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Tampa Bay tourism aims at cities served by Allegiant, and a new calendar

Florida Governor Rick Scott next to actor Nathan Gamble visits with Clearwater Marine Aquariums' dolphins Hope (left) and Winter, flanked by trainers Susan Young (left) and Heather Statz during a visit to the aquarium Thursday morning 7/23/2015 to highlight funding for VISIT FLORIDA to continue Florida?€™s record-breaking tourism. He held a press conference in the aquariums theater with area and state wide tourism officials and local leaders before getting a visit with the aquariums movie star dolphins Winter and Hope alongside Dolphin Tale actor Nathan Gamble.
Florida Governor Rick Scott next to actor Nathan Gamble visits with Clearwater Marine Aquariums' dolphins Hope (left) and Winter, flanked by trainers Susan Young (left) and Heather Statz during a visit to the aquarium Thursday morning 7/23/2015 to highlight funding for VISIT FLORIDA to continue Florida?€™s record-breaking tourism. He held a press conference in the aquariums theater with area and state wide tourism officials and local leaders before getting a visit with the aquariums movie star dolphins Winter and Hope alongside Dolphin Tale actor Nathan Gamble.
Published Jul. 24, 2015

The Tampa Bay tourism industry isn't just relying on top feeder markets like Chicago and New York and its stronghold seasons of summer and winter to attract visitors anymore.

Instead, officials are creating their own hybrid tourism seasons and aiming for secondary markets served by Allegiant Air in cities such as Akron, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; and Grand Rapids, Mich.

"These are good, strong Allegiant markets," said David Downing, CEO of the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Allegiant, the troubled discount carrier, has turned St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport into one of its busiest hubs. Pinellas hasn't marketed in those cities before, but already has strong brand recognition on which to capitalize. Their smaller size also makes them cheaper for advertising, so there's more bang for the county's $1 million ad campaign.

But to reach those areas, VSPC has also created a whole new tourism season: summer-fall.

"This idea of seasonality is something that's going by the wayside for us," Downing said.

From August to October, Pinellas will run a digital and TV campaign aimed at enticing visitors from 10 secondary markets stretching from Iowa to West Virginia. This is Pinellas' third multiseason campaign, after the 2013 spring-summer push and 2014 fall-winter effort.

Hillsborough also has built its own tourism seasons, marketing the Gasparilla Pirate Fest from January to March and a seven-month arts season.

But, the county also plans to scrap traditional seasonal marketing altogether. In October, the county will launch a year-round tourism campaign that doesn't depend on the time of year. For starters, Hillsborough's successful craft beer campaign — launched in June to attract the craft beer aficionado niche — will be extended into the fall.

Patrick Harrison, the vice president of marketing for the Hillsborough tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay, said this is where the industry is heading.

"I think we're a little bit ahead of some of the other regions in the country," he said, "because this is our bread and butter."

The impetus for this creativity is competition. Tampa Bay must vie for visitors against destinations across the nation and world — as well as right here in Florida, where tourism is thriving.

Gov. Rick Scott touted the state's booming tourism industry on a swing through the bay area Thursday. He started by addressing the U.S. Travel Association's annual board meeting at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, then visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and its movie-star tourist attractions, dolphins Winter and Hope.

The state had 28 million visitors in the first quarter of 2015, a rise of 6 percent from 2014. Florida is on track to hit Scott's goal of attracting a record 100 million visitors this year.

For the bay area to keep getting its share of Florida's tourists, both counties must continue to unearth new markets and new opportunities.

Besides being creative with the tourism calendar, both counties have recast their images to attract new demographics of tourists, such as 20-something travelers and the LGBT community. The Pinellas beaches want to project a younger, hipper vibe, while Hillsborough sells itself as the beaches' more urbane, adventuresome counterpart.

To market its summer-fall campaign, Pinellas teamed up with Internet radio platform iHeartRadio to give away beach trips and private concerts with music acts from the rock and adult contemporary charts. The campaign has a URL (rockthe beaches.com) and a hashtag (#rockthebeaches.)

"It's about doing things you haven't done before," Downing said. "It's about being a bit scrappy and trying new initiatives based on solid research."

Harrison said the bay area cannot stop trying to stay ahead of its growing — and global — competition.

"Tourism is our industry. It's what we do," he said. "But the rest of the world has figured out that tourism is a great thing, too, and the rest of the world wants the same dollars.

"We have to compete for those same dollars. We can't let up or the rest could leave us behind."

Contact Jamal Thalji at (813) 226-3404 or jthalji@tampabay.com. Follow @jthalji.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Gov. Rick Scott and Dolphin Tale actor Nathan Gamble visit with Clearwater Marine Aquarium movie star dolphins Hope and Winter while trainers Susan Young, far left, and Heather Statz look on. The governor held a Thursday morning news conference to highlight the state's booming tourism industry. See Business, 4B.