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Concerned with brand image, Hillsborough bus agency proposes slashing ad revenue

Ad revenue makes up 0.4% of the agency’s proposed budget for the next financial year, but critics say that walking away from the money, even if it’s a small proportion, is unwise.
HART busses at the Marion Transit Center, 1211 N Marion St, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 in Tampa.
HART busses at the Marion Transit Center, 1211 N Marion St, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 11

TAMPA — Concerned with brand image, Hillsborough County’s transit agency has proposed shrinking a reliable revenue stream: fully wrapped bus ads.

In its proposed operating budget for the next financial year, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority seeks to cut its advertising revenue to $500,000 from $1,233,398 the year prior. The agency wants to prioritize ad space for its own branding efforts, officials said.

The proposal from the transit authority comes as ad revenues are rising. “This past quarter was the most successful ad revenues in the history of the organization,” said Todd Pressman, a consultant for the agency’s advertisement vendor, Vector Media.

“We are not saying we’re going to walk away from advertising,” said HART CEO Adelee Marie Le Grand at a recent board meeting. “What we are looking to do is no longer wrap our vehicles with brands and advertisements that really don’t elevate our HART brand and what HART means to the community.”

Many of the agency’s buses are wrapped from bumper to bumper (windows included) in a special vinyl which enables passengers to see out. To people on the street, the buses can look like floating murals, pitching everything from pain medication to personal injury lawyers, state agencies to sports teams.

Ad revenue makes up 0.4% of the agency’s proposed budget for the next financial year, but critics say that walking away from the money, even if it is a small proportion, is unwise.

“The advertisement generates revenue for HART. Why would you cut it back?” said County Commissioner Gwen Myers. “The focus should be getting the transportation tax passed, expanding service and boosting ridership.”

Ad wraps cover HART buses at the Marion Transit Center, 1211 N Marion St, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 in Tampa.
Ad wraps cover HART buses at the Marion Transit Center, 1211 N Marion St, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Officials with the agency’s advertisement vendor, Vector Media, said they were caught off guard by the agency’s proposal and are unsure why it would walk away from a stable revenue stream at a time when it faces an uncertain financial future.

“There must be a typo error,” said Dave Daucanski, executive vice president of public Transit at Vector Media when he first saw the proposed 59.5% advertisement revenue cut.

“There are numerous ways to accomplish HART’s branding goals without sacrificing much needed revenues, and we hope to have the opportunity to work directly with HART in these regards so that the local community can have the best of both worlds,” he said later in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Hillsborough transit authority has an estimated $1.7 billion in unfunded costs across the next 30 years and a slate of projects approved in the transit development plan. The agency is looking toward new federal dollars and a potential penny sales tax that could come on the November ballot to provide some relief.

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“We understand that the revenue generated is important,” Le Grand told board members at last week’s meeting. “But we also understand that our brand has value as well, and the value of our brand is not synonymous with the revenue that we’re getting from the advertising dollars.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said she had mixed feelings about the agency’s advertising proposal. “HART has a desire to address its presence in the community and raise awareness of the importance of transit in the community. I understand that goal,” she said. “But not to the extent that we should be giving up nearly $800,000 of revenue.”

Overman said she would like to further explore creative ways in which bus advertisement space could be used to share information about local social and economic services. “We should be thinking of ways to partner with the community, without giving up the revenue we so desperately need,” she said.

The rethinking of the ad revenue is part of a broader effort to “take back the HART brand,” said agency spokesperson Frank Wyszynski. This May, the agency’s board approved a $306,000 contract with analytics firm AlphaVu to monitor public opinion and offer strategic communications recommendations.

The transit authority had three main ad placements: the wrap-arounds on buses, signs inside the vehicles and signs at shelters and stops.

Renting a full-wrap bus advertisement costs around $6,200 for four weeks, not including installation fees, though prices can vary, according to Vector Media staff.

Vector Media’s five-year contract with HART expired at the end of last year. It has since been extended in six-month increments, now set to expire this December.

Last year, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority eliminated full bus wraps. They still allow partial wraps in which their “PSTA” logo can be seen, according to agency spokesperson Stephanie Rank.

When the transit agency completed its procurement process for an advertising company, “We determined we would lose some but not significant revenue by deleting full bus wraps like HART is considering,” Rank said.

The agency is projected $525,700 in advertising revenue for the next fiscal year, including a guaranteed minimum of $470,700 from their advertising vendor. For 2022, the agency had pulled in more than $636,000, according to Debbie Leous, the authority’s chief financial officer.

“Clearly we are performing better than anticipated, and this may influence our budget updates for next year,” she said.

The size of exterior bus ads does not appear to be linked to ridership levels on either side of Tampa Bay, according to advertising staff, transit officials and agency data.

The Hillsborough transit agency is hosting two public hearings on the proposed budget next month, on Sept. 12 and Sept. 26.

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