As the economic impact of county tourism grows, air travel concerns remain a key obstacle to more visits

A firm hired by Visit Sarasota County says visitors in 2014 directly spent almost $1.4 billion, while jobs in the hospitality industry accounted for about 19 percent of all employment

Phillip Kerr of Kerr & Downs addresses the Tourist Development Council on Sept. 17. News Leader photo
Phillip Kerr of Kerr & Downs addresses the Tourist Development Council on Sept. 17. News Leader photo

The total economic impact of tourism in Sarasota County in 2014 was $2,246,723,500, a 9.4 percent increase over the 2013 figure, a representative of the Kerr & Downs research firm told members of the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council (TDC) during its regular meeting on Sept. 17.

Direct spending in the county in 2014 totaled $1,361,650,600, said Phillip Downs, founding partner of Kerr & Downs, which undertook the research for Visit Sarasota County. The increase from 2013 to 2014 was close to 10 percent, he noted.

In 2014, 22,500 jobs in the county — about 14 percent of the total — were directly related to the hospitality industry, an increase of 6.4 percent from the 2013 figure of 21,151, further data showed. Adding in jobs that were indirectly created by tourism, the figure accounted for about 19 percent of all employment in the county in 2014.

The key obstacle to attracting more visitors, especially meeting planners, Downs told the TDC members, is “air service, in all components”: flight prices, more direct flights to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) and better logistics for visitors trying to reach their meeting places after arrival.

The firm surveyed more than 3,000 people visiting Sarasota County to gather more detailed statistics for the report, noted Joseph St. Germain of Kerr & Downs. In both 2013 and 2014, he continued, 94 percent of the people interviewed said they would return to the county. In 2013, 95 percent indicated they would recommend the area to friends; that figure was 94 percent in 2014, St. Germain noted. “Those numbers are pretty high. … If you’re at 94, 95 percent, you should be very happy.”

Further, those tourists paid $100,176,938 in sales, use and property taxes in 2014, a 13.9 percent hike from 2013.

A Kerr & Downs chart provides information about tourists to Sarasota County. News Leader photo
A Kerr & Downs chart provides information about tourism in Sarasota County. News Leader photo

Among other statistics St. Germain referenced were those showing a 6.4 percent increase from 2013 to 2014 in occupancy rates for hotels and condominiums rented by visitors. The overall occupancy rate in 2014 was 71.9 percent. Revenue per available room — known as RevPAR — climbed as well year-over-year: from $100.49 in 2013 to $115.10 in 2014, a 14.5 percent change.

About two-thirds of the county’s visitors do stay in paid accommodations, St. Germain pointed out. Their total for that expense in 2014 was $446,023,400, a 9.1 percent increase from 2013. The next biggest outlay of money by tourists was for restaurants and bars, with a 2014 total of $428,155,600, up 10.7 percent from 2013.

It was no surprise, St. Germain indicated, that the top three months for tourism in the 2014 research were January through March, which saw a total of 276,200 visitors, a climb from 264,700 the previous year. Most of them come from Florida and the Northeast, he added. In 2014, Sarasota County welcomed 227,510 tourists from Florida and 222,700 from the Northeast. The Southeast, excluding Florida, was third on the list, accounting for 102,150 visitors.

Last year, 42,800 people came from Europe, and 53,300 traveled from the United Kingdom to Sarasota County, the research showed.

The Kerr & Down research provided numerous statistics about visitors during the past two years. News Leader photo
The Kerr & Down research provides numerous statistics about tourism during the past two years. News Leader photo

The Internet, St. Germain pointed out, is the key source of information for 80 percent of people making the decision to travel to the area

Further, the average visitor to Sarasota County, St. Germain said, is 53 and the median income is about $124,000. Fifty-two percent of visitors come as couples, while 28 percent are part of family groups.

Regarding the research, Kerr pointed out, “We try to get visitors where they are … We have interviewers out and about throughout the county.”


In research focusing on attracting more visitors, Kerr explained that his staff interviewed 600 people. With no prompting when asked about their “top-of-mind preferences” for a Southeastern U.S. beach destination, 78 percent indicated Florida, with Sarasota County the top choice of only 2 percent, compared to 14 percent for both Orlando and Miami Beach, for example. However, when asked specifically about locations in Florida, 10 percent said the Sarasota area, compared to 38 percent for Miami/Miami Beach and 30 percent for the Florida Keys.

In a second sampling of respondents, Kerr pointed out, his staff provided a list of beaches. Then, 58 percent mentioned Venice, while 42 percent noted Siesta Key and 36 percent mentioned Longboat Key. Miami Beach was atop that list again, at 91 percent.

Research showed the breakdown of reasons people had not visited Sarasota County. News Leader photo
Research shows the breakdown of reasons people gave for not having visited Sarasota County. News Leader photo

When talking with people who had not been in Sarasota County, his staff found that almost four out of 10 “really didn’t have much information” about the area. “That’s really good news,” Kerr said, because Visit Sarasota County can work to attract those people.

Then his staff interviewed meeting planners, Kerr explained, including those who had held events in Sarasota County, those who had considered it but chose not to do so and those who never had thought of bringing a group to the area.

Sixty-seven percent of those who had planned meetings in Sarasota County said they were extremely satisfied with the results, while another 28 percent indicated they were mostly satisfied. Among the advantages they cited in having chosen this area, he continued, were the beautiful beaches and water, activities for attendees and their spouses, the weather, and the proximity to Orlando and Tampa.
Along with the air service factors, Kerr noted, the perceived lack of meeting space and affordable pricing for events were cited as key obstacles to holding meetings in the county.

“Again, we have an educational challenge,” he told the TDC members.

On the plus side, many of the meeting planners his staff interviewed had been to the county for leisure purposes, Kerr continued. “Now it’s a matter of converting those positive experiences into thinking about this as a meeting destination.”

He pointed out that 70 percent of the people who plan meetings in Sarasota County require fewer than 100 rooms, and the groups stay three to four nights. “Interestingly, of those who haven’t had meetings here,” he added, most listed the same criteria for their events.

Kerr suggested Visit Sarasota County focus more on meeting planners in communities that geographically are close to Sarasota and on those in other states with direct air service to SRQ, such as Atlanta and Charlotte.

Kerr told the TDC members his firm has worked with Visit Sarasota County for the past nine months. “Over the next year, we will continue to do this type of research.”

Kerr & Down was founded in the 1980s, he explained. Since then, it has produced more than 1,000 studies for about 250 clients. Along with Visit Sarasota County, the firm works with Visit Tallahassee, Marion County and the Crystal Coast in North Carolina.

At the conclusion of the presentation, TDC Chairman Charles Hines, a member of the County Commission, thanked Kerr. “It’s kind of amazing how well we’re doing,” Hines said, “[but] we still have a lot more folks to reach.”