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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 12, 2021 1 week ago

Game on: County tourism leaders break away from Florida stereotypes

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With a massive sports complex, soon-to-open adjacent hotel and signature craft beer, Pasco County has embraced its new identity as Florida’s Sports Coast. Competition abounds.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Pasco County’s makeover as Florida’s “Sports Coast” has nearly been fully realized. 

Credit for that goes to mainly two sources. One is the leadership and vision of Adam Thomas, 42, a former pro baseball player who’s now the county’s director of tourism. The other is the opening of the $44 million, 98,000-square-foot Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County, in Wesley Chapel.

Formerly known as Visit Pasco, the county’s destination marketing organization kicked off its rebranding efforts in March 2019, adopting the name Experience Florida’s Sports Coast. The evolution picked up steam last year when, in August, the Wiregrass Ranch facility opened, providing a venue that can accommodate 17 different sports.

“Since the launch” of the new brand, Thomas says, “we have grown exponentially in visibility and recognition. When I first came onboard, there was no brand strategy. We didn’t have a forward-facing direction, didn’t know who our audience was and had no real positioning in Florida as a destination.”

But sports, as a brand identity, is difficult to own, particularly in a state like Florida, where year-round recreation opportunities abound in nearly every community from north to south. How have Thomas and his team, which also includes Communications Manager Kolby Gayson, so quickly managed to put Pasco on the map as a sports mecca?

PARTNER UP

A key part of the strategy, Thomas says, has been physical and visual representations of the new brand. Through a partnership with Trinity-based Escape Brewing Co., Experience Florida’s Sports Coast (EFSC) created and released Sports Coast Pilsner, a beer with artwork created by a Pasco County teacher. The collaboration won a Henry Award at Visit Florida’s Governor’s Conference in September.

“Winning a Henry Award is like winning the Stanley Cup or the Lombardi Trophy in tourism,” Thomas says. “Through this beer, Escape Brewing has created the perfect sensory translation of who we are as a destination.”

‘No one wrote a playbook for this pandemic. We were all trying to figure it out as we went along, and destination marketing was falling on deaf ears.’ Adam Thomas, Experience Florida’s Sports Coast

The beer will be used at conferences and trade shows as a promotional item, but it’s also available at local bars, restaurants and stores for purchase — what Thomas refers to as “community onboarding,” adding, “we looked at local distribution of the beer to further create a sense of place and enhance our brand positioning. Now, people have a consumer product that they can hold in their hand, and we have an identity as a destination.”

EFSC and Escape Brewing came up with some clever uses for the beer. Not only has it been distributed locally, but it was also the centerpiece of a campaign dubbed “Have One on Us,” which provided free Sports Coast Pilsner to frontline workers during the pandemic.

“We are very excited to be partners with Florida’s Sports Coast and we are truly proud of the Sports Coast Team on winning the Henry Award from Visit Florida,” Escape Brewing Co. co-founder John McGregor states in a news release about the win. “It's exciting to see our county being recognized as a premier destination in Florida.”

Courtesy. Trinity-based Escape Brewing's Sports Coast Pilsner, a collaboration with Pasco County's destination marketing organization, won a Henry Award from Visit Florida.

In at least one way, Thomas says, the pandemic had a silver lining. EFSC, along with many other destination marketing organizations statewide, voluntarily “went dark” throughout the first few months of the crisis, pausing most marketing efforts. That hiatus gave the organization a chance to brainstorm new strategies, including the team-up with Escape Brewing, and come up with appropriate messaging.

“No one wrote a playbook for this pandemic,” he says. “We were all trying to figure it out as we went along, and destination marketing was falling on deaf ears.”

Another key move, says Thomas, was using the downtime to do market research. He and his team found that many travelers sought out lesser-known destinations with lower population densities.

“They weren’t going to major beach destinations, major attraction destinations,” Thomas says. “We’re not a major hub for leisure travel, but that gave us a strategic opportunity to showcase our destination, put our brand in front of the consumer audience and allow them get an idea of what else is out there.”

SUCCESSFUL BREW

The “Sports Coast” moniker seems to resonate. A survey of visitors to Pasco County last year found that 96% reported being satisfied with their experience, Thomas says. 

“Even though it was a down year because of the pandemic,” he says, “people were still having positive experiences because of natural outdoor recreational offerings … our brand promise was at an all-time high.”

The momentum has carried over in 2021, Thomas adds: hotel occupancy is up 8.5% compared to 2019, and the Wiregrass facility’s revenues have risen 16%. Thomas expects the facility to bring in more than $3.5 million by the time EFSC closes the book on its fiscal year. "We are hitting some high, historic figures … we couldn’t be happier,” he says. 

Gayson says EFSC scaled back its out-of-state marketing efforts during the pandemic, but that didn’t stop visitors from discovering Pasco’s delights, citing the county’s annual scallop hunting season as a major driver of tourism.

“Even before we were putting any money behind targeting them,” she says, “they were all about our brand, and we got strong results. The Rust Belt has exploded for us. It was on our radar but now we’re seeing a lot of visitation from Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. Those are becoming top markets for us.”

ALL INCLUSIVE

Pasco County and EFSC have doubled down on the success of the Wiregrass Ranch facility with the construction of a Residence Inn by Marriott just steps away from the sports complex. The hotel, Thomas says, will have a soft opening in December, followed by a full, official opening in the new year.

At 2867 Lajuana Blvd., the four-story, 128-suite hotel has been designed to appeal to visiting sports teams and organizations in town for extended stays, offering studio, one- and two-bedroom suites with separate living and sleeping areas; a fully equipped kitchen; and complimentary grocery delivery service. 

EFSC already has partnerships in place with several hotels in the Wesley Chapel area, including Fairfield Inn & Suites, Hampton Inn & Suites, Hilton Garden Inn and Saddlebrook Golf Resort & Spa. But having on-site accommodations should boost the Wiregrass Ranch facility’s already strong appeal to event organizers, particularly in the coronavirus era, which has seen the use of “bubbles” at sports venues around the world to limit athletes’ movements and reduce their risk of Covid-19 exposure and transmission.

In a statement, Marriott says all surfaces within the property will be treated with hospital-grade disinfectants. The hotel will also regularly be cleaned with electrostatic sprayers that use an EPA-approved solution specifically designed to eliminate the Covid-19 virus. Guests and employees will be required to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

The hotel was designed by BRPH; builders are David Nelson Construction Co. and Development Ventures Group Inc. It will be operated by Tampa-based Mainsail Lodging & Development. The property boasts several notable design features, including an outdoor heated pool, bike rentals and a high-tech fitness center outfitted with Under Armour’s MapMyFitness running app. Even better, Gayson says, is the rooftop bar that can accommodate up to 142 guests and is also open to the public. She thinks it will be a big draw for parents who are there to watch their kids’ sporting events.

“It’s the first rooftop bar in Wesley Chapel,” Gayson says.

Sounds like the perfect spot to enjoy a Sports Coast Pilsner.

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