Pinellas bed tax collections soar as tourism ‘rides that wave’

Pinellas County’s tourism is doing well so far this year, according to the recent Tourism Economic Snapshot presented at the July 17 Tourist Development Council meeting.

CLEARWATER —Tourism in Pinellas is having a very good year thus far.

Visit St. Pete Clearwater interim President and CEO Paul Sacco said July 17 that Pinellas was wrapping up the end of a very good spring tourism season. He said the numbers were up in every category and continuing to increase.

“We’re continuing to ride that wave,” he told members of the Tourist Development Council.

The number of rooms sold in May was up 6.8% compared to last year and the daily average rate increased 4.4% from $143.72 to $150.10. Revenue per available room climbed 12.1% to $112.76.

Year-to-date the number of rooms sold is up by 2.9%, going from just over 2.36 million in 2018 to more than 2.43 million this year. The average daily rate is up 4.1% over last year, increasing from $165.25 to $172. Revenue per available room is up 8.1%, climbing from $126.04 in 2018 to $136.25 this year.

Sacco described bed tax collections as “incredible numbers,” fueled by the increase in tourists. In May, collections increased 13.2% to nearly $5.4 million. For the fiscal year, October-May, collections are up 6.05%, totaling more than $44 million compared to about $41.5 million for the same months last year.

Sacco said projections show collections would exceed $60 million this year.

“We’re on an outstanding trajectory for the rest of the year,” he said.

Elite event funding requests

The TDC voted unanimously to accept the Elite Event Subcommittee’s funding recommendations and send them on to the Board of County Commissioners for approval.

The subcommittee considered 17 applications requesting a total of $775,000 in funding. The subcommittee recommended spending “up to” $750,000.

The county’s Tourist Development Plan authorizes spending up to $2 million a year on marketing special events and programs. The $2 million in bed tax money also can be spent on promotional or operating support for exhibits or programs provided by museums, zoological parks, and event and program sponsorships.

Each year, elite event organizers apply for a share of the $2 million. An elite event is defined as a new or existing organized sporting event, concert, exhibition, festival, fair, special event or celebration, which occurs according to a prearranged schedule that generally lasts less than seven days.

A cultural heritage event is a specific type of elite event that recognizes and/or celebrates community history or identity, bonds to the past, present and future, and/or values and traditions that attracts tourists to the designation.

Some of the events that have received funding in the past include the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Outback Bowl, St. Petersburg Bowl, Tampa Bay Rays, Valspar PGA Golf Tournament, Clearwater Super Boat National Championship and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon of St. Petersburg.

To qualify for funding, elite events must generate a minimum number of room nights and/or have a certain number of unique event attendees. The main goal is to increase the number of visitors staying at local tourism accommodations (heads in beds). Revenue to fund tourism marketing (and other related activities) comes from bed taxes, a 6% tax charged on all overnight tourism accommodations in the county.

Events are eligible for different levels of funding depending on what they offer.

Category 1 events are eligible for up to $125,000 but they have to generate at least 50,000 “unique, paid, credentialed and/or otherwise documented attendees.” Plus, they have to generate at least 25,000 room nights at a Pinellas County accommodation. In addition, the event must be broadcast on national television.

Only one application met the requirements for category 1 funding and that was the Valspar Championship. The Elite Event Subcommittee recommended it receive up to $125,000.

Valspar was one of five applicants that qualified for the TDC’s new fast-track provision because their applications have been consistent for the past five years.

The others were Clearwater Jazz Holiday, Outback Bowl/Beach Day, Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival and Hooter Clearwater Super Boats. Each qualified for Category 2 funding, making them eligible for a maximum of up to $75,000, which the subcommittee recommended.

Category 2 events must generate at least 20,000 “unique” attendees and at least 10,000 room nights.

The subcommittee endorsed one other Category 2 event for funding, which was St. Pete Pride, for up to $75,000.

Category 3 events can receive up to $25,000 in funding. They must generate at least 10,000 unique attendees and at least 5,000 room nights. The subcommittee recommended that six of seven applicants receive $25,000.

The Grand Prix of Gulfport did not receive a recommendation. According to minutes of the May 15 meeting, no one from the Grand Prix was available to answer questions and the application indicated the money would be spent on operational expenses, which is not allowed.

The events that did receive recommendations included Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival, DTSP Songwriter’s Festival, King of the Beach (fall), King of the Beach (spring), Masters Cup Sanding Ovations and St. Pete Beach Bike Fest.

Four Category 4 events received recommendations, including SHINE St. Pete Mural Festival, MLK Family Fun Day & Parade, Pier Fest and Localtopia. Category 4 events must generate at le must generate at least 20,000 unique attendees and are eligible for up to $25,000.

County commissioners are scheduled to review the recommendations in August and give final approval.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at