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As Covid numbers fall, future of Pinellas County tourism looks bright

Jaymi Butler



VSPC President and CEO Steve Hayes at the launch of the Rise to Shine campaign in September 2020. The campaign was designed to build consumer confidence by showcasing the Covid-related safety measures in place in Pinellas County.

After a year filled with lockdowns and restrictions, the demand for travel has rarely been higher and Pinellas County is already beginning to reap the benefits. 

That was one of the key takeaways from a presentation on the state of local tourism in the wake of Covid-19 that was delivered at Tuesday morning’s Pinellas County Commission meeting. During the presentation, Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, shared data that illustrated the sharp dropoff in the number of visitors during the height of the pandemic.

“2019 was a record year and we started off 2020 on our way to beating 2019 and then the pandemic hit and we started closing things down. That’s where our occupancy rates started to drop,” Hayes said. “There were hotels where they didn’t have anybody in their property, and that occupancy rate of 20 percent has never been seen in this county, ever.”

In turn, tourist development tax revenues also took a hit. In March of 2020, only $4.9 million was collected compared to the typical March total of more than $9 million. The following month, those numbers fell to $722,000, well under the $6 million average for April. 

In terms of the overall impact of the virus in 2020 – during which there was a period of roughly 45 days of nearly nonexistent travel – every tourism-related area was affected.

The good news is that the numbers have been turning around, with both occupancy rates and tax revenues for 2021 outpacing 2019 – and that’s without international and business travelers, two key travel audiences Hayes hopes to see return to Pinellas County in the fall. The outlook is looking bright for the rest of the year too, Hayes said. Based on research, 84 percent of leisure travelers say they plan to take a vacation between the months of April and December. That data lines up with the booking rates for vacation rentals, which are now on pace to beat or equal 2019, Hayes said. And while there’s typically a lull in travel between spring and summer, that doesn’t seem to be the case this year.

“From all indications, our summer should exceed what we’ve seen in summers previous because there is a pent-up demand for folks to get out and travel,” he said. “I think that bodes well for us and that we’re just going to keep busy up until the fall time period.”

Also during his presentation, Hayes shared information from Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s Rise to Shine campaign. The nearly $2 million campaign, which was unveiled in September, was aimed at assuring tourists that Pinellas County was following Covid-related precautions. Hayes counts the campaign as a success, with more than 32,000 people signing the “Rise to Shine” pledge which encouraged visitors to mask up, spread out, wash their hands and be patient and kind. Additionally, 600 $25 gift cards to local businesses were handed out to visitors who were spotted following Covid protocols. 

The campaign also generated a lot of media attention, appearing in newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post and across a variety of social media channels. Hayes said the public relations element of the campaign generated 85 million impressions for a media value of $1.7 million.

“We didn’t want to have the visual imagery that we saw last March,” Hayes said, referring to photos that were widely circulated online of Clearwater Beach jammed with people just before the lockdown. “This community did that and we got the message out not only to our visitors but locally as well.”

Hayes’ current priority is working on a is developing a five-year strategic plan for tourism, and he and his team will be looking at how the area can grow tourism in a way that positively impacts Pinellas County. They’ll be seeking input from residents, elected officials and other stakeholders through workshops, one-on-one interviews and surveys. The final product will be presented in January 2022.





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