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Wanted: Tourists by the busload

Tourism officials recast their focus from the single visitor to group tours and hope the tour buses roll in.

By JIM ROSS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

Mary Craven wants to see buses. Lots of buses.

She wants to see them rumbling into Citrus County from who knows where. She wants them to stop in front of a hotel, open their doors and release dozens of people who are eager to see a manatee and willing to spend a buck.

This is the newest wrinkle in tourism development. Before, Citrus targeted visitors one by one. Now the county wants to bring them in by the busload.

Group travel is nothing new. Companies (including Citrus County's own Tally-Ho Tours and Cruises) bring groups to all sorts of places that offer getaway packages. St. Augustine and Biloxi, Miss., are among the favorite destinations.

Why couldn't Citrus County win a spot on travel directors' itineraries?

Craven thinks it can. Armed with support and money from the Tourist Development Council -- and cooperation from the local tourism industry -- she's eager to make it happen.

Her first stop will come next month, in Kissimmee, where the American Bus Association is holding a convention. She will attend and try to convince tour operators to come here and see what Citrus has to offer their clients. More similar shows are coming later in the year.

If operators like what they see, Craven is prepared to offer some proposed two- three- and four-day packages they can sell. Local hotels, restaurant owners and attraction managers have expressed interest in working together to offer such packaging.

"I think this is going to build our midweek business. It's going to help us in the summer," said Craven, the county's tourism development manager.

Citrus charges a 2 percent tax on overnight lodging places, such as hotels and motels. The council, which the County Commission appoints, spends that money on tourism development.

The council isn't dropping its current approach to attracting visitors -- buying print ads in magazines and newspapers and bringing in travel writers who can generate positive stories about the area nationwide.

Nor is it moving away from the celebration of the manatee, which, of course, inspires many visitors to plan a Citrus County vacation.

But at its meeting earlier this month, the council did approve wording changes in the Tourism Development Plan that support this shift.

For example, a reference at the beginning of the plan to convention travel has been replaced by a reference to group travel. Later, the plan was amended to say advertising is designed to attract potential leisure travels "and group tour operators."

The council also set aside almost $20,000 in the current budget to jump-start a group tour campaign. Craven plans to spend the money advertising in group tour magazines, obtaining membership in associations and attending showcase events where she can network with tour operators.

The budget required Craven to collect $15,600 from industry members. So far, she has received $12,500.

So if anyone asks whether the industry agrees with this approach, "I think it's a resounding yes," Craven said.

"It's an approach that I've wanted to facilitate since early on, when I first started working in tourism in 1994," Craven said.

Back then, the move seemed premature. Craven said partnerships and package opportunities weren't as easy to develop.

But things have changed. Craven has sensed more willingness for industry members to work together and create the kinds of packages necessary to make this work.

The council gave Craven tentative approval to develop the group tour idea but asked her to gauge the industry's feelings. After sending out a mass mailing to all tourism-related businesses, Craven heard positive responses from major players such as the Homosassa Riverside Resort, Best Western in Crystal River and the Plantation Inn.

"Everybody I've talked to has signed on," Craven said. "Everyone has been very positive about the program."

At the same time, Craven and council members recognize the group tour program will help only the bigger members of the tourism industry. A bed-and-breakfast inn can't accommodate a bus carrying 60 visitors.

For that reason, Craven said, the funds for developing the program will always come from the industry members who stand to gain as well as from the general tax funds, which lodging places big and small must charge and remit.

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