Retiring Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley on the Past, Present and Future of Local Tourism
Virginia Haley grew up in western Massachusetts, worked in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill, and moved here in 1989 from northern Virginia. “My husband wanted to move to Florida and we looked all over and fell in love with the look and size of Sarasota," she says. "Our daughter was about to start kindergarten at the time, and the quality of the public schools was the clincher."
After arriving, Haley worked as the director of communications and government relations at Mote Marine Laboratory and ran a local office for then-Congressman Porter Goss. Then, in 1999, she began her career with Visit Sarasota County, the agency that markets our region to tourists and visitors from around Florida, the country and the world. When she started, the county's Tourist Development Tax (a surcharge on short-term rentals) generated $5.4 million each year. These days, that tax generates $40 million a year. During Haley's 24-year tenure, which will end when she retires in September, Sarasota transformed into one of the fastest-growing tourism markets in the U.S.
Highlights from her career include the creation of the Savor Sarasota Restaurant Week to drive slow-season business to area restaurants and helping add Newtown to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. She also grew Sarasota’s sports tourism with the development of spring training facilities for the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves, Sarasota's BMX track and Nathan Benderson Park.
We caught up with her to learn more about the shifts she's seen in local tourism during her career, what the future may hold and what she's up to next.
How has Sarasota changed as a tourist destination during your tenure?
“One of the biggest would be in the tourism product. We went through a huge growth period when the Ritz-Carlton Hotel opened [in 2001] and it was a real eye-opener for a lot of people, since it was a big deal in little ol' Sarasota back then. In later years, as we started to build hotel inventory, we went from having tourists looking for hotels to finally being able to have enough to get more events, sports and meetings.
“Other things that have been significant include when voters were willing to tax themselves to be able to purchase more environmentally sensitive lands, which has allowed us to grow natural assets and is a huge pull. Same with the Legacy Trail, which has had a huge impact. You see more and more people using it and it will only become more popular with time.
“The arts have always been strong here, but now their quality has grown and spread to the national stage like The Sarasota Ballet, the Asolo and the exhibits at the Ringling Museum.
“Sports has changed tremendously. When I started, there was no effort, other than spring training with the White Sox at the time, to bring any other kinds of sports to the area. Just before I started, we lost a lot of that to Fort Myers and, to this day, they’re still excelling there. But now we’re going after it. A combination of the facilities and investments in Nathan Benderson Park put us on that map.
"Then there’s the marketing. The events don’t just happen. You have to provide funding and get to know the people leading them and let the world know you’re holding those events. And they require local funding to attract people to the area. None of that was in place when I started 24 years ago. We didn't even have a website. It was a brochure on a website. About 22 years ago, we did a little online marketing for big search engines that at the time were Yahoo! and Excite. Google wasn’t mentioned yet.
"We also have the shift of visitors who used to land in Tampa. Now, thanks to all the flights they've added, they’re flying right into SRQ airport.”
How has it remained the same as a tourist destination?
“I think we’re lucky that our beaches have in large part remained the same and are still as beautiful as ever and continue to be a place where you feel at ease. You don't feel like you’re only surrounded by tourists. Visitors tell us they love the fact that they’re interacting with locals and how nice it is that that hasn't changed."
How have tourist demographics changed?
"The access to information both online and through word of mouth allows the visitor greater choice, and a lot of pre-planning for a trip. You used to only have access to a visitor guide. Now visitors are a lot more sophisticated and expect so much more. They're not just going to be happy sitting on the beach. They expect a certain quality of dining and other things to do, like arts and entertainment.
“It also depends on the season. The winter tends to attract older visitors, and the summer attracts younger families. There are also more people traveling in groups that may be multigenerational families or a group of college roommates. We see a lot more small leisure groups like that. It's gotten a little bit younger than when I first started, but still, 57 is the average age of the head of household of the visitors.”
How does Visit Sarasota County market the area now versus when you started?
“We would place print advertising in Southern Living or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We had sales missions with Eastern Airlines. We'd go to their headquarters and do a little training about Sarasota. We'd go on tours to visit travel agencies in the Chicago area and do a dog and pony show for each. You would do a trade show and pack up and go to the next city. We were dealing with travel agents and print ads.
"A colleague representing Bradenton was next to me at one trade show where people stole her display because it was so pretty. I managed to save it for her. It was pieces of driftwood and seashells.
"For television, PI [or per inquiry] TV was big. Instead of paying for an ad on TV, you paid by the number of times people called the 1-800 number you had. Back then, we had telephone answering service companies to answer and they would have their little spiel about Sarasota. The 1-800 numbers were specific to the ad so they could be tracked. People could also write to us by mail.
"The Internet was a real learning curve in understanding that the web wasn’t just a static brochure and could be dynamic. I'll never forget a major expert at one of our conferences who said, 'No one is ever going to book a vacation because of social media.' They were as wrong as can be. They failed to see that Facebook, which was just starting at the time, was just a modern-day version of word of mouth. Then you could monetize it and use it for advertising. The shift from print to banner ads on websites, to now, behavioral targeting of online users—almost everything we do is based on online user behavior.
"The data collection is a huge change. We have so much more information about our visitors and on their feelings about Sarasota, along with demographic data. Also, when we update our branding, we do it with an eye on the locals and the visitor. We want the locals to be as proud as our visitors are of our county and that’s been successful thanks to focus groups with residents and businesses."
What could Visit Sarasota County do better? What are some challenges?
“We've enjoyed incredible success and such a strong recovery from Covid because we were already positioned well prior to 2020. Then, with Visit Florida funds that came in, we were able to market more.
“Now everyone is open so there’s more competition and we no longer have those Covid funds coming in, so keeping up the current momentum will be a challenge. Another one is when we lose the Hyatt in June of 2024, because it has the largest meeting space. But St. Regis will open on Longboat Key, so there will also be a tremendous opportunity there. The Hyatt is rebuilding, but it will take time. We could use more hotels in the southern part of the county, like in North Port or on the island of Venice. Or a hotel with larger meeting space for national conferences.”
What does the future of Sarasota County tourism look like?
"I think there are endless possibilities because of the assets we have here. We forget that this is a clean and safe county. I don't worry about walking my dog alone at 5:30 a.m., and that’s not true in many places. The fundamentals, the recreational facilities, the beaches—we've made smart investments in them and I think they’ll continue to pay off."
What are you most proud of when you look back at your time with Visit Sarasota County?
"The Bay. We used to talk about how the land around the Van Wezel was so underutilized. Our cars had the best view there. Couldn't there be a better vision for it? We put in initial funding and over the years, starting in 2014, Michael Klauber and I held at least 300 meetings with arts groups and civic leaders to get people behind developing the bayfront. By 2017, the nonprofit that is now the Bay Park Conservancy was formed and has been doing marvelous things.
"It was hard in those days because we had to raise all the money privately. So you're asking for money from philanthropists for something which we couldn't yet define. But our board gave us free rein, and my executive assistant Shantel Norman ran all the meetings, which we had to keep in the sunshine. We had to build websites and social media campaigns, too.
"We didn’t have the specifics drawn out, but when you had friends and family come to town, we wanted it to be the first public space you would show them. We really worked hard on engaging the community beyond the usual suspects. We bought people free beer at breweries and we did suppers in Newtown. It brought younger people out and ensured the guiding principles of the project were not just those of people who can come out for a meeting.
"We’re one of the founding business partners, but we handed it off to the professionals at the conservancy to get into urban planning and permitting. The way all the foundations in Sarasota found a way to play a role in some way or another, like the Gulf Coast Foundation, the Sarasota Community Foundation and Patterson Foundation—the level of engagement was amazing.
"I was in tears during the 10-day opening. I was so silly at that Halloween painting event for kids. It was just mobbed, and there was Shantel’s concert. [Editor's note: Norman is also the lead singer in the local band Jah Movement.] And now just seeing its daily use with the yoga, the dance classes and the music...it’s marvelous."
What’s next for you?
"We have a little farmhouse in Burnsville, North Carolina, and we’ll do some back and forth. You won’t be able to get me out of Sarasota for good. I love ceramics, so I'll get dirty in the mud. I went back to it last year doing Ringling adult courses at the Sarasota Art Museum and, hopefully, I'll have more time for it. I used to be OK at it, but you need a lot of time for it. After working a 10-hour day, it’s hard to be creative, so I look forward to that. We also have grandchildren here, so I’ll be spending more time with them."
Who is replacing you?
"There's a community search committee working with a search firm to find our next president. They hope to have that wrapped up by May so we can overlap. My last day is Sept. 30. We’re very lucky that we have a strong vice-president who has applied for the job.
"I think going through the search process will put them in a stronger position than it was for me because I didn't have that process. I had to prove myself. I don't think my successor will have to."
What would you tell the new president?
“Make this your organization your own and put your stamp on it. Bring your own style and ideas. Don't fall for the ‘this isn't the way Virginia did it,’ line and bring what you view as the key strategies to keep it strong. Remember that strong tourism is really to benefit the locals, so ask yourself, 'How are we making this a better community?'"