Businesspeople attending conferences want more than face-to-face networking and business presentations. They also want to get out of the hotel and take advantage of fresh surroundings while they’re away from home, says Felice Levy, the owner of Gulf Coast Meetings and Events, a Palm Harbor-based meeting planning company. Fortunately, Sarasota and Manatee counties possess the climate, sand and charm to draw big-time corporate events.
However, we’re lacking when it comes to one vital metric: space.
“The biggest challenge we have is there’s not enough large hotel space and not enough rooms,” Levy says.
Levy works primarily with smaller events, gatherings that require around 125 rooms; larger accounts need anywhere from 500 to 1,000 rooms to accommodate visitors. The downtown Sarasota Hyatt Regency offers 294 guest rooms; the Ritz-Carlton has just 266. “Those don’t cut it for most of the bigger organizations,” Levy says. Even one of Tampa’s biggest hotels, the Marriott Tampa Waterside, contains only 683 rooms.
The current surge in local hotel construction in downtown Sarasota, adding more than 1,000 rooms, could help make the city a more attractive meeting and conference destination, Levy says, but that will require planners to think more creatively about the logistical challenges of rooming visitors in different hotels and coordinating transportation between destinations—especially since many companies are content to book the same exact trip year after year.
Neither Visit Sarasota County nor the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau has exact numbers for the local meeting and conference sector. Hotels are protective of their clients’ privacy and don’t always share data with Visit Sarasota County, says Lynn Hobeck Bates, the organization’s communications manager. The tourism agency only collects conference numbers if it’s directly involved in helping set up an event.
The stats Visit Sarasota County does collect show a range from 29 to 38 meetings each year between fiscal years 2012 and 2014, with 27,455 total room nights booked and $22.5 million in economic impact. The Manatee County agency only tracks the percentage of visitors who tell the organization through in-person Q&As that they’re in town for business or meetings. That number stood at 13.6 percent of all visitors last August, the most recent month with available data. That percentage was almost the same as the previous August, when it came in at 14.1.
To get a clearer sense of why meeting planners like Levy do or don’t consider Sarasota County when organizing events, last year Visit Sarasota County interviewed 119 planners, some who booked events here, some who considered booking but chose not to and some who didn’t consider the county at all. Sarasota may not have huge hotels, but the survey results show that the city could accommodate many events that don’t take place here. Six out of 10 events organized by planners who did not choose or even consider Sarasota required less than 100 hotel rooms.
But hotel space isn’t the only challenge in trying to grow the number of meetings we host.
The lack of easy connections through Sarasota Bradenton International Airport was identified by meeting planners in the Visit Sarasota County survey as the No. 1 obstacle to more meetings and conferences.
“We know that our airport is smaller than Tampa,” Vanessa Zigich, Visit Sarasota County’s former meeting and group sales manager, told a roomful of tourism business representatives during a recent presentation on the meeting planner surveys. (Zigich has since left that role to work at the Hyatt Regency.) While SRQ may have a limited number of flights, Zigich argued, Tampa International Airport is a convenient one-hour trip to Manatee and Sarasota. That’s an educational opportunity for meeting planners, she says.
Based on these survey results, Visit Sarasota County is concentrating on markets with direct flights to SRQ, like Atlanta and Charlotte, and trying to reach upper management decision-makers by inviting them and meeting planners on familiarization tours. Visit Sarasota County has also created mailers and newsletters to showcase meeting opportunities.