Despite uncertainty about the national economy, the director of Hernando County's Tourist Development Department is optimistic that the local tourism and travel business is looking up.
"We've been watching the hotels near the interstate as business travel slows down," said department director Sue Rupe, whose budget is largely financed by a tax on motel rooms and other short-term accommodations. "But we expect them to come back after this trend lets up."
The county's tourist development tax brought in $259,000 in 2001, $269,000 in 2002 and $284,000 last year.
When putting together her budget, Rupe says, she often pairs up with local businesses and attractions to help stretch marketing dollars.
"We've found that a lot of times, because we're small, advertising in big-budget publications is out of our reach," she said. "But we can afford to hit the trade shows, where we can get a booth for $500 or so."
At gatherings such as bridal shows and fishing tournaments, Rupe says, she can use one of her most valuable marketing methods: talking to people.
"Having that kind of exposure to people from different areas gives us a good idea of what things they're looking for and where Hernando County matches up with their interests," she said.
A bridal show at the Tampa Convention Center last year yielded about 800 leads, not only for her office, but also for local business partners. This month, Rupe plans to return to the convention center for another bridal show, as well as head to Alabama for a fishing and boating show.
When her office does pay for advertising in larger publications, such as Southern Living, Rupe still looks for bargains. One gem, she says, has been the department's relationship with Visit Florida, a marketing organization that offers advertising co-op opportunities to its members.
"As a small partner, we can take advantage of advertising in 10 to 12 larger publications for less than $3,000," she said. "You can't go wrong there."
On her own, Rupe plays up Hernando's nature-based tourism and the historic charm of Brooksville in smaller publications. The majority of Hernando County visitors are Florida residents, she said, followed by visitors from New York, Michigan and Illinois. They are drawn primarily by fishing, boating and golf.
Rupe said she continues to look for ways Hernando County can reach out to those interested in the area's bountiful natural beauty.
In December, more than 500 people stopped by the county's visitor center near Interstate 75, about the same number that, on average, call the tourism office each month.
"It's very hard to keep track of how many people are drawn by our advertisements because we're not selling an actual, physical product," Rupe said.
In an attempt to remedy that, Rupe plans to institute a "reverse inquiry" system during the coming year. Her office will contact those who have expressed an interest in Hernando to find out whether they visited and what they thought of the county's offerings.