Pinellas County’s new tourism leader lays out plans for collaboration to grow destination

Steve Hayes is just starting his second week at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, which has been without a leader for nearly a year.
Steve Hayes, the new CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, started on Dec. 16.
Steve Hayes, the new CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, started on Dec. 16. [ Visit St. Pete/Clearwater ]
Published Dec. 27, 2019

LARGO — Steve Hayes started his first week as the head of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater with a stack of books to share with his staff.

The new CEO of Pinellas County’s tourism marketing arm brought a piece of Pensacola — where he worked the last six years — with him when he started his new gig on Dec. 16.

The book, Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change is Reshaping America, was written by Pensacola businessman Quint Studer. Studer began working to attract investment to Pensacola and revitalize his community in 2015. Around that time, Hayes began “Destination 2020,” a plan to grow Pensacola tourism. The book chronicles the city’s upswing.

Related: Visit St. Pete/Clearwater taps Pensacola’s Steve Hayes to lead tourism marketing

“It was a collaboration with the community that pulled people together and drove this plan so that there was a buy-in," Hayes said.

He wants to bring that same type of collaboration to his new role over the next six to nine months, as he and his staff create their own strategic plan to strengthen local tourism.

“The key thing right now is drinking from the fire hose and really getting to know the community," Hayes said. “I’m booking up my calendar as fast as I can.”

Hayes isn’t starting all his local relationships from scratch. The bulk of his tourism experience comes from the 25 years he spent at Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County’s tourism bureau. Hayes said his conversations with local leaders and business owners will help him and his staff map out how to grow the bureau as well a prepare for possible trend shifts. He wants to have a solid plan complete in six to nine months.

The number of visitors coming to Pinellas County has been steadily increasing year over year, as has the money the county has collected in taxes from those visitors, but its unclear when it could plateau.

“That’s one of the things I have to dive into a little more,” Hayes said.

He said his agency’s plan will need to lay out whether its focus should be on boosting visitor numbers, increasing how much visitors spend, or some combination depending on the season.

The tourism agency gets its marketing money through a 6 percent tax, often referred to as the bed tax, on overnight stays in Pinellas. The amount of money collected each month is used measure the county’s success at luring tourists.

In the 2019 fiscal year, Pinellas County collected a record $63 million in bed taxes.

As CEO, Hayes now manages the bulk of that money — 60 percent — through the agency’s roughly $40 million annual budget. The remaining $20 million funds county projects.

In his previous role, Hayes managed about $10 million. This will be the biggest budget he’s handled, and it will also be the first time he’s worked for a public agency to market a destination.

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Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Pensacola are private nonprofits. Pinellas County is one of the few tourism bureaus in Florida set up as a public agency, leaving its finances and contracts available for inspection under public record laws.

Related: Pinellas tourism leader David Downing took vacation on taxpayers’ dime

Prior CEO David Downing resigned in January after the Tampa Bay Times requested hundreds of pages of records regarding how Downing ran the bureau and spent tax money. As a result of the Times reporting, county leaders said there would be added accountability to the CEO role.

“This is my first foray into a fully public entity,” Hayes said. “I knew that coming in and I embrace it wholeheartedly.”

Hayes and his wife are settling into the area once again. This time, without their two children, who are now adults. The couple is renting an apartment as they search for the right “empty-nester” house, Hayes said. He isn’t sure which part of the county they’ll choose yet.

“I’m using the time to get to know Pinellas,” he said.