Tourist council welcomes new CEO before year-end love fest

Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater Vice President Leroy Bridges snaps a photo of Tourist Development Chair Karen Seel and her parting gift presented by the new St. Pete/Clearwater president and CEO Steve Hayes, left.

CLEARWATER — Members of the Tourist Development Council provided a warm welcome to new Visit St. Pete/Clearwater president and CEO Steve Hayes at the Dec. 18 meeting.

“This is my third day in the office,” Hayes said. “I’m super excited.”

County Administrator Barry Burton began searching for a new leader for VSPC in February 2019 when former president and CEO David Downing announced his resignation in mid-January.

Hayes has more than 30 years of experience in the hospitality, travel and tourism industries. He has led Visit Pensacola since 2013 and developed the Destination 2020 tourism strategy for the Greater Pensacola Bay Area.

Before that, he spent 25 years working for Visit Tampa Bay in various management and leadership roles, including serving as executive vice president.

“Steve’s tourism leadership experience and vast knowledge of our region will make him a tremendous asset to our organization,” Burton said. “He has the talent and vision to take our tourist development efforts to the next level.”

Hayes will be responsible for overseeing daily operations of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, which is responsible for marketing the county’s tourism industry across the world.

TDC Chair Karen Seel, who also served as the chair of the county commission in 2019, thanked interim president and CEO Paul Sacco for his service during the nationwide search for a permanent replacement. She also thanked the entire VSPC staff for their work.

Dec. 18 was the last meeting of the year. Seel announced that County Commissioner Pat Gerard would be chairing the TDC next year as part of her responsibilities as chair of the county commission. Seel also thanked St. Petersburg Councilman Charlie Gerdes for his service. Gerdes is leaving the St. Petersburg Council due to term limits.

Seel and Gerdes thanked TDC attorney Michael Zas. Seel said Zas is an “excellent attorney” who had helped her immensely. She described him as “thoughtful, kind and smart.”

Gerdes had some parting thoughts to share. He said as a public servant he had spent a lot of time thinking about ways to grow prosperity to create quality of life. He praised how the TDC worked together to make a difference in the county.

“I’ve never seen such unselfishness,” he said, adding that the way the members treat each other should be a role model for all.

But Seel received the spotlight as outgoing chair with TDC member Russ Kimball, CEO of Sheraton Sand Key Resort, thanking her not only for her recent service on the TDC but all the years she has served.

“Things you do for this industry has benefited all of us,” he said.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who will be leaving the TDC in March, thanked Gerdes before turning his attention to Seel.

“You and I go way back,” he said. “You’ve been a champion for all of us. People don’t realize the work being done behind the scenes.”

In regular business, TDC members gave unanimous approval to a request to recommend that the county commission waive the rules to allow the Florida Holocaust Museum to receive capital improvement money.

Currently, security screening takes place after visitors enter the museum. In addition, visitors are able to bypass security. The museum sometimes has protests and demonstrations taking place in front of the museum. In addition, there are concerns due to increased threats and actions against institutions perceived as Jewish.

The museum needs to make security improvements that include a redesign of the front entrance. Estimated cost is $1.8 million. The museum expects to receive $500,000 from the state and is asking the county and the city of St. Petersburg to contribute $350,000 each. The rest of the money will come from private donations.

Tourism economic snapshot

The first month of the new fiscal year saw a 6.1% increase in rooms sold compared to October 2018. The daily average rate had an upswing of 2.1%, going from $127.56 to $130.19, and the revenue per available room increased by 7.7%.

Year-to-date, the number of rooms sold increased by 2.1%, average daily rate was up 2.9% and revenue per available room improved by 5.3%.

TDC members also received a report on “home share” accommodations, such as Airbnb as part of the tourism economic snapshot. The number of rooms sold in October was a 32% increase over the year before with the average daily rate climbing from $198.02 to $207.05, or 4.6%. The revenue per available room increased 7.6% from $98.63 to $106.15.

Year to date home share rooms sold increased 18.9%, the average daily rate went up by 7.5% and the revenue per available room climbed 11.9%.

More rooms sold equals more money coming in from collection of Tourist Development Tax, aka bed tax. The tax collector reported nearly $4.089 million in October 2019. From November 2018 through October 2019, bed taxes brought in just over $63.3 million — a new record.

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