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Tourism officials overcome adversity amid record-setting year

Mark Parker



Visitors file in from the beach as the sun sets over Treasure Island. Photo by Mark Parker.

Pinellas County tourism stakeholders – and there are many, as the industry is the area’s largest economic driver – have plenty to celebrate this holiday season.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Brian Lowack said several challenges could have derailed what became a record-setting year at Wednesday’s (Dec. 20) Tourist Development Council meeting. The agency’s former CEO abruptly resigned in June, adding to multiple key vacancies.

Despite staff turnover, a natural disaster and Lowack, 35, spending four months as the interim president, 2023 was a banner year for tourism.

“I would describe 2023 for our staff as a grind,” Lowack said. “But they got the job done. And not only did they rise to the occasion, but they contributed to a historic year for tourism in Pinellas County.”

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO Brian Lowack (left) presents Pinellas County Commission Chair Janet Long with a plaque at Wednesday’s meeting. She will no longer serve on the Tourist Development Council as the commission welcomes a new chairperson in 2024. Screengrab.

Here are some highlights from fiscal year 2023, which began Oct. 1, 2022, and ended Sept. 30:


Area hotels generated $1.1 billion in revenue – a $30 million increase. The windfall soared to $1.6 billion when counting motel, RV and online vacation rentals.

Those overnight stays provided a record $98 million in local bed taxes – a 6% surcharge on overnight stays. County officials dedicate 60% of the funding to destination marketing and 40% to capital projects that increase visitation.

Visitors rented nearly six million rooms throughout the fiscal year. Lowack said 292 meetings and conferences generated over 137,000 room nights “with a direct spend of $126 million.”

Visitor engagement

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s (VSPC) social media posts produced over 150 million impressions and 17 million unique engagements. “YouTube content alone generated 3.8 million views,” Lowack said.

The recently established “From Visitors with Love” ad campaign and website highlight tourism’s value. Lowack said VSPC partnered with area businesses to provide residents with exclusive discounts.

“We did add our signage, ‘From Visitors with Love,’ to many beach access points undergoing emergency restoration projects,” Lowack said.

“Elite Events” and films

The Tourist Development Council (TDC) allocates bed tax proceeds to subsidize “Elite Events” meeting tourism criteria according to a tiered system. Those attracting over 50,000 attendees, a nationally televised broadcast or generating over 15,000 room nights – like the Valspar Championship – can receive $150,000.

Relatively smaller events, like First Night St. Petersburg, receive $20,000. The TDC awarded $1.5 million to 28 Elite Events in 2023 and allocated $2.045 million to 34 in 2024.

Lowack said 125 sporting events brought nearly 350,000 people to the area. That generated a $134 million economic impact and 182,000 room nights.

VSPC’s Film Commission issued over 160 permits. Lowack said 12 projects received $1.5 million in incentives, “equating to a $7.4 million local spend, 2,000 local jobs created and more than 3,000 room nights.”

An immersive geodesic dome is the first element of the Dali Museum’s $68 million expansion project. Museum officials received $25.16 million in bed tax funding in August. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Staff highlights

Lowack said VSPC’s staff attended 37 travel advisory shows across 16 states, Germany, London and Canada. He said they also helped train 3,000 counterparts throughout Latin America.

“We produced more than 900 media mentions, generating almost a billion impressions,” Lowack added. “As far as awards, this is something our staff is getting used to receiving.”

He noted that VSPC received three Visit Florida awards for its ad campaigns. The county also won Convention Sales’ 2023 Readers Choice Award as the region’s top destination for the second consecutive year and earned recognition from several other organizations.

Lowack said VSPC hired two new vice presidents, and he plans to fill the remaining two vacant positions in January. “I say all this simply to recognize the work and efforts of the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater staff,” he said.

“They did have challenges this year,” Lowack added. “We’ve done a lot of great things in 2023 … but we’re not done. In fact, we’re just getting started.”

He explained that the agency would fully implement its strategic plan in the new year. Lowack said VSPC would adopt new performance metrics to track progress, implement annual personnel evaluations and update the agency’s customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Multiple TDC members congratulated Lowack, who assumed the permanent role in October, for his efforts. “I think a lot has been accomplished this year, but I wanted to personally acknowledge your contribution – and really the breath of fresh air that you brought to the endeavor,” said Councilmember Michael Williams, managing director of Innisbrook Resort.

“As we’ve gone through interviews … every one of them identifies the positive and immediate impact you have had on the operation.”



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