Only days into his job as president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Steve Hayes is beginning to work on a strategic plan to continue the Pinellas County tourism agency’s success.
It will be a blueprint for what the agency will do over the next five years to grow the industry, which provides a strong economic engine for the community.
Hayes, one of three finalists for the job, started work at VSPC Dec. 16. He is VSPC’s first permanent leader since David Downing resigned in January. Hayes is a veteran of the tourism industry who spent 25 years at Visit Tampa Bay, before he was named president of Visit Pensacola in 2013.
He talked with the St. Pete Catalyst on Thursday about the new role and what he sees ahead for VSPC. Here’s what he said, with comments edited for brevity and clarity.
St. Pete Catalyst: What drew you to return to the area to lead VSPC?
Hayes: Two things, professionally and personally.
Personally, my wife still has family in the Bay area. Being here for 25 years, we still call parts of it home.
The organization here is so dynamic and so energized. When I was approached about seeing if I was interested, it was like that would be a dream come true to even be considered. As I start talking to people, they say it’s so good to have you back. You understand the market. You understand the community.
St. Pete Catalyst: What are your top short term goals for VSPC? What are your top long term goals?
Hayes: Short term is how can I drink from a firehose and not drown. While I was gone, I kept up on what was happening here in the area and I know a lot of people here, I know key things related to the community and I still feel there’s a lot to learn.
Short term, I’m trying to meet with as many people as possible. I want to hear from folks and get their pulse on what’s going on and where we can be more helpful. I love sitting one-on-one with folks.
Long term – and we’ll hear about this more in the next several months — strategically, where do we need to go to continue to have the successes we’ve had in the tourism community? What does that strategic plan look like? Internally, we’re working on it and externally, with stakeholders in the community to get their input. I’m excited about that opportunity.
The other aspect to this is to continue the collaboration between entities to help grow Pinellas County as a whole. Whether it’s working with those in tourism, working with those in economic development, working with those in arts and culture. It’s all of these things that make us a successful community. We’re being collaborative in all we are doing.
St. Pete Catalyst: What trends are you seeing in tourist visits to the area that are either encouraging or discouraging?
Hayes: I’m still diving into all of that, in terms of understanding the type of visitor and what’s happening.
When you look at things happening at a national and international level, will a potential downturn in the economy affect us and how will that affect us? Then on the international side of visitation, that’s an important element in Pinellas County.
Also, looking at what you have in the community in terms of development and refreshing yourself. If you have a high-repeat visitor who is here a lot, do you have new things they are able to take advantage of or a reason to come visit. It’s making sure you are still growing as a visitor destination and as a community, so that they keep coming back. Part of it is, understand the customer currently and then look for those new opportunities.
But the national stuff will impact us in some ways if things go south.
St. Pete Catalyst: I know you were here during the recession when things were not as positive as they are now.
Hayes: Some of the conferences I’ve been at, they’ve talked about how would a recession affect travel. Overwhelmingly, they’ve all said what we experienced in in 2008 and 2009 is not what we would see this time. That was severe.
The question is, how do we reposition ourselves so we don’t lose market share or we beef up business from other areas.
St. Pete Catalyst: What trends are you seeing among the local hospitality businesses that will continue to make this area attractive to tourists?
Hayes: One is that the county voted for using the TDT funds [the bed tax] for the expansion of three museums. The fact that they’re expanding those, and the visitor traffic it’s going to drive is a great example of reinvesting back in the community.
I know there’s some new hotel development that give guests coming to our community alternative places to stay.
Also, look at the airports, both St. Pete-Clearwater International and Tampa International. Allegiant continues to grow like gangbusters. It gives us the ability to reach new markets. Internationally some of the things happening out of Tampa gives us access.
St. Pete Catalyst: There’s been a lot of discussion among government and business leaders that the area needs to grow its technology industry, so it’s not as dependent on tourism (and real estate) as it has been historically. What’s your take on that?
Hayes: I’ll draw on my experience from Pensacola. A major employer reached out to me and said we need to bring in workers for new positions, and we thought there is no better market than those who are repeat visitors to Pensacola, because if they love coming here, I wonder if they would move here.
Most business have a travel component, either outbound or inbound. If you grow a tech sector, you have meetings associated with it. Are there people in the tech industry who want to visit here because they came on business, and want to come here on vacation?
That’s just tech. You could apply that to any industry sector.
St. Pete Catalyst: So it sounds like you are saying it’s a very interdependent relationship?
Hayes: Yes. Again, travel is a passion for everyone, whether you are going 50 miles or 5,000 miles. Think about the times you’ve traveled and been someplace on business, a place you don’t normally get to see, and think “I want to explore that.”
It exposes you to those new places. So when you look at travel related to meetings and conferences and businesses, when you get a new sector in your community there’s that’s a whole segment there that you can benefit from.