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Tourism office adapts to nearly 30% budget drop

Keeping and grabbing more market share — eventually — is a constant driver for Visit Sarasota, even as it lends a hand to a different, but aligned, organization.

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The pandemic, with all its disruption, has caused a variety of groups and businesses to work together more than ever before. Hotels, for one, have jointly lobbied for economic relief. Manufactures have created hiring and training classes, and even competing chambers of commerce and pro-business organizations are partnering on pandemic survival programs.  

'You need to be able to turn it off, turn it on and change the message fast.” Erin Duggan, Visit Sarasota County

Another melding of tasks is happening in Sarasota, where the county’s tourism marketing arm, Visit Sarasota County, is taking lead on a mission that’s long belonged to the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County: wooing businesses to relocate to the county. “We’re taking on a role we’ve never done before,” Visit Sarasota County Vice President Erin Duggan says. “It’s an example of how [organizations] are able to collaborate. It’s the trend right now, and I think we will start to see a lot more of this.”

Both organizations have always, at their core, been about getting people to come to Sarasota — albeit with different incentives and for different reasons. This shift in roles plays off that and also signifies that new and enhanced alliances are necessary to overcome pandemic-wrought challenges, EDC interim CEO Dave Bullock says. “This relationship should always be highly close and coordinated,” Bullock says. “We have identified opportunities that have a lot of overlap. … And as unfortunate as the [COVID-19] situation is today, it presents an opportunity for us to be stronger together.”

The shift comes at a challenging time for VSC, which, like most other tourism agencies statewide, faces a punishing budget crunch: About 90% of the agency’s budget comes from bed taxes/hotel stays, which are down considerably in 2020. Specifically, VSC’s fiscal 2021 budget, recently approved by Sarasota County commissioners, is $4.58 million, off 28.5% from $6.41 million in fiscal 2020. The organization has 13 employees, down from 20, which includes attrition and unfilled positions.

The idea to shift some business relocation recruitment to VSC, Duggan says, came about a few months ago. That’s when, amid the pandemic, the EDC asked VSC for help in luring newly remote workers in crowded Northeast and Midwest cities, starting with Chicago, to consider Sarasota for a less stressful alternative (and a warmer one in the winter). That kind of direct marketing to individuals and families is something VSC specializes in, while the EDC is geared more toward industries and business relocation consultants.

Courtesy. Erin Duggan, Visit Sarasota County Vice President.
Courtesy. Erin Duggan, Visit Sarasota County Vice President.

“We know a lot of businesses move here because they come here on a trip and say, ‘Wow, this place is awesome,’” Duggan says. Bullock adds the EDC found that “VSC has great data on who comes here and wants to move here."

Visit Sarasota County has earmarked $100,000 for a digital business relocation ad campaign. It’s 100% social media and other digital channels, Duggan, says in a lesson to remain nimble VSC learned watching other organizations take out print or TV ads with longer lead times. With fast-changing news, from the coronavirus to social unrest, those ads are quickly outdated. “You need to be able to turn it off, turn it on and change the message fast,” Duggan says.

Targeting business relocations also involves enhanced online surveys, where VSC seeks more information beyond travel, such as business and volunteer interests. “We want to capture more data for that segment,” Duggan says.

With businesses and tourists alike, a core challenge VSC faces, Duggan says, is the perception, or misconception, of the organization’s mission. It’s not just to attract people to come to town now but also to keep them coming when the pandemic is long gone.

Courtesy. The John Ringling Museum and Jungle Gardens are two well-known tourists attractions in Sarasota, as are the waterways of Venice.
Courtesy. The John Ringling Museum and Jungle Gardens are two well-known tourists attractions in Sarasota, as are the waterways of Venice.

Duggan says VSC is sensitive to people’s concerns that asking people to come here during a pandemic, adding crowds to beaches and restaurant’s, can feel counterintuitive. But she also keeps in mind travel/tourism marketing requires being top of mind through the full circle of a trip — from dreaming to planning to doing to posting photos on social media after it.

“I think it’s super important we continue programming,” Duggan says. “If we stop trying to incentivize people to come here, if we stop doing what we’re doing, in six months or in a year and a half, when COVID-19 is over, we will feel the impact of that. I think if you take your foot off the gas, my concern is you will lose market share.”



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