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Pinellas tourism officials leverage “best” beach titles

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 24, 2013 at 11:47 PM
CLEARWATER -

Pinellas County didn't make the cut this year in an annual ranking of America's best beaches.

The distinction of the nation's finest stretch of sand goes to New York's East Hampton.

Tourism officials here, though, aren't worried about being left off the Top 10 list compiled by coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach.

In a social media world, they say, travelers don't look to a single authority to tell them where to find the best beach, even if he is a “doctor.”

What's drives tourism in places such as Pinellas County isn't having one “best,” but many.

Fort De Soto and Caladesi Island have both won Dr. Beach's No. 1 spot in the past for their unspoiled natural beauty, something visitors are reminded of frequently when they go to Pinellas County's tourism websites.

If unspoiled nature doesn't sell the destination, Clearwater Beach was named USA Today's Best Beach Town in Florida this year.

Others who trust Trip Advisor might notice the website named St. Pete Beach the best in America last year and listed four Pinellas County beaches in its Top 25 for 2013 more than any other destination.

“The days of Arthur Frommer being able to dictate what was the best are long gone,” said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

That's not to say an endorsement from Frommers travel guide or Dr. Beach doesn't matter. What does matters is how this multiplicity of accolades is used to capture travelers' attention.

“The accolade is only half of it; it's what you do with it,” Downing said.

Hours after Dr. Beach placed New York at the top of his list this year, Florida's tourism agency put out a press release pointing out that three of the state's beaches made it into this year's Top 10 and that seven have been named the best in the 23 years of the contest.

Pinellas County has two of the seven winners, more than any other destination in the state.

After Clearwater Beach won a national USA Today poll to determine the Florida's best beach town this year, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater made up bright logos trumpeting the new title, which can be found on websites, billboards and store windows.

When Caladesi Island was named Dr. Beach's no. 1 pick in 2008, park managers and tourism officials touted the accomplishment across the country and beyond.

Attendance at the park, accessible only by boat, shot up by 60 percent to more than 400,000 over the following year before gradually returning to normal levels, park manager Peter Krulder said.

Still, a group of German travel writers visited the park just last week.

After a beach is ranked No. 1 on the list, it is retired from the competition, so getting a bump from Dr. Beach is a one-off event.

Fort De Soto Park Manager Jim Wilson points out that the Dr. Beach rankings look at a detailed list of criteria ranging from water quality to maintenance of facilities before naming a beach the “best.”

Nevertheless, he says “best” can be subjective.

“If you were talking about spring breakers, they would be very disappointed with our beach,” Wilson said.

That's why a successful travel destination needs to develop a diverse array of positive Trip Advisor reviews and best-of rankings and then make sure these kudos get good play on the web.

The would-be visitor clicking through websites on her computer knows how to research a spot to make sure it's best suited to her individual tastes.

“Travelers are pretty finicky today. They know how to work the system,” said Dave Serino, a strategist for the tourism marketing agency Think! Social Media.

“The more times your name is on the list, the better. It just creates lasting credibility for the destination.”

Even if other beach towns get named the best in future years, that doesn't mean her beach will lose any clout with tourists, said Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce President Darlene Kole.

“There are people who will take that list and put it on their bucket list and go to all of them,” she said.


jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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