Visit St. Pete-Clearwater CEO leaves county tourism agency

Steve Hayes offered no details about his departure in his resignation letter.
A view of Clearwater Beach on Friday, Mar 10, 2023, off Pinellas County.
A view of Clearwater Beach on Friday, Mar 10, 2023, off Pinellas County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 7, 2023|Updated June 7, 2023

The CEO of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, the public agency charged with promoting Pinellas to tourists, resigned Tuesday.

Steve Hayes, who joined the agency in December 2019, offered no reason for his departure in his resignation letter, reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times, but wrote he was “extremely proud” of the team and the “hard work they have put in to drive growth of tourism here in Pinellas County.”

“Pinellas County and the VSPC team remain fully committed to supporting the hospitality and tourism industries, and the communities and companies that make up our destination,” County Administrator Barry Burton said in a statement Tuesday. “We are grateful to Steve for his years of service to Pinellas County and wish him success in his future endeavors.”

Hayes did not respond to phone calls requesting comment Wednesday.

The agency markets Pinellas County, home to 35 miles of beaches and nearly 588 miles of coastline, worldwide and doles out money for county events that draw large crowds.

Tourism leaders measure the success of a destination in terms of bed tax dollars, the amount of money collected per overnight room stay. By that metric, Pinellas County’s tourism industry is booming: Visit St. Pete-Clearwater reported hotels collected almost $1.6 billion in taxable revenue last year, meaning the county received more than $95 million in tourist development taxes.

Copley Gerdes, a St. Petersburg City Council member who sits on the county Tourist Development Council, said Hayes hadn’t hinted at any plans to step down. He noted the decision came after the council’s May meeting, which focused on the tourism bureau’s budget and was “a tough one.”

Gerdes and Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr., who also sits on the tourism council, said members were concerned about vacant high-level positions at Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.

Steve Hayes is president and CEO of Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater
Steve Hayes is president and CEO of Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater [ Visit St. Pete Clearwater ]

Hayes was the first permanent leader for the agency since David Downing resigned in January 2019, following reports from the Times about spending on a county credit card.

Public records obtained by the Times showed Downing had put more than $300,000 on his county credit card since 2014, including meals and alcohol.

“We will be conducting a search for a new Executive to fill the vacancy left by Steve,” Burton wrote in an email to staff Tuesday. Brian Lowack, assistant to the county administrator, will be assuming interim responsibilities of the role.

Lowack and assistant county administrator Kevin Knutson will be present at the upcoming Tourist Development Council meetings, Burton wrote.

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“I think the TDC just needs to continue to work,” Gerdes said. “We’re very blessed in an area that creates a lot of tourism, and we’ve got to put these dollars to use.”