Tourist Development Council recommends approval of Visit Sarasota County’s budget for 2019 fiscal year

Only adjustment since mid-May proves to be a reduction in Sarasota County’s bid amount for Under 23s World Rowing Championships

Visit Sarasota County offers a variety of images on its homepage. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Three-and-a-half weeks after the president of Visit Sarasota County expressed frustration over the potential for Sarasota County staff to upend her proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year, all issues had been resolved amicably, Virginia Haley indicated this week to members of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC).

On May 17, Commissioner Charles Hines, who chairs the TDC, announced that even though the Visit Sarasota County budget was on the agenda for the board’s consideration that day, the vote would have to be delayed. The focus, Haley said at that time, was on the $750,000 proposed for the county’s bid to host the World Rowing Championships (WRC) for athletes under the age of 23 in July 2019, and a project to replace damaged flooring at Ed Smith Stadium.

She also voiced worry that day about meeting a June deadline for submitting the WRC bid.

Yet, Hines was likewise concerned about giving the TDC members an opportunity to review her budget and business plan before it went to the County Commission for final approval.

With the TDC’s unanimous support of the budget this week, the County Commission is scheduled to discuss the tourism agency’s funding and business plans during the afternoon of June 20, as part of its FY19 county budget workshop that day, Lynn Hobeck Bates, communications manager for Visit Sarasota County, told The Sarasota News Leader in a June 12 email.

During a special meeting on June 11, Jeff Maultsby, director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development, and Haley both thanked the TDC members for their patience. “We were able to address the two issues collaboratively,” Maultsby said, referring to the bid and the stadium repairs. The budget before the advisory board that day, he added, “is one that we can support …”

“I think that we’re all in good communication,” Haley told the TDC members.

An aerial view shows the crowd during one of the days of the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park. Photo courtesy of the 2017 World Rowing Championships staff in Sarasota County

As it turned out, she explained, Manatee County leaders did agree to help share the expense of the World Rowing Championships bid, leaving Sarasota County to put up $675,000. “We’re just very thrilled to continue that partnership,” Haley added, as the two counties worked together on the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Nathan Benderson Park.

In regard to the stadium work, Haley referenced her understanding that county staff is considering amending the ordinance governing allocations of its Tourist Development Tax (TDT) — or “bed tax” — revenue to deal with such matters. (See the related story in this issue.)

Hines added that it was his understanding that county staff had signed off on Haley’s proposed FY19 budget and that sufficient funds are available for the stadium project.

TDC member Shelli Freeland Eddie, a Sarasota city commissioner, asked whether the revised Visit Sarasota County budget included any other adjustment besides the rowing event bid amount.

Haley told her it did not.

Overall, the Visit Sarasota County budget proposed for the 2019 fiscal year — which will begin Oct. 1 — is $7,717,000, compared to $6,515,300 in the current fiscal year.

The Visit Sarasota County proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year includes these line items. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Haley explained to the TDC members that Visit Sarasota County’s business plan fort the next fiscal year reflects efforts to increase the TDT revenue by $2.2 million and to generate an additional $11.2 million in other county revenue linked to tourism.

For the past two fiscal years, the TDT revenue has set records. (Hines pointed out during the June 12 County Commission meeting that it is on track to set another record this year.)

Her projections are possible, Haley indicated, because of the increase in hotel rooms in the county and “very high consumer confidence,” which is expected to continue throughout the year.

A slide Haley showed the TDC members noted that from 2016 through 2018, the county is expected to realize an increase of 1,177 hotel rooms, a 23% uptick.

Without a greater investment in marketing initiatives, another slide noted, the county could face dips in room rates and the resulting loss of revenue. From October 2017 through March of this year, the slide added, the number of visitors to the county rose 2.7%, but lodging occupancy slipped 1%.

Haley also noted the potential for company relocations to Sarasota County as a result of tourists’ visits.

The Visit Sarasota County website offers this map and related information. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

During a conference she attended in New York City the previous week, she said, the point was made that more than half of the executives who make decisions on relocations for their companies base their choices on visits they have made to other areas for business or pleasure. “It’s a very competitive environment,” she added of the efforts to land those relocating firms. Many communities in Southwest Florida spend much more on tourism marketing than Sarasota County does, she said.

Another slide she showed the board noted that Visit Sarasota County’s annual marketing expense averages out to $385 per lodging unit; no change is planned for the 2019 fiscal year. In comparison, the slide pointed out, Collier County’s 2018 investment per unit is $1,124; in Lee County, it is $985; and in Pinellas County, it is $882.

“Despite this,” Haley said, “we’ve been able to do a good job of driving visitation and keeping Sarasota in the forefront.”

Another slide she showed the TDC members noted that only 17% of Visit Sarasota County’s FY19 budget is allocated to professional services, while the national average is 39%.


A slide presented to the Tourist Development Council on June 11 provides details about county tourism. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Among overarching goals for Visit Sarasota County (VSC) in the next fiscal year are achieving a 5% increase in the number of visitors, compared to the FY18 figure, and the attraction of at least two international events in addition to the World Rowing Championships for younger athletes, Haley said. For example, she continued, VSC could bring a smaller sporting event to the community or a meeting, such as a medical conference, that would draw people from other countries.
Among other goals are the following, as members of Haley’s team explained to the TDC:

  • Creating nooks at VSC locations for people to buy tickets for arts and cultural performances occurring that day and the coming weekend. Erin Duggan, vice president of VSC, told the TDC members that VSC will track those sales to determine the effectiveness of that initiative.
  • Booking 500 room nights from people in minority and specialty markets. City Commissioner Freeland Eddie praised VSC for its focus on “diversity and inclusion” as part of its strategy.
  • Sending a minimum of 115 sales leads to hotels in the county.
  • Booking a minimum of five new athletic teams to train in the county. Benderson Park has proven a popular destination for many university rowing teams in the winter, VSC staff has explained in the past.
  • Bringing at least two new types of sporting events to the county.

Shelby Connett, the VSC sports director, talked of the potential of “eSports,” such as video gaming, and pickleball to fulfill that goal.

As for the Under 23s World Rowing Championships, she noted that the event would be held in the second half of July 2019, if Sarasota and Manatee counties win the bid. Competition would last about eight days, she said, with approximately 1,200 participants and another 1,000 to 1,500 spectators. “That would be our third World Rowing event in three years,” she pointed out, which is a sign that VSC is solidifying its relationship with FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron), the world governing body of the sport of rowing, and USRowing.

(The 2018 World Rowing Masters Regatta will be held at Benderson Park in late September.)

Construction is moving right along at the Atlanta Braves Spring Training complex at the West Villages outside North Port. Image courtesy of the Atlanta Braves

TDC Vice Chair Norman Schimmel asked Connett whether she plans to start marketing campaigns next year targeted at residents of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, given the fact that the Atlanta Braves will be relocating their Spring Training operations to a new complex in North Port. “The Atlanta Braves are the team of the South,” he explained.

“Absolutely,” she replied. VSC has been working with the Braves’ entire staff, she added. In fact, she said a meeting was scheduled this week with team representatives to talk about a marketing plan.

“Next year is almost like a practice year” for the county in becoming the Braves’ new Spring Training home, Schimmel pointed out.

To ensure adequate time for completion of the stadium and surrounding complex, the team plans to play only its final 2019 Spring Training game at its West Villages facility just outside North Port. The Braves will have their first full season there in 2020.

“I’d like everybody [who comes to those games] to stay in our county,” Schimmel added.

Already, Connett said, VSC has been working with the Braves on the “hundreds of hotel rooms” the team will need each season. VSC staff already is referring the Braves to hotels in Sarasota County, she noted.