Susan Estler was at her new job as director of marketing and public relations for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for just three weeks before Sept. 11 dealt Florida's tourism industry a severe blow. Since then, Estler has helped increase the numbers of tourists visiting Manatee County; last year, she played a role in getting a one-percent tourism tax increase that has yielded an additional $1 million for advertising and marketing.

1. The 2004 tourist season turned out to be a gangbuster. How are things looking for 2005?

We're guardedly optimistic. We'll continue to see a growing trend, and barring some sort of terrorist activity, we'll see an increase in the international market during the summer months. Domestically and internationally, this continues to be a rebuilding year. We're right at the levels we were prior to Sept. 11.

2. Where are your tourists coming from? We have three different markets. In season, it's primarily domestic-January, February, March and into Easter. They come from the Northeast and Midwest (and Canada). Season slows down in May before school is out, and you start seeing a shift in the domestic numbers because people in the Northeast and Midwest are enjoying their own lovely weather. Then we see Floridians, which is our largest market. August through October tends to be the international market, with people from the United Kingdom and Germany.

3. How do you anticipate rising gas prices affecting your drive-in market?

The primary market in the summer is fly-ins from the UK. And because the British pound and the Euro are doing very well against the American dollar, Florida is really a bargain destination. We do also have a lot of drive-in traffic, but as of yet, gas prices haven't had an effect.

4. What's the most effective way you've found to market Manatee County to new visitors?

We have an integrated program that includes the Internet, consumer advertising and public relations, which we've just started. We're increasing awareness in the UK and Germany. We have a PR firm in the UK and also do travel and trade shows. Our visitor's guide is probably our best overall promotional tool-32 to 33 percent of people who requested information decided to come to this destination based on the visitor's guide (according to a 2003 study).

5. Are you collaborating with the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau?

All the time. It works very, very well. The consumer is not going to stop in the middle of Longboat Key or I-75. We complement each other very well with the culture and arts in Sarasota and beaches and other attractions in Manatee. We've done promotional things with Charlotte County and cooperative advertising in North Carolina and Tennessee, and the three bureaus have advertised together in Audubon Magazine. At trade shows, we share booths all the time. 

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