Come Together

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2008

Tourism is a given. That seems to be the prevailing attitude around town as everyone waits for the “real season” to begin in January. In fact, I will bet that more than 70 percent of all retail business plans are predicated upon a strong winter season that will carry everyone through the summer doldrums.

Perhaps in the past that was a pretty safe assumption, but unfortunately today that is just not good enough. For the past two years, the negative economic climate has wreaked havoc with our local economy. There is no reason to expect a massive reversal of this condition in the next few months. The “crisis” is playing out as I write this column, with terrible local results. Business is virtually at a standstill in many categories.

In fact, the “season” may turn into a disaster if the recession affects tourism in any significant way. As an optimist, I assume we will have an OK “season,” but what is going to happen next summer?  To paraphrase Einstein, if we repeat the past, how can we expect different results?

So, let me use my pen (well, really my computer) to create my own bully pulpit and strongly suggest that we need to take a different marketing approach for addressing next summer. Here is my three-point plan:

1. We need a unified communication approach to marketing Sarasota. Let’s get rid of all the parochial attitudes that surround our various quasi-tourism related agencies.

We have at least six different organizations trying to define Sarasota for their own interests: the Sarasota Visitors Convention Bureau, Downtown Partnership, Downtown Sarasota Merchants Alliance, Downtown Merchants Association, Chamber of Commerce and Sarasota County Arts Council.  Does this sound a lot like the U.S. Congress? And then on top of that we have the City Commission and the City Alliance trying to do the same thing, but from a civic point of view.

So here is what I propose. Get all these factions together and have them actually work as a team to combine resources (including money) for the common good. Everybody comes to the table with their constituents, their wallets and their objectives and works together to build a comprehensive, aggressive and impactful marketing effort to promote the greater Sarasota market. Forget the politics (dare we?) and create one strategy and one campaign. We then use all the communication resources at our disposal to promote that singular idea—everywhere and all the time.

How do we execute this plan? Let us use the City Alliance as both a model and the melting pot organization. All of the aforementioned groups will meet as a subcommittee of the Alliance. They will use its existing structure to facilitate discussion and, hopefully, action. Organizing the team with a common purpose can only help.

2. We need to create some short-term and long-term events that give people permission/reason to come to Sarasota in the “off season.” Here are a few possibilities:

-      We already do a restaurant week in early June. Let’s make it a whole month and then include a few other new projects. How about a June Wine Fest and/or move Corks and Forks into June?

-      In July, we have the Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix powerboat races.  Why not add a Concours d’Elegance auto exhibition and give people a reason to stay longer?

-      In August, we could consider a Fashion Week. We could bring in top designers with the fall clothing lines. A friend at SunCoast Bank is looking to create that kind of high-end event in town.

-      We could also do a second film festival over Labor Day weekend. It could be an international event or feature independent films, perhaps by working with the Sarasota Film Society.

-      We should work with the Sarasota Film Festival to create monthly summertime events, such as tribute weekends that attract people from all over Florida.

-     Miami had been very successful with its very prestigious Art Basel. Why not do an Art Basel Sarasota during July to September?

-      We need to work on getting business events to Sarasota. I do not have hard facts, just an impression that we are weak in generating business meetings here. I do think that we have the resources to bring conventions here, and May and the fall would be good times to generate extra tourism.

3. We need to do more European marketing. The Convention and Visitors Bureau and others do some marketing, but we have to make it a priority and unite our efforts to drive summer tourism here. Our story is very strong because it is relatively less expensive to visit here for a vacation than to have the Germans, English or French go to Spain or to the Riviera. Even with higher airfares, the cost of a week at a resort is far less than the room rates in Europe. Add the higher value of the Euro and we are a bargain.

I do not pretend to have all the answers and some of my suggestions may take more time. But our problems are local. We have our own economic Hurricane Katrina. We cannot expect a bailout from the state or the federal governments.  Sarasota has turned itself around before, and we are a legitimate tourist and business destination. Tough times require bold action. Let us mobilize. We can market ourselves out of this mess. But it will demand a unified community effort.

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