CLEARWATER — Tourism season is stretching past spring break and a couple of months into summer vacation.
Pinellas County welcomed 422,500 overnight visitors in May, a 6 percent increase from the previous year, in a slow month between the end of the traditional high season at Easter and summertime, according to data released Wednesday at a Tourist Development Council meeting. May’s tourist development tax numbers jumped past the $3 million mark for the first time.
With hotels reporting 71 percent occupancy for the month and room rates climbing at a faster pace than most Florida beach locales, tourism leaders said their focus is shifting from seasonal marketing campaigns to a year-round message highlighting the diversity of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area.
That message is going out to a global audience, everywhere from Zurich to Rio de Janeiro, as flights from Europe and Latin America make it easier to get to a part of the Sunshine State that many travelers have yet to discover.
Air traffic on Swiss airline Edelweiss between Zurich and Tampa International Airport has been so strong the carrier added a second weekly flight; 315,633 Europeans have visited so far this year, a 7.5 percent increase from the year-ago period, according to statistics from Research Data Services.
Bolstered by Copa Airlines’ direct flight from Panama City to Tampa and a dedicated tourism envoy, Latin American visitors grew by 59 percent between January and May this year, from 11,600 in 2013 to 18,500.
With growing markets, the county’s tourism agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, also hopes to expand the number of months people visit by moving away from individual winter and summer ad campaigns toward a unified theme.
“We’re going to have an annual campaign now; it is running year round. We will be dialing it up at different times of year in different markets,” said Mary Delong of BVK Marketing, who organizes advertising for the county. That annual campaign is exemplified in a recent series of video ads tied to the new “Live Amplified” theme. It is a montage of images aimed at a younger audience that highlights the county’s variety of offerings, with beaches, outdoor sports, museums, historic towns, concerts and art galleries.
A generous budget this year from record bed tax collections will allow the county to make an “aggressive” marketing push this fall during another off-season period, she said.
The only thing that could slow the county’s long-running growth in tourism is the sluggishness of the economy overall in the United States and Europe, said Walter Klages, who heads up Research Data Services in Tampa.
He was quick to return to the positive side: 2.6 million overnight visitors so far this year, about 100,000 more than last year at this time, and occupancy levels that aren’t far off from the state’s best-known destinations such as the Florida Keys.
“Really, we are clearly in the top tier,” he said.
At Wednesday’s meeting in Clearwater, the TDC also voted to reverse its previous recommendation to cut marketing funds for next year’s East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg. The council restored funding to $75,000.
Council members, particularly Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, had raised concerns about attendance at the January college all-star game held at Tropicana Field. The game’s organizers showed 16,639 paid tickets at the last game with a total attendance just over 19,000, which is more than the 15,000 required in elite event funding guidelines, county assistant attorney Michael Zas said.