We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2021, and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live in what will surely be a changed – and charged – post-Covid world. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2021.
Steve Hayes had barely hit 90 days in his new role as president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater when the Covid-19 pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt.
“My first 90 days we were rocking and rolling,” Hayes recalled. “Then on my 90th day, we were told we’re going to shut the beaches down.”
That was just one obstacle in the very challenging year that was 2020, but Hayes has found a silver lining in the resilience of the communities – especially those that rely heavily on tourism – and the willingness to work together to weather the storm.
“Once we had an idea this wave was coming in early March, that’s where the tourism industry and the communities adapted and changed, and in the end really showed their collaborative efforts,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to sit in on a lot of calls in the beginning talking to counties and municipalities and it was very heartening to see that we were all on the same page and looking out for the different communities, residences and businesses.”
As a result, Hayes said, Pinellas County has fared “much better” than he thought it would, in a shorter period of time, and without taking as significant of an economic hit as he anticipated.
“People did want to travel and they wanted to get outside and the beaches provided them that avenue,” Hayes said.
Looking ahead to 2021, Hayes said his top priority 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. In his effort, which he anticipates will take nine or 10 months, he plans to speak to and survey tourism stakeholders, community and business leaders, elected officials and residents. He’ll use the data to make decisions on a variety of topics, with messaging being at the top of the list.
“As an organization, we are storytellers and I think we do a good job of telling our story externally, whether that’s in New York or Chicago or internationally, and telling people in those areas about this wonderful place we call home,” Hayes said. “Now we are looking at how we can do that storytelling internally and get our residents thinking and sharing their stories, especially from a tourism perspective, and getting them to be ambassadors for us.”
The effectiveness of that messaging could be one of the solutions to what Hayes expects to be an ongoing issue for tourism.
“The biggest challenge when you look at the travel industry is what is the new normal, what does that look like, and how do we adapt in our ways of being able to tell our story?” he said.
While vaccines represent a major step toward bringing things back to the way they were pre-pandemic, Hayes recognizes that even a tiny setback can derail the most carefully laid plans. That’s when it’s especially important to pay attention to messaging, adjust it as needed and highlight the things that St. Petersburg and Clearwater are doing right in terms of keeping residents and visitors safe. For example, when St. Pete was named the No. 10 Best Big City in the U.S. in Condé Nast Traveler’s annual Readers Choice Awards earlier this year, local leaders emphasized that the city is following safety protocols and pointed out all the outdoor options that visitors can enjoy, including the 26-acre pier district – one of the largest waterfront park systems in North America – and plenty of restaurants offering outdoor dining.
“People are planning their summer 2021 trips and they’re waiting for the door to open, or maybe they’re waiting for the right signals,” Hayes said. “It could be a great time for them to go back to visit their favorite places and explore new things, and we have a lot of new things for them to see.”