Marketing a #1 Tourism Destination: Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

Visit Dubai or the American Tropics, St. Pete/Clearwater, which one will it be?

Yep. You heard it here. Our very own hometown is a worldwide sought out destination. Travelers from as far as Brazil and the Netherlands share our sandy beaches and frequent our museums and restaurants while on vacation.

With a staff of 50 tourism marketers spread across the globe and an annual budget of $27 million, David Downing, as President and CEO, leads the integrated promotional efforts for Visit St.Pete/Clearwater. As much as Downing shared the unique challenges of marketing an international destination, he equally entertained the AMA Tampa Bay on September 20 with his quick wit and his enthusiasm for all the Central Florida region has to offer.

Local Economic Powerhouse

Here are a few facts to get you up to speed:

  • $10 billion annual economic impact
  • Record $55 million collected in bed tax last year. Approaching $1 billion in hotel/motel/condo rental sales in 2018
  • In Pinellas County, more than 104,000 jobs directly supported by tourism
  • Top Domestic Markets: Orlando, New York/New England, Greater Tampa Bay, Chicago/Midwest
  • Top International Markets: UK, Germany, Latin America, Canada
  • Average Length of Stay: about 3 days

Key Messaging – Geography

Many potential international travelers are unfamiliar with Florida’s geography. Downing starts with educating them about how St. Pete/Clearwater fits into a Central Florida trip. From the website to Gulf to Bay magazine, extensive maps of the state, Southwest Florida, and St. Pete/Clearwater beaches are incorporated. Many visitors go to Disney and are looking for a beach experience as part of their vacation. The marketing team at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater tactically targets online searches for “beaches of Orlando.” Downing noted, “I cannot underscore enough the importance of knowing geography.”

“Triple Down” on Travel Industry Awards/Press

Anytime the destination receives accolades from the travel industry or editorial by a key publication like the New York Times, Downing stated we “triple down” by putting marketing dollars behind promotion of the accolade. For example, in 2018, Travelers’ Choice (Trip Advisor) voted Clearwater Beach the #1 Beach in the U.S. In 2017, the New York Times’s Travel section highlighted St. Pete in its 36 Hours editorial. It covered St. Pete and all it has to offer from natural wonders to good eats to live music.

“Double Down” on Arts/Culture

The arts community in St. Pete/Clearwater is the “gift that keeps on giving,” states Downing. With the Salvador Dali Museum drawing museum goers and art lovers alike, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is able to use rare exhibitions incorporating works from heavy hitters such as Picasso and Duchamp as a draw to the area. In fact, the Dali is currently promoting Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali’s Spain. Downing said, “this is when a branding moment gets out of sight.”

The studio glass movement is unique to St. Pete/Clearwater too. Downing encouraged the audience to go and see how glass is created at the Imagine Museum.

Hardwire Localism of Good Eats

St. Pete/Clearwater has a great relaxed vibe and highly marketable fare with hand crafted beer and freshly caught grouper. The craft beer brewed in St. Pete/Clearwater is often given a customized local name that “localizes” it. As a marketing tool, Downing stated craft beer is “hardwired localness in a product that is so loved,” and “Grouper Week is another gift that keeps on giving.”

Challenges to Paradise, Red Tide Included

Although red tide is what some people are talking about, there are other challenges to marketing St.Pete/Clearwater as a destination. Let’s start with traffic. Downing shared that “our top two growth travel segments are international travelers and millennials. Both of these audiences expect transportation alternatives. As a community, we need to figure this out.” And what about the dollar?  When the dollar is strong, St.Pete/Clearwater suddenly becomes very expensive for the international traveler.

As for red tide, Downing is asked frequently “what’s the plan?” Downing described red tide as “asymmetrical and temporal, changing day by day.” He stated that Visit St.Pete/Clearwater is committed to communicating clearly, providing beach by beach reporting to travelers. He also emphasized that there is so much to do in St. Pete/Clearwater; there is a diverse range of non-beach experiences for visitors that are just as fun and exciting.

All in All

Downing reinforced the economic power of tourism in our region as a huge local revenue source. St. Pete/Clearwater is both a destination offering a wide array of experiences to locals, as well as part of an extended international vacation to the Tampa Bay and Central Florida region. Seeing it with fresh eyes, it was a great reminder of the amazing place we live in. Our hometown is competing and winning visitors who are choosing St. Pete/Clearwater over international destinations like Dubai. Wow, right?

Downing was quick to credit the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater staff and the attendees in the room from St. Pete/Clearwater venues with defining the brand experience every day, while Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is the steward of the brand promise, highlighting their efforts. He also noted his strong collaborative ties to Visit Florida, Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Orlando, supporting the future growth of Central Florida.

About the Blogger:

Kathleen Rogers is a content writer at USF Health. She started her career at the famous award-winning creative shop, Cliff Freeman & Partners, a subsidiary of the global agency Saatchi & Saatchi in NYC and went on to be a media director for 10 years, a recent USF grad and a proud mom of three beautiful girls.