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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014

Pinellas aims marketing guns at a younger, hipper clientele


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— There are plenty of reasons an increasing number of young vacationers come here over other hip destinations along Florida’s beaches.

Pristine shorelines, a music or art festival every weekend, a thriving craft beer scene and, of course, nothing says cool like shuffleboard.

These are a few of the images of Pinellas County that flash on screen in a short YouTube video at the center of the county tourism agency’s new marketing campaign.

Local tourism is booming, along with the rest of the state, but while Florida as a whole has seen a gradual upward trend in the age of the average visitor, Pinellas has seen a subtle shift in the opposite direction in the past decade, tourism officials say.

With more young singles and couples adding to the solid base of snowbirds and retirees, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is widening the scope of its advertising this summer to highlight the destination’s diverse appeal.

The setting for the launch of the new “Live Amplified” campaign, the Gulfport Casino, exemplifies the unique sales pitch — a mix of the old and historic with young and chic.

“Its culture is deep. Its history is deep. It’s visually interesting and a throwback to Old Florida but still has this hip edge to it at the same time,” said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Another example: St. Petersburg’s rejuvenated downtown shuffleboard club.

A group from Brooklyn stumbled on the odd gathering of older players and young folks sipping beer and listening to music on Friday nights and knew immediately they had to replicate it in the Big Apple. The New York Times wrote about it.

And it’s all real, authentic, homegrown, Downing says.

The guy in the marketing video shooting the shuffleboard puck isn’t an actor; he was hanging out with friends at the club, he says.

Not to get too hung up on the vintage sports scene. The point isn’t to refashion the area as a tropical paradise for hipsters — after all, starving artist types aren’t liable to spend big money during a beach vacation — but to reflect the ever-widening attraction of a destination that’s still unknown to many people who associate Florida with Mickey Mouse and South Beach.

In raw numbers, Pinellas County had a banner year for tourism in 2013, with 5.5 million visitors, a 2.7 percent increase over 2012, and so far, 2014 appears to be heading in the same direction.

The county collected more than $30 million in bed tax revenue, a record amount.

As tourism officials have reached out to a bigger and more varied audience in feeder markets like New York, as well as Florida residents and European travelers, younger singles and couples represent a growing share of the total.

Family visitation, on the other hand, has shown a decline as a proportion of overall tourism, said Walter Klages of Research Data Services, whose company tracks visitor data for the county.

“These numbers don’t suggest that family tourism is falling off in terms of numbers — it’s not. Rather, the whole pie is growing larger, and the pieces of it made up of visitation by singles and couples are growing larger within it,” he said.

The change in the average age of Pinellas visitors isn’t dramatic; it’s roughly dropped from just over 48 in 2004 to about 47 last year.

But the county appears to be bucking the state’s overall trend, which is gradually going up in age.

What’s important to tourism officials isn’t so much bringing in more young people as targeting a diverse range of ages, ethnicities and income levels.

The new ads use imagery specific to gay and lesbian travelers also, reflecting the inclusivity of an area that hosts Florida’s largest gay pride parade each year.

The message is that Pinellas is different from the typical Florida beach, Downing says, and then backing that up with reality when visitors arrive.

“The key is authenticity. When you put an image out there of a destination, you’d better make sure it’s accurate,” he said.

That’s the mind-set behind the Post Card Inn, a St. Pete Beach establishment that gets strong bookings from vacationers and even wedding parties by tapping into the spirit of Florida’s golden age of tourism.

Unlike the bland rows of name-brand hotels lining many Florida beaches, guests find rooms appointed with faded photographs of surfers and other beach scenes, couches and chairs handpicked from local thrift stores and other special touches.

“I think we attract a clientele that’s hip and that’s looking for something a little bit different,” said Brooke Palmer, public relations director for the hotel.

“That Old Florida style is fun and it’s not just kitschy, it’s in.”

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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