We’re All in the Tourism Business
“At this time last year, Southwest Florida was a different world,” said Tamara Pigott (Pie-get), the Executive Director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB) to the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce Luncheon at Charley’s Boat House Grill on Thursday, July 11. “We all remember how horrible it was, and to be honest, we are still paying a bit for how horrible it truly was!”
As the VCB Executive Director since 2010, Pigott oversees a $17.5 million annual budget to promote the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel as a travel destination for domestic and international visitors, vacationers and business travelers. Her duties include strategic planning for sales and marketing efforts as well as overseeing the VCB’s day-to-day operations. She is a Florida State University graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and Political Science, along with a Master’s degree in Political Science. In 2015, she earned the ‘ industry’s highest educational achievement, the Certified Destination Management Executive designation from Destination Marketing Association International, and is the former Chair of the Executive Board of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organization.
“To place 2018 into context,” Tamara continued, “we removed from our beaches and shorelines over 2,000 tons of dead fish and other sealife that took 39,125 hours to clean up at a cost of roughly $2.6 million. For those of us who moved here, it was unfathomable, and for those born and raised here, like my husband, they never saw anything like it, and hopefully we never will again. We also pulled from our rivers and canals over 400,000 gallons of Blue-Green Algae at another $1.75 million. The impact on our Local Bed Tax alone was $4.5 million, so this was a significant loss not only to the visitor experience but our entire economy. I believe the tide has turned, with visitors now returning, but it is up to you and your staffs to ensure that everyone has a great experience. Some of you may think that your businesses are not in the tourism industry, but just about everyone in Lee County is in the tourism industry!”
TDC Versus VCB
Tamara explained the difference between the VCB and Tourism Development Council (TDC), “as sometimes these alphabet soup titles confuse people! The VCB is an agency of the Lee County government that reports to the County Administrator and ultimately the Lee County Board of County Commissioners. The TDC is a 7-member volunteer-without-pay advisory board to the VCB and County Commissioners, and right now, Fort Myers Beach is fortunate to have two people on the TDC. The VCB is Lee County’s chief marketing agency, to promote our region as a great place to live, work and play, to convince people to visit and perhaps even relocate to make this your home, as that is exactly what happened to me!”
She said the 5% Tourist Development Tax, “or ‘the bed tax,’ as most locals call it, exclusively funds the VCB, with none of your Property Taxes coming to us, to market our region as ‘The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.’ There are five VCB departments, with 80% of our funds going to Marketing and Promotions through digital, social, print and broadcast media and product development. Our Sales staff works to recruit you to host your association meetings here even though we do not have a Convention Center.”
A third VCB department is Communications & Public Relations “that is different from our Marketing arm,” Tamara offered, “to solicit unpaid media coverage, with an excellent example being The Food Network’s recent Fort Myers appearance for the Food Truck Rally that drew 1.1 million views. As a consumer, you know the difference between paid and unpaid marketing, so when you watch The Food Network and they tell you that you must come to Fort Myers Beach and the Dixie Fish House for their delicious whole snapper, you cannot put a price on that! Our Visitor Services Department works with approximately 130 volunteers at places like Southwest Florida International Airport and our Spring Training baseball complexes to provide information to our guests, with Administration taking care of VCB operations.”
The VCB offers these services “not only to draw visitors to our area and convince them to spend money in your businesses,” Tamara stressed, “but to create jobs! In 2018, just under 4.8 million people visited Lee County, spending $3.1 billion, while the VCB through the Bed Tax collected $42.1 million. This equates to 59,275 local jobs, or about one out of every five in Lee County.”
Don’t Curse the VCB!
While the common perception is that most visitors come in the winter and spring, Tamara stated that “there is no real significant change from quarter to quarter. Spring 2018 had over 1.3 million visitors, summer 2018 just under 1 million, fall 2018 had 1.1 million visitors, and winter 2019 another 1.3 million. There is no doubt, however, that we are all stuck in traffic each January through April, but when this happens to you next year, don’t curse out visitors or the VCB but the snowbirds! These are people who travel here to enjoy our weather and they spend a lot of money, but they rent or own their own homes, and do not stay in short-term accommodations.”
What is true of visitors from January through March is, “They provide the strength of our local economy,” related Tamara. “That First Quarter caters to the visitors with the deepest pockets, as hotels charge their highest rates, restaurants stop offering coupons and our visitors spend far-&-away the most money, with winter 2019 providing an estimated $1.25 billion, compared to $755 million in spring 2018; $485 million in summer 2018; and $684 million in fall 2018.”
Domestic visitors compose 86% of those who travel to Lee County, with international guests the remaining 14%. “Our top American cities are New York, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul,” she said, “with our main international markets easily being Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. Our bed tax increased each of the last nine years, and even after the terrible summer of 2018, our current Fiscal Year is down just 0.2% so we hope a solid finish will push us over the top again, as we experienced a 7.1% increase from January through May. That is near miraculous and almost hard to believe we bounced back as much as we have after last Summer!”
The bed tax revenues is split into three categories: 53.6% for Advertising & Promotions, 26.4% for Beach & Shoreline Restoration and 20% for the Spring Training stadium bond payments and maintenance. “Much of these moneys benefit Fort Myers Beach,” Tamara said. “From 2005 to 2019, $2.2 million went to beach renourishment projects, with another $18 million to beach maintenance. $300,000 went to emergency cleanup efforts, not counting those from 2018, as that was an election year, so the State picked up those expenses. We allocated another $8.1 million to Capital Improvement Projects like the Mound House, Beach Trams and Calusa Blueway.”
The VCB also assists with marketing Fort Myers Beach events outside of Lee County, spending $843,000 since 2001, as well as an additional $77,000 for Attractions Marketing. “We allocate $200,000 annually for Event Marketing,” Tamara said. “To be honest, this is underutilized, so if you have a local event to promote, talk to us.”
The VCB Needs You!
To offset the negative publicity from 2018, Tamara explained, “The VCB pulled $1 million from our reserves to initiate extra marketing in our key markets, as well as Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, to let everyone know that everything is fine here. Our campaign is humorous, to catch people’s attention, based around the slogan that ‘You cannot chose your family, but you can chose your family vacation!’ These include commercials, newspaper ads and inserts. Our ‘Islandology’ campaign features videos because on social media, videos are first, last and all the time, emphasizing that we are all about families having fun, because that is what Lee County is all about.”
The VCB is ready to help Fort Myers Beach businesses. “We offer the free ‘Guests First’ Customer Service Training Program,” Tamara related. “This can lead your staff members to becoming Certified Guest Service Professionals, as we have trained over 800 to date. We also offer the ‘Team Tourism Summer Lecture Series’ geared toward the tourism industry, so sign up.
“As for how you can help the VCB, you and your staff must be our community’s best ambassadors, so Brag, Brag Brag and Engage, Engage and Engage! Take pride that you live and work on Fort Myers Beach, so post those photographs on social media and send them to your family and friends to make them jealous! Tag them at #ftmyerssanibel and post them on Facebook at @FtMyersSanibel. We Need You!”
For more information on the VCB, call 239-338-3500 or visit LeeVCB.com; for the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, telephone 239-454-7500 or see www.fortmyersbeach.org.
By Gary Mooney