Latest ‘bed tax’ revenue report shows impact of red tide on tourism in Sarasota County

Visit Sarasota County leaders tell Tourist Development Council members about strategies to combat negative publicity

A chart shows the Tourist Development Tax figures over the past three fiscal years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office

Since red tide began making the national news in early August, Sarasota County leaders have expected the corresponding decline in visitors to be reflected in the county’s Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — collections.

That impact is clear in the latest report from the Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office.

Even last month, the Tax Collector’s Office report reflecting revenue collections through July showed a year-over-year climb of less than $5,400 for the month of July. That increase was wiped away by revisions for the August report, the Tax Collector’s Office’s new figures show. Instead of a slight climb, July’s revenue actually dropped $10,528.72 year-over-year, the report says.

Moreover, the August revenue number is down by $228,638.55, compared to the figure for August 2017.

Through Aug. 31, total Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue for the 2018 fiscal year was up just $1,530,202.37, compared to the amount recorded through Aug. 31 in the 2017 fiscal year, the Tax Collector’s Office data show.

Only one month of revenue reports remain for the 2018 fiscal year, as that year ended on Sept. 30.

Before red tide led to double-digit drops in tourism-related business this summer, TDT revenue had been expected to set another record in the 2018 fiscal year. It has set such records over the past several years.

The total amount of TDT revenue collected in the 2017 fiscal year was $21,332,493.35; in the 2016 fiscal year, it was $20,130,871.06, the latest Tax Collector’s Office report says.

These are figures based on research and interviews with tourists in the third quarter of the 2018 fiscal year. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Figures can change month-to-month because of audits and other enforcement actions, Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates and her staff have explained.

As a result of such revisions, the latest report shows a drop in the total for every month in the 2018 fiscal year, compared to the previous report, which was based on figures through July 31. The biggest change among those revisions was for the month of April. The latest report shows that revenue for that month declined $22,082.01 year-over-year. The July 31 report had shown collections up almost exactly $2,600, compared to the figure for April 2017.

Among the other larger drops was the one for the month of March. The latest data show revenue up $486,866.12 year-over-year, whereas the previous report put the increase at $521,589.07.

As for businesses that collect the tax: Those on Siesta Key remained ahead of their competitors in the Tax Collector’s Office report that compares totals by location. Siesta Key had 30.91% of the revenue, with the city in Sarasota in second place with 29.76%.

More declines

Virginia Haley addresses the County Commission on June 20. File photo

During the Oct. 11 meeting of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC), Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, noted that research undertaken for her office had underscored the red tide effects reflected in the TDT figures.

“Sadly, with the August numbers,” she said, “we’re seeing the reality of the impact. We dropped by 50% occupancy [of accommodations]. We had double-digit drops in the number of visitors,” she added. Furthermore, the average revenue per available room was down 25% for August, Haley said.

“It was definitely a rough month,” she told the council members, “and, sadly, I think we’re going to see that continue in September.”

The only bright spot for September, she pointed out, was the 2018 World Masters Regatta held at Nathan Benderson Park late that month. It was expected to bring thousands of competitors and their family members to the area.

In the third quarter of the fiscal year — before red tide began repelling visitors from the county’s beaches — Visit Sarasota County data showed that the total number of visitors was up 3.6% from April through June. Their direct spending was up 4.1% for that quarter, a Visit Sarasota County report said, with June showing an 8% uptick, compared to the figure for June 2017. Altogether, direct visitor spending in the third quarter was put at $1,038,922,300.

Visit Sarasota County’s response

“We have not stopped our advertising and promotion of Sarasota County,” Haley explained to the Tourist Development Council members. Instead of putting the focus on the beaches, she said, the emphasis has been on activities and attractions away from the waterfront. “Really, everything off of the beaches.”

A couple of weeks ago, she continued, Visit Sarasota County conducted a free training session for area business owners to help them deal with media reports about red tide.

Next on the program, Erin Duggan, vice president of Visit Sarasota County, provided details about other steps the county’s tourism agency has been taking to counter the negative publicity the community has received.

A graphic explains one facet of Visit Sarasota County’s revised marketing plan. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Visit Florida already has approved a $50,000 grant to Visit Sarasota County to help with promotional campaigns after red tide has been shown to have dissipated, Duggan pointed out. That will help stretch the county agency’s marketing revenue for this fall, she noted.

The target audience for that campaign, according to a slide provided to the TDC members, is women ages 25 to 65 with an annual household income of $75,000 per year or higher.

The campaign will target Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte through November, the slide said, and then add Dallas, Cleveland and Columbus in December.

Additionally, Visit Sarasota County will be working with the five other counties to the north and south that, like it, have been most affected by red tide, Duggan said. The counties will utilize another Visit Florida grant — in the amount of $112,500. Visit Florida will send a team to the county for five days, she continued, which will help Visit Sarasota County staff load a minimum of 500 new assets about the community onto the Google Maps website and application. “[Google Maps] will showcase real, live authentic footage.”

Among the goals with that initiative, another slide explained, is to “[u]nderstand and document how Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota & Manatee currently appear visually in Google products”; “[i]dentify and address opportunities to minimize the visibility of red tide and improve imagery on Google”; and educate local business owners about how to manage images of their offerings through Google My Business.

Even before red tide became an issue, Duggan explained, Visit Sarasota County had signed an agreement with Google Maps to enable the tourism office to have more control over content about the county that goes out from that resource, she added.

Google Maps is a web-based service that provides detailed information about geographical regions and sites around the world. It offers panoramic views, real-time traffic conditions and all sorts of other information, and it can be used on computers, phones and tablets, its website explains.

A slide shown to the TDC members explains facets of the Google Maps program plans. ‘DMO’ stands for ‘destination marketing organization.’ Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

For example, Duggan noted, 360-degree videos taken by drones, along with footage taken by kayakers and bicyclists will be offered on Google Maps.

Visit Sarasota County also will provide training to interested business owners who want to keep updated images and content on the app.

Visit Sarasota County’s original plan was to spend $121,000 on digital marketing in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, Duggan said. Because of red tide, it will boost that spending to $210,000 by shifting funds within its budget.

Asked if she had any idea about the amount of negative publicity the community has received on an international basis, Duggan responded that she was in Germany for a meeting a couple of weeks before the TDC meeting. No one asked her about red tide during the sessions, she added.

However, when she was on a bus headed to the airport after the meeting, Duggan continued, she was wearing an SRQ hat, and a man stopped to ask her quietly how bad red tide was in Sarasota County.

He told her he had a second home in the community, she said, which was the reason he was asking.

Red tide is “not something that’s top of mind [in Europe],” Duggan pointed out.