Nonprofit Southwest Florida group working to promote ecotourism in Sarasota and Manatee counties

Proceeds from ‘concierge camping’ trips go toward environmental programs and research

Jennifer Shafer. Image from the Science and Environmental Council website
Jennifer Shafer. Image from the Science and Environmental Council website

Just last week, a group of people paddled down the Myakka River, spending three nights at campsites where their tents were set up before they arrived, and chefs were ready to prepare their dinners. It was the first trip offered by ecko, a project of the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, the council’s executive director, Jennifer Shafer told members of the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council (TDC) at their Jan. 21 meeting in Sarasota.

“This is concierge camping,” Shafer pointed out.

With more people traveling to Florida than any other state to view wildlife, and spending more than $1 billion a year on travel and equipment, the 29 members of the Council are crafting unique, multi-day adventures with expert guides to capitalize on that economic potential, Shafer said.

Between 2009 and 2013, she continued, Visit Sarasota County (VSC) recorded a 32-percent increase in the number of tourists who participated in nature-related activities. Those people generated $190 million in direct spending and $360 million in total economic impact in 2013, Shafer said, based on VSC data. The latter figure climbed 50 percent over four years, she noted.

Both the Myakka River State Park and Oscar Scherer State Park reported half-a-million visitors in 2014, Shafer added, and 74 percent of them were not residents of Sarasota or Manatee counties.

The Council members — including Sarasota County, the City of Sarasota, Mote Marine and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens — together own and manage 136,000 acres of undeveloped property and more than 200 facilities such as museums and aquariums, Shafer explained; they are focused on the potential not just of economic growth but also on protecting and preserving natural areas while educating visitors.

Council members started brainstorming about two-and-a-half years ago on unique itineraries that would incorporate sustainability, she continued. The tours would use restaurants and caterers who serve locally sourced food, for example, as well as “green” hotels, such as the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.

Schafer's presentation to the Tourist Development Council included this graphic. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Schafer’s presentation to the Tourist Development Council included this graphic. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The emphasis is on walking, biking and travel by water vessel, she explained. All proceeds from the tours go back into the Council’s environmental programs, she pointed out.

The organization has put together about 73 percent of the funding it needs for its initial ecotourism goals, she added, and it is looking for about $40,000 more. VSC, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Selby Foundation all have offered strong support, Shafer noted.

Three new corporate sponsors have just signed on, she said: the Hyatt, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Trailwalker Gear.

Eventually, Shafer told the board, the members feel the Council’s website could grow into a clearinghouse for ecotourism activities around the state.

“This is fantastic,” said Sarasota Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell, adding she hopes the Council gets many more sponsors.

This graphic lists the majority of the Council's members. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This graphic lists the majority of the Council’s members. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A lot of people — like herself, Atwell continued — might not be comfortable venturing out on their own on kayaks, but a tour such as Shafer described along the Myakka River would give them a sense of security. Furthermore, people find the concierge concept attractive in many capacities, Atwell noted.

“We have high safety standards,” Shafer replied, as well as crisis management plans.

In response to a question from TDC member Vern Johnson, Shafer explained that the Council has received a grant from VSC to print brochures and is working on the design of them. For the time being, Shafer added, the website is the primary marketing tool. People also purchase their tours through the website, she said. “Everything is included” in a package, she noted, adding, “We also have a commuter rate. … It’s the perfect ‘staycation.’”

Eventually, she continued, the organization would like to offer up to 30 ecotours a year. “That would be … maxing our capacity.”

The goal is to sign up eight to 12 people per trip, she added.

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo
Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

In response to another question, Shafer said the tours will be offered year-round.

“Welcome to camping for city folk,” TDC member Norman Schimmel told Shafer. “It’s great. Congratulations.”

Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines, who serves as TDC chairman, pointed out that about one-third of Sarasota County land is owned by the public. Referring to Shafer’s presentation, he added, “It’s … the evolution … of tourism in Sarasota County.”

Referencing Schimmel’s comments, Hines continued, “We haven’t had that here.”

Hines added, “If you haven’t done a canoe trip down the Myakka River, please go do it, because you’ll be astonished.” People will see a totally different landscape than what they typically think of as Sarasota County, he pointed out.