David Downing, Visit St. Pete Clearwater
David Downing talks economic development, authenticity and volatility in the tourism marketing industry.
On this episode of SPx, David Downing sits down with Joe and Ashley to talk the nuances of tourism marketing and what the $1 billion industry means for Pinellas County. Downing explains his deep ties to St. Petersburg and why he returned to the area after starting his career in New York City. He shares the lesser known aspects of VSPC, including its global reach (we're talking offices in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York City, London, China and beyond!) and the economic impact of tourism on local taxpayers and businesses.
- David Downing came on board with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater in 2009. He worked his way up from Director of Public Relations to Deputy Director, and finally to President & CEO in 2014.
- Prior to his work with VSPC, Downing lived in New York City and worked as a Senior Editor of Zagat and Fodor's Travel.
- But Downing's roots are here in St. Petersburg. His family moved to Tierra Verde in the early 70's, then to south St. Petersburg where Downing attended Bay Point Elementary/Middle, and Lakewood High School.
- Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is the Pinellas County tourism marketing agency. It is funded by a tourism tax called a bed tax. "You come, you stay in a lodging or an Airbnb or a VRBO or in anything that’s six months or less, it's assessed to 6% tourism tax."
- Statutorily, these funds can be used for a number of things besides the marketing work of VSPC. "It puts sand back on the beaches, it puts money in the pockets to grow museums, towards spring training facilities, to sports stadiums, to - you name it. In fact they just opened up the statute this year... to help infrastructure for any tourism-related infrastructure stress issues."
- Downing argues that, "There’s a sometimes unholy alliance but very direct line lying between tourism marketing and economic development." While VSPC and economic development entities don't always communicate and work together, Downing argues that most businesses that move here begin as tourists.
- Pinellas County saw 15.5 million visitors last year. "Were it not for tourism every tax payer in Pinellas County would have to pay about $750 more in taxes just to cover what tourism contributes to the economy."
- The challenges of tourism marketing: "We don’t own the hotel rooms, we don’t own the destination, we don’t own the museums, we don’t own the restaurants. We market them. It’s very much mix of art and science, so that direct correlation you have when you own a product and you market it doesn’t exist as clearly."
- "If we continue on trend right now, we will surpass $1 billion in hotel room sales this year. $1 billion, let me give you a little perspective on that. For example, Smith Realty, massive here in Tampa Bay. They do about $1 billion worth of home sales each year, but ours is done about $160 at a time for a hotel room overnight."
- Downing's guiding principle: "The one driving force in all of it is you have to be authentic. You cannot put images out about the destination that are not accurate or don’t resonate... there’s no detail that is too small to get the message right."
- VSPC backs up everything they do with research. Their data comes from AirSage, a company that owns the scrubbed data of 2/3 of all cell phones in the US.
- On AirSage: "They can give me a heat map on Clearwater Beach in March and tell me where those people are from. In fact they reverse out, you know, because when people move now they don’t change their cellphone number."
- "We thought it was summertime traffic only, but there is a year-round superhighway of folks coming from Orlando to this destination. We use it as a strategic point to change our marketing."
- Volatility of the tourism industry: "Look, there was a volcanic ash over Iceland that completely congested air travel over Europe... But that affected tourism here, not to mention the BP oil spill, currency fluctuations, political strife, you know, Zika virus. It goes on and on the list of things that can affect tourism here in St. Pete Clearwater."
- The scope of VSPC is much larger than most realize: "We have offices in Washington DC and in Chicago and in New York City. We have a full service office in London and PR representation in Germany and Central Europe. We have six cities in Latin America. We have a Chinese office as well just promoting tourism to St. Pete Clearwater."
- "We are St. Pete/Clearwater but there’s actually 24 cities in Pinellas County that we represent, and we work with 14 chambers every day, 400-plus hoteliers."
- "You talk to anybody who's moved here from somewhere else, any business that's moved here. They came here on vacation and that's how I see this direct relationship that is inescapable between tourism and economic development."
- St. Pete bucks the trend of Florida: "Here's the other thing, as the state of Florida every year the average visitor age trends up. To Pinellas County, we trend down. We're getting younger as each year goes on and that’s a great healthy sign of growth."
"There’s a sometimes unholy alliance but very direct line lying between tourism marketing and economic development."
"Were it not for tourism every taxpayer in Pinellas County would have to pay about $750 more in taxes just to cover what tourism contributes to the economy."
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 0:33) Introduction
(0:34 – 3:02) Introduction: Visit St. Pete
(3:03 – 5:17) Efforts of St. Pete
(5:18 – 6:53) Marketing Philosophy
(6:54 – 8:18) Consequences of Lack of control
(8:19 – 9:30) Tourism Research
(9:31 – 11:07) Travelling insights
(11:08 – 11:31) Domestic travel
(11:32 – 12:32) Volume of tourism
(12:33 – 15:07) Variables in tourism
(15:08 – 16:28) Technology and Tourism
(16:29 – 18:37) Nurturing the brand
(18:38 – 22:02) Leading the entity
(22:03 – 22:43) Politics of tourism
(22:44 – 25:17) Economic development and tourism
(25:18 – 30:22) Long term plan
(30:23 – 31:36) Shout Outs
(31:37 – 32:09) Conclusion
Ashley Ryneska: Hello!
Joe Hamilton: Hi, welcome. Joining us today on SPX is David Downing, the president and CEO of Visit St. Pete Clearwater.
David Downing: Guys, thanks for having me.
Joe: Thank you. First I will say that, immediately, really strong radio voice so…
David: Mom always said I had a face for radio, yes.
Ashley: And you know, I had a thought this morning, one that was profound, or at least it felt that way at the moment. I really feel like David should have been our first guest. I sort of regret the fact that he wasn’t.
Joe: David is tough to get a hold of. I’ve been reaching out to them for probably eight months now or nine months now and somehow the stars aligned, and we got him.
David: Well, let’s hope I’m not your last guest, let’s put it that way. Yes.
Ashley: I feel like there’s something that’s special that needs to happen with you but if you think about some of the conversations we had right out of the gate, a lot of it echoes some of the sentiments that we got just warming up and before we started to roll.
Joe: I think that one of the big discoveries that we made here are probably just everyday facts to you, so we’ll see how that goes.
David: We’ll see.
Ashley: Yes. Well, I was interested to learn that you aren’t from this area but you are.
David: I am and that’s, you know, I think if I can be so large… I think that’s just one of the many dichotomies I think, to have worn a load of different hats and had a load of different experience always helps. Yes sure, I was born in the Boston area and when I was six, almost seven, I decided to move to down here and I asked my parents to come with me. Yes.
Ashley: You decided? Okay.
David: We moved to Tierra Verde back in the early 70s. I mean it was nothing out there. I mean it was mangroves, there was none of the mansions, it was just ranch homes and it was just new development. Folks moved after a couple of years saying, “Wow that’s way out there.” We moved in town. We lived in south St. Pete. I grew up on 62nd Avenue, went to Lakewood High School, I went to Bay Point Middle School, Bay Point Elementary, so I know this area well. I remember Webb City.
Ashley: And where did your education take you?
David: After high school I went to undergraduate school in Jacksonville, small liberal arts school, Jackson University. Then for graduate school I went to Chapel Hill North Carolina, UNC Chapel Hill, so east coast.
Ashley: I think that you’re the first Tar Heel also that’s been on the… Maybe though it’s why I wanted David to be first. I’m a Tar Heel, it’s why I’ve been looking for my own kind for quite some time
David: Beautiful school, a wonderful experience, and I knew I had to move from there the day I graduated or I would probably still be there right now.
Ashley: It’s amazing. In many ways, now some of the culture that you’ll find at RDU is similar to the St. Pete area.
David: And oddly enough, a growing area of tourism for St. Pete-Clearwater.
Ashley: I feel like Tampa Bay Partnership, didn’t they recently do their benchmarking trip in RDU?
David: They did. Yes, they did.
Ashley: Okay. Were you part of that?
David: I wasn’t, and I think that kind of dovetails into what we’re talking about. You know, there’s a sometimes unholy alliance but very direct line lying between tourism marketing and economic development.
Ashley: So, for someone who doesn’t know how tourism marketing works and they’re looking at some of the efforts coming from Visit Clearwater-St. Pete and maybe what’s coming from other areas. Do you compete against one another or is it an alliance for the greater good? What would you say?
David: Yes. I mean yes, yes and yes. So, it’s basically… In tourism marketing, at least in the state of Florida, it’s like, what are your USPs? What is your unique selling proposition? What is it about this destination that it makes 20 people come here over insert name of competitor? And that answer, that depends on who you’re talking to. You’re talking to a meeting planner, a sports promoter, a film producer, a tourist, a regular visitor, a business person. So you get really niche messaging across wide variety of platforms to put the right message in the right ear at the right time.
Joe: And if you look at all those drivers… I know one of the things that I have heard people talk about is in understanding what you do specifically in. And a lot of money that comes out is tied directly to the number of beds that are filled because your revenue, that’s the cycle that you’re promoting and this revenue comes a lot through the bed tax. You know, for people who say, “Oh, you know, I have this local initiative, I have this small festival, I have this thing I think that I would love Visit St. Pete Clearwater to take a look at.” You know, at the end of the day I think at just putting the marketing hat on, that you know The Dali drives visitors, we know that some of some of these marquee events drive visitors. And so how do you sort of walk that line and what’s the philosophy behind knowing you have to put those out there but also wanting to honor some of the other things?
David: Wow. That is a great question. That’s a $64,000 question right there. So statutorily how we’re funded, real simply, tourists pay for tourism. You come, you stay in a lodging or an Airbnb or a VRBO or in anything that’s six months or less, it’s assessed to 6% tourism tax, right? That goes right back to the county. Now here’s a beautiful part about that. Not only does it fund what we do, but it puts sand back on the beaches, it puts money in the pockets to grow museums, money goes toward museums, towards spring training facilities, to sports stadiums, to you name it. In fact they just opened up the statute this year, so on a municipal level to help infrastructure for any tourism-related infrastructure stress issues, these funds are statutorily applicable. So it gives a wide variety of things back to the community and it doesn’t cost the tax… In fact were it not for tourism every tax payer in Pinellas County would have to pay about $750 more in taxes just to cover what tourism contributes to the economy. So it’s hard to overstate how much we bring to the destination from visitors coming here and leaving. About 15.5 million visitors last year. Now that includes overnight and day trippers, but day trippers have a huge economic footprint as well so there’s a lot of moving parts
Joe: So then in walking that line between, just from the marketing philosophy when you decide on what to put out in Chicago and… How does that process work and balance happen with the smaller versus larger?
David: You know, this is art and science mixed. Nothing is automatic in marketing and tourism and… Let me give you the high end and we’ll zoom down a little bit. You know, right, if I’m holding a cellphone right here. I’m holding an iPhone. I’m Apple, I make this iPhone, I decide the quality of it, I decide every aspect of it, I get to market it, I get to decide how many are out there in the universe and I get to set the price of it. In tourism marketing it doesn’t work like that. We don’t own the hotel rooms, we don’t own the destination, we don’t own the museums, we don’t own the restaurants. We market them. It’s very much mix of art and science, so that direct correlation you have when you own a product and you market it doesn’t exist as clearly. Now, we work most closely with the hotels because that’s the pass-through point for the tourism tax. If someone doesn’t stay in a paid lodging, we don’t get the money that funds tourism to bring more visitors to the destination. Just to give you an idea of the scope of how much growth we’ve had in this destination, I’m talking just Pinellas County, just St. Pete-Clearwater, our tourism tax has increased almost 50% over the last what, six years, seven years. If we continue on trend right now, we will surpass $1 billion in hotel room sales this year. $1 billion, let me give you a little perspective on that. For example, Smith Realty, massive here in Tampa Bay. They do about $1 billion worth of home sales each year, but ours is done about $160 at a time for a hotel room overnight. So there’s a lot of hustle in this business and it requires a constant, constant drum beat of the tension getting towards the new marketing and sales.
Joe: So what’s the biggest pain point when you juxtapose the two, Apple and then tourism marketing, not having that control? What’s the biggest pain point that ends up coming out of that lack of control?
David: Inventory price, quality, everything. Like any destination there’s a wide range of all of those things, you know, so if someone can come here and have one experience that we can’t curate. You know, they can have a very different experience if they stay in one place versus in the other and then it spins out on social and how reviews get sent and back and forth. So it is an art of the possible, you know, people say politics is, I think tourism marketing is. It’s like, what are the possibilities out there? And the one driving force in all of it is you have to be authentic. You cannot put images out about the destination that are not accurate or don’t resonate. You can airbrush anything you want to death, but if someone comes here and holds that picture up and says, “Hey, this ain’t that.” You have problems.
Joe: So what percent of your efforts then are going into helping make sure you influence the production of it, right?
David: Always, and that’s something we take very seriously. Look, I’ll tell you, I’m one of those guys who, although I’m the CEO, I’m on the shoots when the advertising agency is there. I’m like, “No, that’s not destination, this is.” One good example, we were at Green Bench shooting about a year ago and there’s this really beautiful poster in the background that has Florida, the State of Florida on it, and they had it set up where it was out of the frame. I’m like, “No, move it, so in the photo we can communicate we’re in Florida, you know, and you see it there, there’s Chris standing there with a beer and right behind him is the State of Florida.” So trust me, there’s no detail that is too small to get the message right.
Joe: And on the flip side of that as far as the, you know, that’s, tells us the story and then completing that story with local hotels. And how much coaching or how much information are you putting out there to help them finish the story better?
David: It depends on what that story is. The story goes down to research. Everything we do is research-based, so you can have a hunch about something but until you have the research to back up that hunch it’s going to be an iffy proposition, and I’ll give you an example. There’s this company called AirSage. AirSage owns the scrubbed data from two thirds of the cellphones in America. AirSage will tell you, they can give me a heat map on Clearwater Beach in March and tell me where those people are from. In fact they reverse out, you know, because when people move now they don’t change their cellphone number. I still have my New York cellphone number and I’ve been here for 11 years, but this company knows where this phone sleeps, so it knows I’m a St. Pete resident, I’m not a New York resident. So it’s this really accurate information. We did a very long study with them, in fact we have them as a retained vendor now to give us all sorts of research, but we found out something that we didn’t know about the volume and the equality of traffic coming from Orlando. We thought it was summertime traffic only, but there is a year-round superhighway of folks coming from Orlando to this destination. We use it as a strategic point to change our marketing.
Ashley: You spoke about research, and certainly no one can contest, you know, the amount of growth that this area has seen in tourism. Are you picking up insights about the way that we’re traveling and how that’s changed over time?
David: There was a great piece in Time just this week about Europe and about the over-tourism problem that is happening in a lot of places and has been for a long time. You know, let’s face it, Venice in August, you walk around and you just see folks from all over the world with cameras and fanny packs, and you know, I don’t fault them. I get a little irritated when people say, “Oh, you know, tourists.” And they, you know, talk trash about tourists. You know, I think anyone in any setting who has the audacity and the willingness and the…
Ashley: To wear a fanny pack?
David: Well there’s that. To put themselves in an unfamiliar environment on purpose and pay for it, just to have an experience. I think that’s a beautiful thing, I do. And, you know, sure, they can behave in certain ways but locals can behave in certain ways too. I think to excoriate tourists because they come in great numbers is really begging the question. You know, they’re coming there for a reason and they’re spending money and they’re trying to in some way honor where they are because they want to see it. So you can extrapolate that however you want, but getting back to your question, every day I wake up our job at Visit St. Pete-Clearwater is to promote tourism to this destination. And there’s a little part of me always says, “You know, I don’t want to say anything about it because it’s perfect right now. This is a perfect setting.” My friends come down from New York and they’re stunned. They think that we live in an amazing place and they’re stunned that more people don’t know about it always. And that’s my job, is to walk that line.
Ashley: So, not going to Europe to the same degree we used to, long live the fanny pack, we’ve all agreed on that. What has changed about, sort of, the nuances in travel domestically?
David: It’s a global answer and it’s related to technology among other things, but just going back for a second. In fact, Americans are visiting Europe more this year, the strength of the dollar etc., and currency fluctuations is a big part of our job, to understand where your tourism is coming from and what are the things that may impede tourism in the destination. That’s a whole separate conversation we can have about economics… I’m sorry, you were pointing me in a different direction a second ago.
Ashley: It was more about if, you know, there were nuances in… Are we travelling more, are we taking solo, you know, walkabouts?
David: So, let’s talk about Airbnb for a minute, and again, this is happening all over. Airbnb is doing two things. It’s creating more inventory, which is a great thing because you don’t have to build new infrastructure to absorb a greater number of visitors to the destination. Simultaneously it is pricing a lot of locals out of places to live. And they’re seeing this in Europe, they’re seeing this in, even here in in downtown St. Pete. When someone can rent their place out in an Airbnb on a weekly basis and get twice what they can rent it to someone who’s living here and working here, that becomes an inventory crush. An issue for people looking and, you know, let’s talk about it. Housing in downtown St. Pete is tough. It’s expensive and it’s in high demand, and I think those things are related. Airbnb solves one problem while at the same time it causes a second problem, and that’s what the Time article was about, about how in places where high tourism is they’re having trouble getting workers because there’s no place for them to live because there’s so much demand on that infrastructure.
Joe: And a lot of that plays to the density conversation we’ve been having. We had Karl Nurse on, who’s a housing expert here in St. Pete and he pointed to increasing density on some of the corridors. He said the 22nd Avenues in St. Pete and 16th Streets. And the 9th Street’s where a single family home isn’t ideal but it’s a perfect place to start housing service workers and things like that.
David: Low-cost airline carriers, same thing. They’re creating a volume of tourism into places all over the world, not just domestically, that they’ve not seen before. Even down to, and this is an interesting thing, global warming making seasons longer and having the ability to tour Europe for, you know, probably three weeks or a month longer now by some estimates. And this Time magazine piece, if you haven’t seen it, Google because it really touches on a lot of the key things that we in the tourism world have been looking at for a long time.
Ashley: We should try to find that and put it in the show notes. You know, when you mentioned global warming, in my brain, it’s not related but indirectly so. I was thinking about the State of Florida and I was thinking about the hurricane last year that slowly made its way, just creeping up on, that full eye that was going to overtake our entire width of our state. I mean it was a challenge for every sector, but I think for your sector specifically, that’s a variable that you likely don’t budget for or plan for. Maybe you do, but how can you predict to what degree that could cripple business and for how long?
David: It is both budgeted for and planned for. So we have an entire crisis communication mode that we go into. We go to the EOC, the emergency operation centers. We have reserved budgets just for this kind of thing, God forbid if we have to use those, but it’s not the only thing. When you consider what a fragile economic ecosystem tourism is, it makes it hard to believe that it exists at all. Look, there was a volcanic ash over Iceland that completely congested air travel over Europe. This is several years ago. It’s that big long name that you can’t pronounce because it’s Icelandic. But that affected tourism here, not to mention the BP oil spill, currency fluctuations, political strife, you know, Zika virus. It goes on and on the list of things that can affect tourism here in St. Pete Clearwater. People don’t realize what a global reach tourism has locally, so we have offices in Washington DC and in Chicago and in New York City. We have a full service office in London and PR representation in Germany and Central Europe. We have six cities in Latin America. We have a Chinese office as well just promoting tourism to St. Pete Clearwater, so it is an orchestrated worldwide effort to bring visitors to this destination. A lot of people here don’t know that because they aren’t our target audience. You live here already. But 24/7, 365 there’s a large group of incredibly dedicated personnel pushing tourism to St. Pete Clearwater. It’s Visit St. Pete Clearwater and the staff I have is just amazing, astounding, their volume of work they do and their expertise.
Joe: You mentioned the threats to tourism. One of the ones that’s really grown up since you’ve been here, in the decade plus you’ve been here, is the power of the online review, the TripAdvisors and things of that nature. So, how much of that are you accounting for as you build defense strategies against that?
David: Full disclosure, and I was in New York for about 14 years before coming down here. I worked for Random House which is the photos traveling guide, but I also worked for Zagat, “Zagit,” as everyone else says except for Mr. Zagat who gets crazy when you call it Zagit.
Joe: Zagay, right.
David: So there’s user-generated content and I think it’s at a point now… When it first came out it had a poignancy and it had a power that was unsurpassed, and I think going back to Zagat days it really was “boom.” And then I think it was in its infancy, and I think its power to some degree has waned because people realize, you know, it’s just one online review. And I always go through and I read reviews all the time, and people get so specific about, “Well, I asked for this and I got this.” And well, that’s unique to your experience and I get that, but the overarching experience that you have in the destination, I think is easy to get a very high 50,000 or 30,000 ft view on things. And the most popular things, if you look at Yelp! or if you look at Trip Advisor, look at all these other things, I think you can see through very quickly what it is, if it’s popular and how you can assimilate. And I think people are very savvy, particularly people who travel and use digital media of any kind is very savvy.
Joe: So, obviously talking about online reviews. That comes down to the overarching brand for the area, so talk about the nurturing of that brand. Obviously you’ve got a lot of different constituencies, different cities, different areas. How does that all roll up and how do those conversations go?
David: Well, you’re only asking the small questions today, okay. You can talk about the brand of St. Pete Clearwater. It’s an incredibly powerful brand, it’s something… Every day, dawn to dusk, it’s a friend of mine with me and it’s a friend of mine with the organization. You’ve got incredible folks at Visit St. Pete Clearwater. Talk about brand for a second. You know, your brand as a destination, it’s a little bit of a contradiction here but it’s something that you spend a lot of money on that you don’t own, right? I equate it to the brand of a destination is equal to your reputation as a person. So I could probably talk to a people who say, “Oh, he’s a great guy, he’s very forward-thinking and he’s full of energy and he pushes everyone, he brings them around.” And that would be one person’s view. Another person would say, “Oh, he’s pushy and he’s just over the top, and I can’t take that.” Well, you’re the exact same person. Those are two completely different views. So you’re the same brand, those are two reviews of you as a brand. It’s the same with a destination. Some people would come to a destination, say, “Oh my God, its great! All these beaches and the little beach towns little, and da da da.” And others would come, “Oh my God, it’s just like one note, just beaches. How much can you…?” So, it’s always who you’re talking to, you know. What is the audience, what is the message, what is the time, what is the medium? And all those things, as you know, are completely related so we do much segment all of those things out, but going back to the overarching brand. You know the emerging brand is the greater Tampa Bay area. It was funny, when it came on 11 years ago here we had the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa and the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Pete, and it was this blending there and I think that blending happened has really continued. I think the emergence of the brand of the greater Tampa Bay area including Tampa, St. Pete, Clearwater, the surrounding communities, is something that’s inevitable. It’s been going on for a long time. I think businesses and business entities see it. I think government sees it, but I think we can still have the uniqueness of all of our areas even though the brand of the destination of a region, a regional brand of Florida is growing
Ashley: Is that something that you’re up for leading if it turns into a sort of a regional entity?
David: I’d like to think that we are as we exist, you know, because the portion of the brand I’m responsible for… And we do participate with the brand, you know. We work very closely with Visit Tampa Bay, with Tampa Airport. In fact we just came from an international trip with them promoting the destination all together. We do this when there are large events – Super Bowls, Final Fours, we come together with resources and funds to support them. We know that when folks come to Tampa they are going to sneak over here to the beach a day. We know that when folks come over here they are going to sneak over there to go to Busch Gardens or downtown or something, so we understand how it all works and we actually in this case can a little bit have our cake and eat it too. You know, we can continue pushing St. Pete Clearwater and realizing it’s a part of a much bigger brand
Joe: I find it bittersweet. Certainly I’m a fan of collaboration but as someone who operates largely in St. Pete’s, you know, St. Petersburg Times rebranding to the Tampa Bay Times was not necessarily positive. And you know, I think that there are certain places where you want to compete as a region, but I also think there are certain places where we’re very different entities. That is truly a fine line to walk between the letting us be our authentic self and participating in a regional collaboration.
David: I agree. You know, on the map there’s a line that runs down the middle of Tampa Bay. One side’s Pinellas, one side’s Hillsborough. That’s a line that no-one sees, particularly visitors, and, you know, visitors confusing, you know, places and names of places. If you spent time out in Manhattan Beach or Malibu or something and said that you went to LA, I kind of equate it the same way. Minneapolis, St. Paul, well I went to St. Paul, you know. It is a question that is the same the world over and there are moments where you have to be a, you know, let’s promote the region and then there are most of the moments where you can say, “Here’s the region but here’s a very distinct place within the larger regional brand.”
Joe: I’ve been digging through deep, you know, government documents to see if there are loophole where we can do a petition and get, you know, 1,000 people to sign it and change the name of the body of water, Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg Bay and I think that might reverse a lot of wrongs in the world.
David: If you have time I’ll give you the link. There’s this awesome from 1973 video that the then Tampa Tribune I think did, a promotional thing for Tampa St. Pete Clearwater. You will be mesmerized by how ridiculous it is, so if you can put that link on it’ll be great.
Joe: We’ll do it.
Ashley: Lots of improvement over time.
Joe: So, what about you personally? Talk about, you know, I know that you’re obviously passionate, you can hear the passion in your voice for the area. I also know that Visit St. Pete Clearwater is a government organization and has all the trapping and bureaucracy of a government organization. So how do you manage getting to do all this amazing work and have this great energy and then on the other side of that having to deal with some of the drudgery or the injustices, you know, the injustices of government?
David: I think any job has all of those and more piled into it, but I think if I were answering quickly it would be partnerships. Like I said, we are St. Pete Clearwater but there’s actually 24 cities in Pinellas County that we represent, and we work with 14 chambers every day, 400-plus hoteliers. My immediate board is the Tourist Development Council, the board above them is a board of County Commissioners, Pinellas County, but then again I answer to the County Administrator and the Assistant County Administrator. So it’s about bringing every interest along at the same time. It’s about working those relationships, about communicating, it’s about communicating the brand, it’s about understanding. You know, at the end of the day there are decisions we have to make to move forward as a tourism promotion agency, and there will be times when it will be painful for some of our members because of just the necessity of moving forward. But we have our ways to work around that, and ways to incorporate and bring people in and I’ll just give you an example. Two years ago when we rolled out our new campaign, we are called Visit St. Pete Clearwater. If I’m Dunedin, what does that mean to me, right? So now starting two years ago, every picture in the 500 subways in New York and all these we do the world over, in the corner of the photo it says exactly where it is. So even the logos to St. Pete Clearwater, up there it says downtown Gulfport or Dunedin or downtown St. Pete or what it is. It seems like a small thing but the more touch points you have, the more ways you can bring every brand into the umbrella brand, is an example of how to move the destination forward all in lockstep. It is a difficult thing to do because there’s a lot of varied interest but that’s what we try to do each day.
Joe: That’s a big onus to put on one organization, right? And so what, have you seen examples in other places where they’ve done this better, and what can we learn from those as far as the collaboration?
David: That’s funny. I look at advertising all the time and when I travel, which is quite frequently because of the job, the first thing I do is turn on local news. And I watch the local news and I see how they position themselves and what they think about themselves as a destination, and even how they refer to themselves. One of my favorite things is I asked someone in Chicago what is Chicago land mean, you know, where is Chicago land, where does it end? That’s a long conversation by the way, if you ever have that.
Ashley: It never ends.
David: No, well, because it depends on who you talk to, right? You could ask the same about Tampa Bay. You know, where does Tampa Bay end?
Ashley: Well you know, I had an interesting question. You were talking about, I don’t know if this is right time to introduce it but you were talking about the function of the Airbnb and how that created inventory but it also, you know, sort of hamstrung some of the businesses or some of the hotels that were here and maybe reduced the business that they were able to do. And I’m thinking about when it comes to economic development and some of the efforts that you’ve seen here lately. The energy, to put it plainly, is we want to attract people here to stay. And, you know, you have businesses, and I can think of one of the businesses that I oversee which is, you know, membership for fitness for example. And tourism is sort of the last place we want to go because that’s a finite source of revenue for us, you know. We really want to drive families and individuals here to stay and that’s really going to help us to be a sustainable entity here long-term. And so in that vein, and if you look at the work that the EDC and some of the work that other entities are doing, it’s really business-oriented. And how do those pieces sort of work together where some of the values a portion of the consistency has is more about sustainability and maybe not so tourism-centric? And, but we need tourism and vice versa, right? And you said earlier you are economic development wholly, so how are you navigating that?
David: So, two things. One is, as an industry, okay, if you have an industry where people come in, they fly in, they empty their pockets of their money and they go away. And then they come back 76% of the time. Our repeat in our visitation rate’s 70-something percent. They’re employing 104,000 people as an industry, and it is an industry that has seen just explosive growth. Now you want to talk about the stress on the infrastructure etc. versus building a manufacturing plant etc. Those conversations could be had, but I think the higher-order discussion is people who live here, businesses who move here, they started as tourists. This is selling the destination. It doesn’t matter if you sell it for a week or a lifetime. You talk to anybody who’s moved here from somewhere else, any business that’s moved here. They came here on vacation and that’s how I see this direct relationship that is inescapable between tourism and economic development.
Joe: Yes, that’s a good point. And the other thing that made me think of, just from a straight economic standpoint, obviously weight on infrastructure, one of the other counters to that is raising prices because you have the same amount of revenue with less people. So do you want as a long-term view, a long-term goal for your efforts to get us more money from the same amount of people? I mean, it seems to be that would be the logical answer is a yes, obviously but, I mean how much does that come in to the general philosophy of your long-term planning?
David: Sure, and you have touched one of the major kind of nerve centers of what we do. It’s never about bringing just more people to the destination. It’s about creating a greater economic footprint out of the visitation you have. And I know on some levels, on the state level, I know we just celebrated 100 million, 130 million and numerosity is just one indicator, it’s just one metric. I’ll give you one example. If someone comes from Canada and stays for a day and someone comes from Brazil and stays for two weeks, those are two visitors. What does that metric mean? And sure, I can understand where to know the sheer number of folks is useful on one level, but I think the more instructive, the more useful information is what is the overall economic impact of the visitation as a whole? And you can chop, dice and slice the information any way you want. To that end, yes, our yield is where our gains have been. We’re creating an aspirational brand that people want to participate in, they want to come here and they want to visit how we have positioned this destination. And I mean we as an industry, not visit St. Pete Clearwater. Look there are hotels both up and down the destination, and other entities that really work hard to market in addition to what we do. So working together, all of the industry and by industry I mean not just hotels too, tourism industry is so diverse and so large and it’s so blended into the rest of the core business community that it’s hard to separate the two. Look, I was talking with a manager at Publix out at the beach who says he knows when the folks are here, because he has to staff up, because they bring more people to the store and they sell more goods. Their whole inventory, everything is affected by, you know, March, April, May, and on top of that, you know, were it not for that tourism, would that stores even be there?
Ashley: You talked about your staff at Visit Clearwater St. Pete but assuming that we all, that resident of this area we all direct reports or indirect reports, right? And there’s something that we can all do with, you know, in our everyday life beyond smile and be nice, to help change the experience for those that are flying in for the day and 70-odd percent are likely to return. How can we best deploy in concert to make you and us more successful?
David: That’s easy. Just get over in the right lane when you’re not pass ing.
Ashley: Is that it?
David: That’s it.
Ashley: Is that like the missing link? I wonder.
David: Buy them drinks!
Ashley: Yes, okay. Everyone, you’ve heard your order.
David: No, I mean just going back for a second though, one of the interesting things I find about this destination is we have about a million people in Pinellas county, right? And according to the MPO we will have about a million people by 2030. You know, I’ve always considered this, Pinellas county, to be the Manhattan of Florida. It’s built out. Our suburbs are the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. There is no expansion area here. One of the hotel consultants has said, jokingly but not really, he goes, it’s not overdeveloped, it’s under-demolished, that there’s a whole second level that’s emerging throughout the entire county, you know, so there’s that which I find just fascinating. Here’s the other thing I find fascinating. Every year about 60,000 people come and go out of Pinellas County, so in the 10 years I’ve been back here 600,000 of the million people here are new so that’s very exciting. I don’t think there’s any greater example of what a dynamic place it is than that. And that census thing that comes out all the time showing stagnation, again, be careful of the metrics you choose to enter into a discussion. When you see what’s going on in downtown St. Pete… You go to Dunedin, Safety Harbor, all over, the energy you feel in this destination and it’s growing. Here’s the other thing, as the state of Florida every year the average visitor age trends up. To Pinellas County, we trend down. We’re getting younger as each year goes on and that’s a great healthy sign of growth.
Ashley: That actually should be a cornerstone to one of your campaigns, like “Come here, get younger.”
David: I saw a cocoon. It doesn’t work.
Ashley: There’s a better tagline than that but…
Joe: “Come here and get younger because we are… Statistically.”
Ashley: But don’t make it about you, we. It’s a question… Just to get my question answered, what do you suggest we could all do to keep that trend going?
David: When I understand someone’s from somewhere else I just have to go talk to them.
Ashley: To say, what are you thinking?
David : That’s part of my job. No, it’s like, “Hey, how are you?” You know, and, “Welcome.” You know, just chat. Usually interesting world of people looking for an experience. I think the other thing is patience. Going back to Pinellas County being a built-out county, be very patient. When you see traffic at peak times of year, when you see lines at restaurants or in other places that you don’t see at other times of the year, please understand this is economic development. This group of visitors is paying for a lot of what we enjoy 365 days a year and they’re here for, you know, 3 or 4 days at a time. So we are all in this together, you know, if you saw someone in a factory building something, if you saw someone involved in any other type of economic development, just because that economic development takes place in all the places we know and love sometimes we have a hard time seeing it as that but it is no doubt that and it’s one of the things that we focus on.
Joe: Well, really enjoyed this conversation and we end most of our SPXs with a shoutout and so I’d like to give you the opportunity to give some attention to someone that’s done something great or neat or worthwhile that hasn’t got as much attention as you think they deserve, and show some appreciation.
David: Wow, my head spins at that one because there’s so many, but the one I’ll kind of go to is, not because he’s my boss, but Mark Woodard, the county administrator who has served this county for 20-something years and has done so many things so quietly for Pinellas County. It’s the highest unelected position in Pinellas County. You know, it’s kind of like the president, when something winds up on the president’s desk there’s only just a very few options on there and all of them are, “Oh my god, I have to do this or that or the other thing.” But he has done that job with such grace and make it look so easy, and bring together so many disparate groups and so many competing interests and harmonize them in such a way that I think just takes a very special personality and person to do. This is his last year. He’ll be done this year. He’s finished with that job. I know we’ll see him in other places but Mark Woodard, shout out to you.
Joe: Wonderful. Thank you for your time.
Ashley: Thanks for joining us today.
David: Thank you, thanks for having us.
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is the CEO of Big Sea, publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Joe brings a strong acumen for strategy and positioning businesses. He serves on several local boards, including TEDx Tampa Bay, which grew his desire to build a platform where the area’s thought leaders could share their valuable insight with the community at large.
Ashley Ryneska is the Vice President of Marketing for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Ashley believes meaningful conversations can serve as the gateway to resolution, freedom, and advancement for our city. Her passion for storytelling has been internationally recognized with multiple media accolades.