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Break out the confetti
Bed tax collections reach record highs
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Thanks to the August Republican National Convention, thousands of visitors are aware of Pinellas County’s treasures, such as this sunset of Sand Key Beach.
Tourism is up – way up, and officials are celebrating a record-breaking year for bed tax collections.

Chad McLeod, manager of Public Affairs & Compliance for the Pinellas County Tax Collector, said bed tax revenue for the first 11 months of 2012 is more than 12 percent above last year’s figures.

“So far, we’ve had five record-breaking months. March, April, June, July and August have been the highest months in the history of the bed tax,” McLeod said. “Also, 2012 has already passed the previous yearly record, set in 2008, and we still have another month left to collect (September). Definitely a good sign for Pinellas tourism!”

David Downing, deputy director for Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater the county’s official tourism marketing and management organization, said a number of factors converged to make it a good season.

“We had a string of very good weather,” he said, which helped attract visitors wanting a break from the ice and snow.

Visitors flocked to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter the dolphin, Pinellas County’s most recent Hollywood star. A recent report estimates that the economic impact from the movie in Pinellas at $5 billion over five years.

Then there was the Republican National Convention in August, which pushed up bed tax collections 22.38 percent over last year. The Tax Collector’s office reported it took in just over $2.2 million compared to nearly $1.8 million last year.

Downing said the RNC proved to be a “nice exclamation point” to an already successful season.

For local hoteliers, the average daily rate increased 24 percent in August and the occupancy rate went up 10 percent, to 64 percent, the fourth highest in the state.

Pinellas hosted delegations from 25 of 50 states, and 37 percent were first-time visitors. Officials are hopeful that many of those who visited Pinellas for the RNC will come back for some R and R (rest and relaxation). Pinellas gets about 65 percent repeat tourism, Downing said.

December wasn’t a record-breaking month, but collections were 19.3 percent higher than last year. February was another good month, bringing in 17.2 percent more than 2011.

March is always a great month for the local tourism industry. Bed tax collections in 2012 were up 11.5 percent, bringing in a record $4.5 million. June was another record-breaking month with collections up 13 percent and a revenue total of $2.5 million.

Downing believes all the signs are pointing to a rebound for the tourism industry.

“This is mostly what recovery looks like to us,” Downing said.

Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater continues making plans to keep Pinellas County visible to markets all over the world through creative and varied advertising campaigns.

“We’re a world-class destination,” Downing said, pointing to a number of unique attractions found only in Pinellas County. “We have almost an embarrassment of riches and enclaves of culture.”

He gave the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, unique downtown Gulfport and the authentic waterfront area in Tarpon Springs as examples of the county’s special features.

Another attribute is the climate, which makes Pinellas a great place year round for events, such as the Honda Grand Prix in the spring and Clearwater’s Jazz Holiday in the fall.

Pinellas does a brisk convention business despite its lack of a convention center. Downing said about 125,000 room nights each year come from conventions. Sporting events also factor in to give the occupancy rate a healthy boost, especially for non-beach accommodations.

Downing said with so much to offer, Pinellas can attract visitors from all over the world. Key markets in the United States include the Northwest, Midwest and the state of Florida.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is enjoying its own record-breaking year, reporting the most riders in the 93-year history of public transportation in the county. According to Bob Lasher, manager of community relations for PSTA, leaders attribute at least a portion of the success to the Central Avenue Trolley and the new shuttle service between the CMA and Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure in downtown Clearwater. They also point to the record-breaking tourist season.

Downing said PSTA’s expansion also has benefited the tourism industry.

“The Europeans in particular love the idea of public transportation,” Downing said. “They’re used to it at home. Now, they can ride all the way from Pass-A-Grille to Clearwater Beach.”

Downing said this year’s unanticipated gains in bed tax revenue would be used to build up the Tourism Development Council’s reserve fund and continue working proactively in key markets.

“It’ll be a little bit of a blessing,” Downing said. “We always need to be growing.”
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