story. The other part, I get to learn more.”
It’s been a bumpy year for leadership at the Pinellas tourism bureau.
Former Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO David Downing resigned at the start of the year after Tampa Bay Times reporters began to examine expenses on his county credit card.
Burton selected an interim director — a former Busch Gardens and SeaWorld executive — who lasted two months before leaving to lead a zoo. After that, Burton told the county’s head of solid waste to help manage the tourism bureau as he continued the search.
Burton came out with three CEO finalists after a nationwide hunt in April, but soon decided none were the right fit. Then, another three finalists were announced about a month ago. Among them was Hayes.
“You want to make sure when you’re getting a key leader like this that you feel 100 percent confident,” Burton said.
The CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater manages a nearly $40 million budget. The county collects a 6 percent tourism tax on every overnight stay to get that funding. The remaining money collected — roughly $20 million — pays for capital projects.
Burton said he’s confident Hayes has the fresh ideas and skill to continue growing Pinellas County’s tourism numbers. Bed tax collection is already up about 6 percent so far this year compared to last.
In Pensacola, Hayes managed a budget of less than $10 million — but he thinks that gives him an edge.
“When you have less money,” he said, “you’ve got to be more resourceful.”
Hayes will move to the area with his wife, Mary Hayes, who also works in the tourism industry. The two plan to visit Pinellas this month to look for a new home.