World Rowing Championships produce overall economic impact of $22.6 million on state of Florida

World governing body of rowing has asked to meet with local tourism leaders to discuss long-term plans for Benderson Park, Visit Sarasota County president reports

The Finish Tower has become the key landmark at Benderson Park. File photo

The World Rowing Championships held at Nathan Benderson Park in late September just missed the $25-million goal for economic impact on the state, research undertaken for Visit Sarasota County showed.

The grand total was $22,613,500, Joseph St. Germain, president of Downs & St. Germain Research in Tallahassee, told members of the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council (TDC) on Nov. 16.

The firm found direct spending throughout the state of Florida by people from outside Sarasota and Manatee counties who attended the event was $13,705,200, St. Germain added. Within the two counties, event attendees poured $18,650,300 into the economies of the two counties through direct and indirect spending, he pointed out. That money went to accommodations, restaurants, grocery stores and attractions; the figure included outlay for transportation, shopping and entertainment.

Direct spending of the people who attended the event but who live outside the two counties was $11,303,200, St. Germain continued.

A graphic shows a breakdown of responses about attendees’ satisfaction. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Attendees — including the 1,501 athletes and other team delegates — spent 25,491 nights in accommodations in Sarasota and Manatee counties, he noted. The total amount they paid for those rooms was $4,521,200, St. Germain reported.

Their direct spending in restaurants was $3,067,400, he added, while transportation expenses totaled $959,500.

Almost two-thirds of the teams (63%) flew into Tampa International, he continued, while 49% of attendees used that airport.

Altogether, the number of individuals who attended the event from outside the two counties was 6,544, he continued.

Moreover, both athletes and other attendees gave high marks to the counties, St. Germain reported, with 86% of athletes and other team representatives the researchers interviewed saying they would recommend the Sarasota area as a vacation destination and 85% of domestic attendees saying they plan to return to the two counties. Another 47% of the international visitors marked “Yes’ in response to the question about plans to visit the area again, he noted.

On a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 the highest rating — attendees rated the World Rowing Championships 9.1, while athletes produced an 8.7 cumulative rating.

“You have to understand,” Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, told the TDC members: “These are very picky customers. … Dealing with elite-level athletes, we were amazed at these ratings.”

A graphic shows a breakdown of activities World Rowing Championships visitors pursued. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

“This was a big risk — huge,” Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines responded to the report. “There’s always naysayers, he continued, “but I don’t know how you can say we didn’t hit a grand slam on this for now and the lingering positive effects of this.”

Haley said she recalled a meeting in the fall of 2012 with representatives of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) — which manages events at Nathan Benderson Park — and Manatee County leaders, with the discussion centered on whether to submit a bid for the 2017 World Rowing Championships. The Sarasota County Commission — which owns Benderson Park — recently had approved the funding to expand improvements to the facility so it could accommodate major events, she continued. Additionally, FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron), the world governing body of the sport of rowing, had just released the bid for the 2017 Championships. “We sat there and said … that’s pretty risky, going for something that big this soon.”

Nonetheless, Haley added, “We thought that it was a worthwhile risk for this community, to be aggressive and set ourselves on the world map for 2017.”

In submitting the bid, she continued, the goal was to achieve an economic impact that would be the equivalent of that produced by a European rowing championships event. Europe traditionally draws the largest rowing championships, she pointed out, because “it is still largely a European-centered sport.”

As for the future: Haley told the TDC members, “FISA has already picked up the phone” and called the new president of USRowing, telling him, “‘We’ve got a problem with the 2019 Under 23s World Rowing Championships. Would you please bid on it.’”

A graphic shows a breakdown of airports attendees other than athletes used to reach the World Rowing Championships. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Those young competitors generally travel with family members, Haley noted.

Additionally, FISA representatives have asked to meet with Sarasota and Manatee tourism leaders, she said, to discuss building a 10-year strategy for events at Benderson Park.

“[This] was exactly what we dreamed of in our little conference room that day [in 2012],” she pointed out, “and it’s coming true, with a lot of hard work.”

“I think [rowing is] going to have a long, long-term economic impact [on the area],” Hines responded.

The Irma effects

“There was a real question” about whether the counties should cancel the event, as it was coming up so soon after Hurricane Irma struck in September, Hines pointed out. “Trees were blown over; landscaping was destroyed [at the park].”

Town of Longboat Key Mayor Terry Gans asked Haley whether the event saw a number of cancellations as a result of the storm.

“There were certainly some,” she replied, especially among spectators.

Additionally, some residents of foreign countries who traditionally volunteer to assist with the World Rowing Championships — regardless of where the event is held — could not get to Sarasota in the aftermath of Irma, Haley said, “and a lot of teams couldn’t come as early as they wanted to” because of cancellation of flights and accommodations losing power.

A chart shows a breakdown of spending by visitors to the World Rowing Championships. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

The two counties would have had a higher total count for room nights if Irma had not affected the state, Haley noted.

Tourism leaders also learned a lot about the shipping of container cargo, she told the TDC members.

Because the event was in the United States, international teams had to ship their equipment to Nathan Benderson Park, Meredith Scerba, executive director of the event, had explained to the County Commission.

With Hurricane Harvey’s striking Texas such a short time before Irma hit Florida, Haley said, ships with team equipment that were supposed to stop first in Houston were diverted to Miami, only to be told they could not go to Miami after all and had to head back to Houston. “A lot of the teams didn’t get their boats till the day before the event [began].”