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A stay in Pinellas could cost a bit more

Tourism officials want the bed tax increased by 1 percentage point. Why? To fund advertising.

By STEVE HUETTEL and NICOLE JOHNSON
Published June 10, 2005


The county's tourist development board is asking Pinellas County commissioners to add 1 percentage point to the bed tax on visitor accommodations, raising it to the maximum 5 percent allowed by state law.

Under the proposal, revenues from the tax increase, about $4.75-million a year, would go primarily to buy advertising promoting the county as a vacation destination for domestic and European tourists.

Like the rest of the nation, Pinellas is enjoying a travel boom driven by the weak dollar, a good economy and cheap airfares. Now is the time to expand the county's efforts to reach more visitors, said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Demand for the destination is at an all-time high, and travelers coming (to Pinellas) are more affluent," she said. "It makes sense to take advantage of those opportunities."

The 4 percent tax covers stays of six months or less in accommodations such as hotels, motels, condominiums and campgrounds.

The levy raised $17.9-million last year. Most went to marketing and advertising the county through the convention and visitors bureau.

Smaller amounts helped pay for beach renourishment and debt service on Tropicana Field and spring training stadiums in Clearwater and Dunedin.

County commissioners last increased the tax in 1996. The Tourism Development Council, a panel of elected officials and hospitality industry executives, didn't recommend raising it last year. Part of the reason was competition. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have the same combined bed and sales tax rate of 11 percent.

"There was some discomfort among some members," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, the tourism council's chairwoman last year. "But I've never checked to see what the bed tax was when I've booked a room."

Those concerns disappeared this year as an influx of visitors drove up room prices and occupancy rates. On Wednesday, council members endorsed the tax increase and an outline for spending the proceeds.

Under the plan, 90 percent of the money goes into advertising. The biggest increase would be in television. The bureau wants to spend $900,000 on a cable television package that lets advertisers target audiences down to individual ZIP codes, Ketterhagen said.

That means the bureau could tailor ads to viewers of different incomes or ethnicity within the same market, she said. This year, the agency spent about $200,000 on television ads on The Weather Channel.

The revenue would pay for a substantial increase in online advertising, including the bureau's first pitches to European customers and targeted audiences such as African-Americans, Hispanics and people interested in culture and alternative lifestyles.

"We need to do this to stay competitive from a marketing perspective," said Tim Bogott, the council's budget chairman and chief executive of the TradeWinds Resorts in St. Pete Beach.

Gunnar Hedqwist, who runs two small Clearwater Beach hotels, said he supports the tax increase if it's used to promote beach destinations, where most of the money is generated.

"If it really goes back to where it came from, it would be good," said Hedqwist, who operates the 30-room Sunrise Resort Motel North and 22-room Sunrise Resort Motel South. "But if it goes to the inland part of the county, I'm definitely against it."

There could be competition for the money for other tourism-related groups. The Pinellas County Arts Council last week discussed pursuing more funds, said Latvala, who sits on its board.

"I told them to go to the Tourism Development Council and work it out," she said. "It would be nicer if they reached an agreement."

The commission will likely hold a public hearing at its June 28 meeting and vote on the issue in late July, Bogott said.

--Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.

[Last modified June 10, 2005, 01:10:11]


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