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Business 2005

Tourism hopes rest on nature, charm

A lack of lasting damage from hurricanes and concentrating more funds on promotion are some of the tourist department's talking points.

Published February 13, 2005

As urban sprawl continues across west-central Florida, Hernando County's Tourist Development Department plans to focus more this year on marketing the area as an oasis of natural beauty for those looking to spend some quality time away from the bustle of city life.

"We're constantly looking for ways to encourage people to see us as a hub that is closely tied to their activities in Tampa Bay, whether they are seeking a retreat or just wanting to be close enough to be within a short reach to where they need to be down there," said department director Sue Rupe.

According to Rupe, the new initiative includes marketing to small corporations, outdoor sporting groups, churches and other entities that are seeking accommodations and support services for group gatherings. The county's tourism department would provide help in providing a liaison between visitors and the providers of needed services.

"We feel that Hernando County is very unique in what it has to offer," Rupe said. "You have the feel of a small town surrounded by wonderful places for biking, fishing, golfing, canoeing and kayaking, but still within an easy reach of the metropolitan areas. For people who live in the city, it's just a short drive if you want to get away from it all."

Granted, Rupe says, such marketing efforts have always been a major focus of her department, which received $320,000 last year from the county's bed tax. However, she claims the new initiative, which is in partnership with similar efforts in Pasco and Citrus counties, is aimed at scouring the state for potential clients that are not in need of huge numbers of hotel rooms and support services.

"With just 600 available rooms, we're not going to fit the bill for large corporations or groups," Rupe said. "What we're talking about are retreats, club gatherings, reunions that may not number above 150 or so people."

Rupe said that she is targeting such organizations as the Retired Teachers Association, the Florida Builders Association and the Audubon Society, and is also pursuing avenues such as the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and recreation publications in an attempt to attract the attention of other such organizations.

In addition to developing a new marketing initiative for the county, Rupe says she is working on revitalizing her department, which has come under questioning for the way it allocates its money. A story in the Times last year reported that between 1999 and 2003 Rupe's department allocated just 37 percent of its operating revenue for tourism promotion, as opposed to neighboring Pasco and Citrus counties, which devoted 65 percent and 80 percent of their respective budgets to tourism promotion.

Rupe, who became the county's first tourism director in 1996, defended her department, saying that for a small agency that doesn't rely on outside companies for marketing and promotion, she was "doing the best possible job I can." Still, she concedes there is room for improvement.

"There are some things I'd like to see done that are limited by time and personnel constraints," Rupe said. "We're making some headway, but it's not always easy."

One example she points to is the initiation of a "reverse inquiry" of visitors to find out what drew them to the area, what things they visited after arrival and whether the area lived up to their expectations. However, data collected in the surveys last year is still awaiting input into the department's computer system. Rupe said she is hoping to have a couple of interns from Pasco-Hernando Community College on board soon to help complete the project.

Rupe believes that the coming year will be positive for Hernando tourism. Despite being hit by two hurricanes, the county received little lasting damage.

"We were lucky in that we were spared the devastation that other coastal communities in the state got," Rupe said. "It might end up being a plus for the Nature Coast this year."

[Last modified February 8, 2005, 16:44:07]

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