County Commission offers no immediate support for Visit Sarasota County funding request to produce videos showing hoteliers’ COVID-19 safety protocols in effort to secure meetings and sports events bookings

Board members hear details about proposal designed to help tourism industry businesses survive

Chair Michael Moran. Filer image

During the special meeting they conducted on Aug. 19 about how to divvy up $18.9 million in CARES Act funding, the majority of the Sarasota County commissioners offered no support for giving an extra $850,600 to the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County.

Instead, they agreed to consider that after the county receives the rest of an anticipated total of $75.7 million from the federal government, through the state.

Chair Michael Moran pointed to the contractual arrangement the board has with Visit Sarasota County (VSC). The organization, he said, has “a ton of money. A ton.”

The commission’s focus that day, Moran emphasized, should be on the “people that are hurting bad.”

Yet, Commissioner Alan Maio, who represents the commission on the VSC board, pointed out, “This is a request that’s coming from the bedrock of our bed tax, the hoteliers.”

He was referring to the fact that people who rent accommodations in the county for six months or less time pay a 5% Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax.” The resulting revenue is used for a wide variety of tourism-related initiatives in the county — from grants to arts and cultural organizations for programming to beach maintenance to upkeep of county sports stadiums.

VSC does have a budget, Maio continued, but it had been reduced because of the negative impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on government finances this year.

Then Maio suggested “asking Visit Sarasota County for a refinement of what exactly this [request] is and where it’s going …” That, he added, “makes perfect sense.”

On Aug. 31, as the board members began their final workshop on their proposed 2021 fiscal year budget, Virginia Haley, the VSC president, appeared before them to offer the details for which Maio had called.

Yet, the commissioners took no action that day, either, in response to her request.

Making the needs clear

An Aug. 28 memo Visit Sarasota County sent county staff and the commissioners explained that, instead of $850,600, the organization was seeking $455,000 out of the county’s Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) money from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

During the Aug. 31 budget workshop, Haley pointed out that she was speaking “on behalf of Sarasota County’s largest industry. … While the tourism industry seems to be doing better than expected,” she said, “if you look behind the curtains, you’ll find a deeply troubled industry barely hanging on.”

Virginia Haley addresses the commissioners on Aug. 31. News Leader image

The number of visitors in the county has been higher on weekends, she continued, but still low on weekdays. The proposal she had presented to the commission in advance of the Aug. 31 meeting, Haley said, “came from the industry.” Hoteliers need to sell themselves to planners of meetings and sports events, she pointed out. They need to provide virtual demonstrations of the safety procedures they have implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “This is not a proposal dreamed up by Visit Sarasota,” Haley stressed. “We don’t do videos and virtual tours for individual businesses. We promote Sarasota as a whole.”

“National trends show that safety is the No. 1 concern” for travelers, Haley continued. Organizations are booking meetings and sporting events six months out, she said. Therefore, she added, the timing is good for getting the videos produced and in front of planners.

Visit Sarasota County was asked why the hoteliers “don’t do this on their own,” Haley told the board. The reason, she emphasized, is that they do not have the personnel or the money to pay for such an effort upfront, especially on a tight timeline.

If the VSC staff creates the video content, she continued, “The product is more professional and effective at marketing us all.”

The Aug. 28 VSC memo asked, “Why is this specialized Covid-19 campaign for meetings and sports so important?” It answered that question with three bullet points:

  • “These markets bring corporate leaders to our community and these are the very individuals targeted by the Sarasota County Economic Development Corporation to either move their business here, or to live here and work remotely.
  • “These markets help book weekday business which is where area hotels are struggling the most. Adding weekday business puts employees back to work so they can provide for themselves and their families.
  • “The meetings industry has a long lead time for booking business so the sooner promotions can begin, the greater the chance to secure future business for 2021 and beyond.”
This is the top of the memo from Visit Sarasota County to the commissioners. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

The memo also explained, “Research from Destination Analysts, a research firm specializing in the travel and tourism sector, has shown that:

  • “The first groups to return to in-person events will be Sports groups, Corporate/Private Sector Businesses, Religious Organizations, Government & Social groups.
  • “Nationwide, 60% of group business is currently being booked for April 2021 and later.”

During her Aug. 31 remarks to the commission, Haley emphasized, “We cannot provide this content within the parameters of our greatly reduced Fiscal 21 budget.”

When Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked for more details, Haley explained that a panoramic video can show how a meeting room would be set up. It also can show how meals and snacks would be served.

The videos would focus on promoting the individual county sports facilities and the hotels, she added. Visit Sarasota County (VSC) does not produce content at “that granular level,” she added. “We may do a general content piece about meetings, but we don’t get into that level of detail.”

She also pointed out, “The money we have left in the budget” is for general promotion of Sarasota County.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. File image

Ziegler pressed her, though, asking, “At what point do we have all the photos and videos we need of Siesta Key Beach, for example?”

Ziegler added that he would have assumed that VSC content produced three or four months ago would have focused on measures being taken in the county to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “Has that not occurred yet?”

“Yes, in a very general way. Absolutely,” Haley told him. However, she again emphasized the types of details that would be included in the new videos.

Moreover, Haley explained, “You have to continually serve up fresh content,” to keep potential visitors engaged.

“That makes a little bit more sense,” Ziegler acknowledged.

If the commission approved the $455,000, Haley said, then Visit Sarasota County could begin creating the videos and get them into the marketplace by mid-December.

In response to further questioning from Ziegler, Haley also noted that the VSC staff is familiar with the process through which reimbursements would be sought from the county, out of the CARES Act funds; business owners, generally, are not.

Commissioner Nancy Detert told Haley she understood that information about how hotel rooms are being cleaned is “very reassuring to people.”

Detert also pointed out how well the 2019-20 season was going in the county before the pandemic began in March. “Everybody was having a great season. Restaurants packed; roads packed. Everybody complaining about traffic.”

“If we don’t start doing something by October,” Detert told Haley, “we could be blowing off the entire winter season, and that would take out a lot of small businesses in your industry.”

This is the Visit Sarasota County homepage banner on Sept. 3. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Then Commissioner Charles Hines summed up the discussion. “What we have to decide today,” he said, is whether to invest the extra money with VSC, so the organization can do something it has not done in the past.

People probably will not go to New York City or Miami during the upcoming tourist season, Hines continued, because of concerns about crowds and the lack of entertainment options, as a result of the pandemic. If people are nervous about traveling, Hines said, they are going to head to places such as Sarasota County. VSC’s videos also could show what is open in the county, including the beaches and the parks, he noted.

An industry role in the effort?

Chair Moran pointed out that the undertaking Haley had described is usually the function of a tourism association.

The next speaker who would address them that morning, Haley replied, would be the leader of the Sarasota-Manatee Hotels Committee, Rob Ferguson.

How much money will that organization put into the videos, Moran asked.

“They came to us,” Haley responded. “They don’t have the marketing dollars.”

She explained that, with hotels having laid off so many employees, they do not have extra staff to handle the creation of the videos. “Normally,” she said, “this is something that the corporate Hilton or Marriott would be doing, and the dollars just aren’t there.” However, she continued, if the video marketing effort is successful, she believes the hotels will have funds in the future to take on such projects themselves.

Commissioner Maio pointed out that he had talked with numerous hoteliers, who had explained to him the new steps they are taking to ensure rooms are clean for visitors in the pandemic. His own wife, Maio said, will not consider taking their five grandchildren to a hotel unless she has been assured that such safety protocols are in place.

Yet, Commissioner Ziegler told Haley that he is a member of “a rather large organization” that traditionally holds quarterly meetings that draw hundreds of people  “We’re very hesitant to have a meeting,” Ziegler added, until perhaps the first of 2021; maybe even later. “How is marketing really going to help? … Let’s remember these are tax dollars, at the end of the day.”

Haley responded, “You’re seeing the big meetings break up into small or blended meetings.” Some functions are held at destinations, she added, with other people participating via remote technology. “So the opportunity to bring that business [to Sarasota County] is there.”

Rob Ferguson asks the commission for help during the Aug. 31 workshop. News Leader image

When Moran asked Haley whether the VSC board members had considered dipping into the organization’s reserves to fund the video production, she told him, “No.” The reserves, she said, typically are used when VSC has to pay a lot of money upfront for an initiative, knowing the money will be reimbursed. Moreover, she said, the reserve is just enough to cover 60 days of normal operations.

Finally, after the board members concluded their discussion with Haley, they heard from Ferguson, director of the Sarasota-Manatee Hotels Committee and director of sales and marketing at the Aloft Hotel Sarasota.

“We are here to support Virginia’s proposal for the CARES Act funding,” Ferguson said. “We’re just trying to keep the doors open right now.”

Much of the industry research, he added, has shown that it will be the first quarter of 2021 before meetings resume with regularity.

He approached Haley about six weeks ago, Ferguson continued, to seek help with marketing, because corporate officials have told hoteliers to use their cell phones to shoot videos and then use mobile apps to edit those videos before distributing them.

“We are in desperate need,” Ferguson added, of the work Visit Sarasota County can do.