Tourism Beat

An Insider's Guide to Sarasota

Today’s tourists want an insider’s experience.

By Cooper Levey-Baker May 6, 2016 Published in the April 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock


Tourists don’t travel like they used to.

Generational shifts are affecting the travel habits and desires of emerging demographics. More travelers are interested in “living like a local.” That means staying in nontraditional lodgings in residential neighborhoods, shunning tour groups, connecting with local merchants and searching out off-the-beaten-path cuisine.

“It’s a desire for an authentic cultural experience,” says Visit Sarasota County president Virginia Haley. “It’s not just the arts. Visitors want to get into the local food scene; they want to live the way people live in this community. They don’t want to be surrounded by fellow visitors. They want to know that the people at the tables around them are locals.”

Faced with that shift, area tourism agencies are rethinking how they market the region and connect with potential visitors. Visit Sarasota County’s 2016 marketing plan aims to attract out-of-towners and “inspire pride in locals” largely through social media. Locals are already taking photos that show Sarasota County at its best and sharing them with friends and relatives in other cities. Why not harness those user-generated images to influence travelers?

So-called VFR trips (“visiting friends and relatives”) make up a significant chunk of Sarasota County tourism, and demographic trends suggest it might grow even more important.

The U.S. Travel Association found that in 2014, 61 percent of trips taken by millennials were to visit friends and family, compared to 54 percent of trips taken by baby boomers.

The new marketing plan also reflects real experience. No staged photos. No flawless models. “We’re trying to not have that overly stylized model look, because nobody relates to it,” says director of brand Erin Duggan. And if they can’t relate to it, they won’t come.

Hashtag, please

Visit Sarasota is creating new hashtags and encouraging users to take them up, Duggan says. That simplifies the process of searching for and sharing positive material on social media and also offers an opportunity to interact with locals and potential visitors alike. In Austin, Texas, for example, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau created the marker #TrueAustin and then tasked “resident experts” to monitor the hashtag and respond to visitor interest and questions.

While tourist desires may be shifting, the average age of a Sarasota County tourist remains in the 49-52 range, Haley estimates. And tried-and-true markets like Boston, New York and Chicago are still driving much of the traffic.


Marketing challenges exist. Feedback from focus groups consistently shows negative associations with the word “county.” People think of county jails or county landfills. But it’s not so simple just to drop “county” from the logo. Visit Sarasota County does, after all, receive Tourist Development Tax dollars from rentals throughout the county, including North Port and Venice. The county estimates that $5.8 million total in bed taxes will be collected in fiscal year 2016. Residents in South County, and the elected officials who represent them, may not be keen on a campaign that focuses on Sarasota. Haley says it’s simply a matter of deciding what’s best for the brand, then convincing stakeholders from around the county that areas outside Sarasota won’t be neglected.

Authentic Bradenton

Since 2012, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has been using the tagline “Real Authentic Florida.” Executive director Elliott Falcione says the concept perfectly captures the character of Manatee County. “We’re a low-rise, low-key, detox environment,” he says. That’s one reason why tourists stay longer in Manatee County than in other parts of Florida. The average trip to Manatee lasts six days; the statewide average is four.

The Manatee bureau also notices an uptick in interest in the “living like a local” experience. “When travel writers come to the area, they say, ‘Give us things the average visitor wouldn’t do,’” says director of communications Kelly Clark.

Be social

The Manatee agency promotes content on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but Facebook remains far and away the organization’s most successful platform. That’s a positive for Manatee County, because Facebook is populated by exactly the consumers that the CVB wants to attract. Clark says the organization is reaching primarily users between the ages of 45 and 65, and lots of women, who often tend to make decisions about travel. The organization is also buying ads on social media, taking advantage of the ability to target specific niche demographics.

“Visitors want to live the way people live in this community. They don’t want to be surrounded by fellow visitors.”

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