Renowned nature and travel photojournalist Chuck Fazio has selected St. Petersburg and the St. Pete Pier as the launchpad for “Picture the Recovery,” a nationwide campaign to generate support for tourism and hospitality businesses that continue to suffer amid the Covid-19 crisis.
Fazio has spent the past few days in Pinellas County, photographing landscapes from Honeymoon Island in the north to Fort De Soto Park in the south. He plans to unveil his work this afternoon at a “Picture the Recovery” kickoff event at the St. Pete Pier that’s expected to be attended by St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater President and CEO Steve Hayes U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow.
Fazio is known for being the first-ever artist-in-residence for American Forests, the nation’s oldest nature conservation organization. He’ll be joined on the tour by other prominent photojournalists such as Gary Hershorn, a longtime Reuters photographer who’s known for his sports work.
“Chuck is a well-known commodity within the meeting and convention industry,” Hayes said. “For him to shoot destinations and amenities within our destination, to show what’s happening and to tell the story of what’s happening and the need to recover, I think that speaks volumes and goes a long way.”
For “Picture the Recovery,” Fazio has waived his normal fees and plans to auction off the photos, with 50 percent of each sale going to the MPI Foundation, the charitable arm of Meeting Professionals International, an industry group for meeting and event industry professionals.
According to Hayes, meetings and events are a vital but sometimes overlooked part of the St. Pete/Clearwater tourism industry. While leisure travel has begun to recover, business travel has been slower to bounce back.
“The meetings industry is extremely important to us,” he said. “Right now, that is a segment that needs to recover. It needs to be better and this campaign that Chuck and MPI are putting together is certainly going to help tell that story.”
Indeed, the numbers are sobering. According to U.S. Travel Association research, the nation’s travel economy has suffered $500 billion in cumulative losses since March 2020, depriving federal, state and local governments of more than $64 billion in tax revenue.
St. Pete/Clearwater has fared better than most major U.S. metro areas, Hayes said, pointing out that the region had the No. 1 hotel occupancy rate in 2020, as determined by hospitality research firm STR. But the pandemic has still inflicted a heavy toll: total economic impact has dropped by $6.6 billion, tourism industry payroll declined by $2.1 billion and collections of Tourist Development Tax, also known as the bed tax, suffered a decline of nearly $15 million.
“There was no playbook” for how to handle the pandemic, said Hayes, a destination marketing veteran who spent 25 years with Visit Tampa Bay and then six years with Visit Pensacola. He said Covid-19’s effect on travel and tourism is equivalent to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 2008-09 recession and the 2010 BP oil spill — all rolled into one crisis.
“There’s uncertainty and there’s not a lot of knowledge,” he said. “A lot of it is flying by the seat of your pants but looking at research — what is the potential customer saying? You have to be sensitive to the messaging — what you’re putting out or not putting out, and then quickly adapting.”
The road to recovery will be long, but it starts in St. Pete. After the campaign kickoff today, Fazio, in a custom 35-foot RV, will cross-cross Florida and return to Tampa Bay after stops in the Panhandle and the Jacksonville area. He will then leave the state and head out across the country for more photo shoots.