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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014

Pinellas event planners pressed harder to prove tourism value


Published:   |   Updated: July 2, 2014 at 06:58 AM

— Tourism officials are pushing organizers of large-scale events for more proof of their economic impact before granting approval for a share of $1.2 million in marketing dollars next year.

Tourist Development Council members gave initial approval for eight so-called elite events that generate a large volume of visitors and media exposure for the area, but they rejected three applicants.

Although no doubts were raised about the volume of visitors at the Firestone Grand Prix IndyCar race in downtown St. Petersburg and the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, other applicants faced increased scrutiny from the council of local officials and business leaders on Friday.

The county has been pressing for detailed documentation from event organizers whose annual requests range from $50,000 to $250,000 to help with marketing.

The pot for elite events has doubled since the 2011-12 budget year, from $600,000 to about $1.2 million in the upcoming budget cycle — taking up more than 11 percent of the marketing budget for the county’s tourism agency. The funds are collected from a 5 percent tax on overnight hotel stays.

This year, applicants had to provide documented evidence that their events draw the minimum of 15,000 attendees or 5,000 room nights, but council chairwoman Karen Seel would like to see rules become stricter in coming years with a third-party analysis that includes visitor origins.

“We need to prove we’re putting heads in beds and that we’re getting that national exposure,” said Seel, who serves on the county commission.

A majority of tourism council members attended Friday’s meeting to review applications and hear pitches from event organizers seeking funds in the 2014-15 budget year, which starts in October.

The full council will vote on funding recommendations at next month’s meeting, followed by final approval by the county commission.

The largest single funding request of $250,000 came from the Grand Prix, which reported 148,985 attendees and 30,809 hotel room nights during the three-day street race in March.

Some smaller funding requests received harder scrutiny, especially the East-West Shrine Game college football all-star game at Tropicana Field, which requested $75,000.

Council members balked over the game’s relatively small TV viewership and asked for records to verify this year’s attendance of 19,510 was the actual number of people at the stadium versus the volume of tickets in circulation. They agreed to provide $50,000, contingent on verifying the attendance.

A women’s half-marathon and science festival in St. Petersburg and the Suncoast Kingfish Classic fishing tournament in Treasure Island were rejected for falling below the minimum requirements.

The growing Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival was the only applicant to get first-time approval this year for a request of $100,000. jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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