Latest research finds high percentage of visitors to Sarasota County end up becoming full-time residents

Beaches and relaxed atmosphere among top draws for tourists and new residents, studies also show

The beaches and the county’s relaxing atmosphere are among the top reasons for tourists to come to county and for persons’ relocations to the county, studies find. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

A study undertaken for Visit Sarasota County (VSC), the county’s tourism office, found that 45% of the 470 county residents interviewed relocated to the county after first coming to the area as tourists, members of the county’s Tourist Development Council learned on Nov. 9.

Joseph St. Germain, president of the Tallahassee firm Downs & St. Germain Research, pointed out that that the firm has conducted studies through the years regarding many Florida destinations, but this was the first time Downs & St. Germain had found such tourism experiences to be the top reason for relocations to a specific area.

That response highlights the economic impact that tourism has on the county beyond visitors’ direct spending, St. Germain emphasized to the advisory council members, who were holding their regular meeting in downtown Sarasota.

Years ago, when Joe Barbetta of Sarasota was a member of the County Commission, he talked on a number of occasions about the value of drawing visitors to the community for the very reason that they might decide to buy a second home in the county or move to the community, leading to economic expansion.

Further, St. Germain said on Nov. 9, four out of five residents interviewed agree that tourism “raises the profile of everything in the county.”

Among other details of that study were the following, he said:

  • Nearly two out of three of the residents interviewed reported a positive overall attitude toward tourism in the county. That figure rose 7%, St. Germain added, after they were provided details about the economic impacts of tourism, including the number of jobs created. (In response to a Tourist Development Council member’s question, St. Germain said that 86 visitors equates to one job in the county’s tourism industry.)
  • Nearly two in three people interviewed said that tourism brings money to the local economy and helps local small businesses.
  • Nearly two out of five of those surveyed reported that tourism has a positive impact on their quality of life.

St. Germain added that he expected all of the Tourist Development Council (TDC) members have heard negative comments about tourism. “But when you talk to everybody,” he pointed out, “there’s more positives than negatives.”

County residents made it clear during the interviews that they understand that they enjoy a greater number of benefits — including arts and cultural programming and fine dining — because those are draws to visitors, as well, he said.

Nonetheless, St. Germain continued, “It’s not all sunshine and lollipops.”

Factors from the study that indicated an opportunity for residents to be educated about the benefits of tourism are as follows, he noted:

  • Nearly one in four persons said they feel the public costs of tourism outweigh the economic benefits.

However, St. Germain cautioned the advisory council members, “Take that a little bit with a grain of salt.” In every study of this type that Downs & St. Germain conducts, he explained, people say tourism increases traffic and parking issues. “That’s a daily thing that people deal with.” Yet, he noted, they do not acknowledge that their own driving contributes to those same issues.

  • Fewer than three in 10 residents acknowledged that they were aware that Visit Sarasota County receives county funding out of the revenue generated each year by the county’s Tourist Development Tax, or “bed tax.” That revenue is generated by a 6% tax on accommodations rented for six months or less time. “I think that’s a very, very important point to make to you,” St. German stressed.
  • More than one in eight individuals interviewed rated Visit Sarasota County’s communications about tourism’s benefits to residents as poor.

Market perceptions

St. Germain also reported on the findings of a study about perceptions of Sarasota County as a tourist destination.

That report was based on outreach to “people in [722 of] your major markets,” he said.

The study found that the top draws are the county’s beaches, its relaxed atmosphere, its overall beauty, and activities that are planned to attract visitors, he told the council members.

Another key takeaway from that study, St. Germain continued, is that Sarasota County is different from other destinations in the area because it is upscale and relaxing, and it has high-quality beaches.

The Siesta Public Beach Park long has been one of the county’s top tourist attractions. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The study did make clear an opportunity for increasing awareness to potential visitors about what the county has to offer them, he added. They reported having heard of Sarasota, he explained, “but it is rarely top of mind,” as one of his slides described the situation.

Moreover, he pointed out, while the beaches also were cited as the top reason many first-time tourists came to the county, arts and cultural programming and restaurants were found to be very important to those who planned to return. The research had found that about one-third of the tourists had traveled to the county more than 10 times.

Nonetheless, the primary reason visitors reported for planning to return to the county, St. Germain said, is to visit friends and relatives.

Yet another takeaway from that study, he added, is that potential visitors rely on the internet, friends and family members to learn about destinations. Yet, he noted, “The younger the folks that we talk to,” the greater the role social media plays in their awareness about specific destinations.

St. Germain also noted the positive effects of various advertising campaigns that Visit Sarasota County has conducted. For example, he said, a campaign focused on the county’s natural areas resulted in five of six people who had seen it saying they consider Sarasota County a beautiful destination.

“We keep adding things,” such as the extensions of The Legacy Trail, the bicycling/pedestrian path that connects North Port to downtown Sarasota, Council Vice Chair Norman Schimmel responded in regard to that campaign.

Bicyclists travel on Segment 3 of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail after its opening on March 3, 2022. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The completion of those projects has enabled both residents and visitors to enjoy areas to which they previously did not have access.

“It’s part of the Sarasota experience,” St. Germain concurred.

Relocation factors

The third study on which St. Germain reported delved into the reasons people relocate to Sarasota County.

The firm talked with individuals who either could retire or move to Sarasota County while they are still working, he explained. In fact, he added, the attraction of the county for such relocations “is very high. … It’s even higher than as a destination to visit.”

He did point to one factor in that study, though, that he characterized as a paradox: weather.

While weather was cited among the top reasons for relocation — along with the beaches — the top two reasons people provided for not wishing to move to Sarasota County were the threat of hurricanes and the heat and humidity, St. Germain said.

However, akin to the impact of the Visit Sarasota County marketing campaign focused on nature, a VSC campaign emphasizing “Work where you want to live,” he continued, “was successful in moving the needle.”

Moreover, St. Germain added, reasons people gave for wanting to be able to live and work in the county mirrored those about why people want to visit the county: the beaches, the weather, the scenic beauty and relaxed atmosphere.