Tourism is spreading.
Bed tax numbers for January show that tourism revenue is marching into non-traditional months and the aggressive goals set out by Tourist Development Council executive director Jennifer Jenkins and her team hardly constitute pie-in-the-sky ideals.
Bed tax collection for January was up 3.48 percent compared to the prior year, numbers that take on a greater profile when considering that spike was on top of a blistering 24.43 percent increase in 2013.
That puts tax collections for the fiscal year 4.97 percent year over year.
Jenkins’ stated goal is a 20 percent increase year over year and the real tourist season has yet to even begin.
“We are pacing ahead of last year,” Jenkins told the TDC advisory council last week during its regular monthly meeting. “This is also the first month that the Tax Collector has required all collectors to report monthly.”
That some collectors reported monthly and others quarterly has been seen as a hurdle to accurately gauge seasonal marketing efforts and outreach by the TDC staff.
In terms of sheer dollars, revenue is up more than $8,000 for the year compared to this time last year.
While celebrating continued good news on the revenue side, the TDC advisory board and Jenkins mapped out future improvements.
One is to the TDC sponsorship program.
To clear the decks for the current fiscal year, the advisory board followed the recommendation of the marketing committee to disburse the last of the sponsorship dollars for this year.
With no real temperature present to move additional dollars into the fund, the council approved $500 to an effort to create a cultural arts center in Port St. Joe and the remaining $2,100 to the upcoming Forgotten Coast Wounded Warrior Weekend.
The TDC board had five events or efforts pursuing funding, but board members noted they had already sent funding to three of the events.
Jenkins outlined a series of “enhancements” she and her team hoped to implement, with board approval, for the upcoming grant cycle.
The grant program will be opened to for-profit organizations – through this year only non-profits could apply- and the TDC will categorize events and requests based on the size, level of participation from out of the county and a demonstrated partnership between the event and lodging partners.
The goal, Jenkins said, is creating self-sustaining events in the next five years and a substantial shift in philosophy for TDC participation in special events.
“We want to move from a funding source to a promotional arm,” Jenkins said. “We need to get into the mind-set of packages.”
Jenkins added that the TDC would also be examining event organizers or sponsors providing funds to match the TDC dollars and no applications would be accepted outside of the application window.
The TDC, she said, would also state a preference away from funding events between Memorial Day and Labor Day, though at board urging she said that could be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“People see us as the bank and we want them to see us for the marketing,” said board member and marketing committee chair Alyson Gerlach. “If we do our job right, they will be more successful.”
The move, board member Tony Whitfield said, would also be more economically responsible, with the TDC applying its skill set instead of just handing out dollars.
“Most of these events don’t have marketing expertise and we are kind of throwing money at them and hoping it sticks and a lot of it doesn’t,” Whitfield said. “This way we would take more of the money in-house.”
A second major area of tweaking concerned the beach ambassador program being launched as a pilot this summer.
Jenkins and attorney Jeremy Novak are undertaking a consolidation of all ordinances pertaining to the beaches corridor and sought TDC board input on areas of concern.
The goal is to have one comprehensive ordinance to address issues ranging from leash laws and beach driving to bonfires on the beach.
“We do need to try to consolidate these,” said board member Ronald Pickett.
That consolidated ordinance would be the backbone resource for the beach ambassadors.
“We are not law enforcement, we are not code enforcement,” Jenkins said the ambassador program, which will operate out to the TDC while coordinating with the Gulf County Sheriff’s Office and South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department.
“We are brand ambassadors. We are welcoming people and educating them.”
The hope is to enhance enforcement of county ordinances with a hospitality approach while adding to the presence on the beaches and the ability to reach visitors to enhance stays.
It is, in part at least, a county attempt to move closer to a Leave No Trace philosophy while not multiplying enforcement efforts.
“It is a pilot program and we’ll see where we go next year,” said County Commissioner Warren Yeager, who is the Board of County Commissioners representative to the TDC board.
Gerlach added, “The presence itself will make a difference.”
The board also approved changes to the TDC staff, at the recommendation of Jenkins.
The move would add one full-time “brand ambassador” who would largely oversee the beach ambassador program and enhance the marketing output from the TDC.
The TDC had already ordered new vehicles for the beach ambassador program.