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TDC aims to “keep businesses open and safe’

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com

There has been no shortage of “weirdness” during 2020, which would represent a vast understatement.

Despite it all, however, the Gulf County Tourist Development Council has pivoted and flourished in these uncertain times.

Challenges are ahead, primarily implementing the business license program for short-term vacation rentals recently approved by the Board of County Commissioners.

The move, said TDC Executive Director Kelli Godwin, will roll out in the coming months and will help level the playing field for tax collectors “not playing by the rules.”

There is also maintaining the message of safety while doing business.

Astonishingly, given the COVID-19 pandemic, the TDC is not far off of budget on the revenue side.

Through June, nine months into the fiscal year, bed tax revenue was off the prior year by just 2 percent, or just below $25,000.

That despite an April that was off by more than 70 percent, but was followed by a May that fell just 22 percent and a June that was relatively flat for bed tax revenue.

“It was a pretty good bounce back,” Godwin said. “In May we had two good weeks at the end that really made a difference.

“Knock on wood, we might be able to up that deficit in July. Over the last three months (of the fiscal year) we can end up flattening that for the year. Which would be pretty amazing.”

Godwin said Gulf County has several advantages over other locations being rural, a drive-to destination and folks have the ability to rent individual units.

“And everything is outdoors anyway,” Godwin noted.

The TDC budgeted down for the fiscal year, cutting its budget by nearly a million dollars, but as of the end of June, bed tax revenue is $1.040 million and sight of the $1.7 million collected last year post-Hurricane Michael.

The TDC is also celebrating one year of operating the St. Joseph Bay Golf Club and that has also met success.

Members top 200, with nearly 50 new members, and a project to overhaul the greens is nearing completion.

There will be a grand re-opening Sept. 11 followed by a series of golf tournaments the remainder of the month into October.

“(The golf club) has done really, really well,” Godwin said. “And that was with all the weirdness going on this year.”

The TDC’s marketing has realized the most significant pivot.

A fall campaign, called “Wade In” and emphasizing re-opening, or wading in, safely.

The campaign had more than 320,000 visitors to the website page over six weeks and 45,000 submitted for the associated Instragram campaign.

“It actually was a good response campaign,” Godwin said. “It was all about wading in safely.”

Further, the TDC in partnership with the Florida Department of Health in Gulf and Franklin County will launch a “Pledge to Protect” campaign.

In short strokes, the campaign, with a separate page on the TDC website, would provide incentives and recognition to those businesses practicing social distancing, face masks, etc.

“We want to show people we are taking the extra steps,” Godwin said, noting that much of the call volume at the TDC Welcome Center is focused on visitors wishing to know what businesses are safe to patronize.

“We want to keep our businesses open and safe.”

The focus of the coming fall marketing campaign will be the TDC’s new website and the tools available at the site, which will launch in the coming weeks.

Included will be a significant number of “virtual” tours for those who want to visit, but from a distance.

The TDC has even created a Spotify list of songs by Gulf County-based or inspired artists.

The seasonal campaign will be similar, with the winter schedule taking on a different look, with activities such as biking day, and virtual components being central, such as a local chef showing a favored recipe.