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Pinellas tourism leaders fear more COVID-19 fallout, cuts tourism marketing budget

The Tourist Development Council approved a slimmed down tourism marketing budget as the surging pandemic threatens the industry's hopes of rebounding.

LARGO — Just as it looked like Pinellas County’s tourism industry might be rebounding, local business leaders are bracing for another COVID-19 crash.

As the elected officials, hoteliers and members who comprise the county’s Tourism Development Council met Friday to discuss Pinellas’ tourism development budget for the upcoming year, the day’s grim news made its way into their conference room on Ulmerton Road.

Florida recorded nearly 9,000 new positive cases on Friday and the state again shut down all bars. Meanwhile the 15-member council sat at tables spaced 6 feet apart, speaking into microphones through face masks, as they reviewed the toll the pandemic had already taken on visitor spending so far this year.

In April, when nonessential businesses were forced to shutter, Pinellas County collected $516,000 through the tourism tax, a 6 percent tax charge on every overnight stay at hotels, short-term rentals or rental apps like Airbnb. That marked a 92 percent drop in tax revenue from the same period the year before.

Related: Hillsborough tourism officials wonder about industry’s rebound

Overall, the coronavirus has pushed what was poised to be a record-breaking tourism tax year into one that’s now running about 9 percent behind 2019′s tax revenues.

That money — which has steadily amounted to at least $100 million in recent years — not only funds the county’s tourism marketing efforts, but also capital projects from expanding museums to building stadiums. In response to the sudden drop, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism marketing bureau, proposed to cut its own budget by about $9 million for the upcoming fiscal year and reduce capital spending by nearly $11 million.

“We’re all anticipating this roller coaster to continue,” said Visit St. Pete/Clearwater head of digital marketing Leroy Bridges.

The tourism council voted unanimously to approve those cuts.

The bed tax numbers for May and beyond are not yet available. But things were looking up: hotels experienced a surge of staycationers who were excited to get back out to reopened beaches and restaurants. The week ending June 20, Tampa Bay posted one of the highest average hotel occupancy rates in the country at 49 percent, according to industry analyst STR.

But tourism leaders fear that trend won’t continue into July as Florida’s COVID-19 cases continue rising.

The tourism council, which advises the Pinellas County Commission on allocating tourist tax dollars, also voted not to fund any new capital projects and instead move those monies into reserve funds as it waits out the pandemic. It also approved a proposed budget. All of its decisions must be still be approved by the county commissioners.

Related: Snowbirds and staycationers help revive Pinellas tourism despite pandemic

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has been planning a comeback campaign to lure in visitors from across Florida and Georgia called “brighter days ahead,” but now officials don’t know when they’ll be able to launch it. Right now, the bureau says safety for locals and visitors is its top priority. It just ordered Visit St. Pete/Clearwater-branded face masks and 50,000 bottles of 4-ounce hand sanitizer.

“As it continues to get worse, people don’t want to hear from us,” Bridges said, referring to the bureau’s marketing campaigns. “There are more important things.”

At its lowest point, Pinellas County hotels in late March had occupancy drop to just 16 precent, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater president and CEO Steve Hayes told the council.

“As we moved through April and into May and June, you started to see the increases,” Hayes said. “The biggest spike you see then is when Memorial Day happened. We are slowly inching up.”

But the challenges change day to day, he said. Everyone in the industry is trying to be nimble.

Bridges said the marketing department has a phased recovery plan ready to go, but they won’t launch it until market data and research suggests people are ready to travel again.

He said that’s unlikely happen while the national spotlight falls on Florida’s surging number of COVID-19 cases.

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