County sees 9.3-percent increase in visitors in last fiscal year and 12-percent rise in their spending

Arts and cultural programs also record higher tourist participation

Virginia Haley. File photo
Virginia Haley. File photo

Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley reported to the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council (TDC) on Nov. 19, “We finally went over 1 million in visitors staying in paid lodging” during the 2015 fiscal year, but “what has me really excited is to look at that spending number.”

The latter figure is 12 percent higher than it was in the 2014 fiscal year, she pointed out during the TDC’s regular meeting.

The total amount of visitor spending in the 2015 fiscal year was $947 million, Visit Sarasota County documents showed.

John G. Ryan, president and CEO of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, congratulated Haley on reaching the 1-million mark in tourism, adding with a laugh, “I hope we have that name so we can send them a thank-you card.”

The actual total for the 2015 fiscal year was 1,084,140, according to figures Visit Sarasota County (VSC) provided the advisory board members. That was up 9.3 percent over the FY 2014 number of 991,500. VSC had set a goal of 1,006,000 visitors for the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, the documents note.

Haley attributed a big part of the increase to an agreement the county forged with the Baltimore Orioles when the team decided to pursue Spring Training in Sarasota. Because of $1 million in promotional funds the Orioles allocate to Visit Sarasota County annually, Haley told the TDC members, “we’ve really seen that Washington/Baltimore market rocket up” as a major location from which visitors come to Sarasota County, and the trend has shown year-round growth.

Another significant coup for the community, Haley pointed out, was landing the 2018 World Rowing Masters Regatta at Nathan Benderson Park. That will be an even bigger event than the 2017 World Rowing Championships at the venue near the Sarasota/Manatee county line, she said, in terms of the number of people coming to the area.

A USRowing press release issued in early September explains that the regatta is “the largest of World Rowing’s events, with a four-day concentrated program” and more than 400 individual races. It typically attracts more than 3,000 adult competitors from more than 40 countries, the release adds.

Among other statistics Visit Sarasota County provided in its quarterly report to the TDC, of the total number of visitors from April through June in the 2015 fiscal year, 36 percent were making their first trip to the area, a 3,100-percent increase over the figure for FY 2014.

Growth in the arts, too

Jim Shirley. File photo
Jim Shirley. File photo

Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, had more good news for the TDC members.

During the 2015 fiscal year, Shirley reported, 57 percent of the people who attended programs produced by arts organizations that receive county grants were tourists, up from 55 percent the previous fiscal year.

Through Sarasota County, the Alliance funded 34 projects produced by 30 organizations, Shirley told the TDC. The total amount awarded for those offerings was $1,580,600, and the programs drew 1,683,903 tourists during the 2015 fiscal year.

“We’ve had a nice upswing,” he added, with arts productions realizing enjoying a rebound since the Great Recession ended, he said.

Among highlights of the past fiscal year, Shirley noted that in conjunction with the Sarasota Ballet’s summer performances at Jacob’s Pillow Dance, VSC was able to staff a booth offering information about the arts and cultural offerings in Sarasota County. Such outreach “actually does a great job in helping spread the word” to potential tourists, Shirley added. Reviews of Sarasota Ballet’s performances in The New York Times also resulted in a lot of publicity for Sarasota County, he pointed out.

Additionally, Shirley said the Children’s Rainforest Garden has contributed to Selby Gardens seeing its tourism numbers “[go] up dramatically.”

The fact that students come from all over the world to participate in the Sarasota Orchestra’s Music Festival in the summer “really helps spread the word about this community,” he continued, noting that the young people return to their homes abroad and tell family members and friends about what Sarasota County has to offer.

Further, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s won plaudits once again during the 2015 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. “Their recognition is really spreading throughout the art world … and the entertainment world,” Shirley added of the Sarasota organization.

The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe won national recognition again this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe won national recognition again this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Shirley also noted that Sarasota annually achieves some of its highest numbers for international tourism during the Sarasota Opera’s season.

In response to a question about how community members can best help the arts organizations, Shirley said, “Money is the thing that [every group] needs.” He pointed out that the state’s Division of Cultural Affairs reduced its community arts funding support by 40 percent this year.

When City Commissioner and TDC member Suzanne Atwell asked him his forecast for arts participation in the current fiscal year, Shirley told her, “I think we’re going to have a banner year,” adding, “There’s some spectacular scheduling going on.”

Shirley continued, “These [arts and cultural] groups have put so much pride and effort into the product that they put out.” Even during the recession, he noted, the quality of offerings “never dropped at all, [and quality] really drives the [participation in the] arts.”

A chart shows the rise in tourist participation in arts and cultural events. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A chart shows the rise in tourist participation in arts and cultural events. Image courtesy Sarasota County