Santa Rosa tourism season heats up

Original story: http://www.pnj.com/story/news/local/santa-rosa/2015/07/04/santa-rosa-tourism/29710549/

The cheerful sign welcoming visitors to Navarre Beach may dub the spot as "Florida's Best Kept Secret," but it seems word is getting out.

And while bumper-to-bumper traffic, seagull-feeding tourists and limited beach chair real estate may not thrill the local crowd, it just shows the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Office is doing its job: spreading the word and bringing visitors to spend money from Navarre Beach all the way to the Blackwater River.

After booming tourism seasons and record-breaking bed tax revenues in recent years, the county's upward momentum seems to be continuing this summer, with businesses reporting soaring sales and travelers coming from across the country to see what the area has to offer.

As of April, bed taxes — which are generated from lodging facilities and dedicated to tourist development — were up 23 percent over last year, even factoring in a one percent bed tax increase implemented in June 2014. Without taking the increase into account, the revenue is up 54 percent from last April.

Since 2010, bed tax revenue has increased fairly steadily year over year, totaling about $79,000 in April 2010 and more than $166,000 this April, which is the most recent data available in 2015.

The uptick has been driven in part by millions of dollars in BP oil spill money since 2010, with the last $491,000 spent as of April on a new advertising campaign by the TDO. The campaign is tapping into new geographical and niche markets, also continuing promotion of Santa Rosa County as "Florida's Playground" from Navarre Beach to historic Milton.

"We had the additional BP funding to really promote our area for those few years, and I think that people came, they loved it here, and they turned into repeat visitors," said Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Director Julie Morgan.

The TDO is currently running television and print ads geared toward specific groups like home-schoolers, golfers, runners and cyclists, and Morgan said she can see it paying off already.

Within days of running an ad highlighting biking in Santa Rosa County, Morgan said staff at the county's visitor information center had cyclists asking for maps of area bike routes.

"Just that week, we had numerous people coming in here, so that showed how effective that particular campaign was to us," Morgan said.

Despite the push to promote the area, ironically, some tourists are drawn primarily by its relative seclusion, opting to steer clear of denser cities like Destin for a quieter experience.

Visiting Navarre Beach with his wife and three kids for the first time, Patrick Bentrott of Evergreen, Colo. said he enjoyed the sheer beauty of the beach, but also the manageable crowds compared to what he's seen in Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

"This is, to me, it's about as good as it gets," Bentrott said. "It's not really overcrowded at all, and yet has the beautiful beaches and some of the touristy stuff you can do…I think that's a big selling point right now, especially with kids, to come to a beach that's not absolutely overwhelmed with people."

Kevin Rudzki, co-owner of Juana's Pagodas and Sailors' Grill on Navarre Beach, said he has heard the same from visitors, many of whom are familiar with the Gulf Coast area but are just discovering Navarre Beach.

"That's probably the No. 1 thing I've heard this year, is they're just tired of dealing with crowds elsewhere," Rudzki said.

But in a diverse county like Santa Rosa, tourism is about more than just beaches.

Though Navarre Beach is the county's top tourist attraction, Morgan said in the north end, visitors come to enjoy the Blackwater River State Forest, historic downtown Milton and outdoor activities like biking, canoeing and ziplining — all of which her office is working to promote.

Through the Florida's Playground Trail, north and south Santa Rosa County are linked through 12 stops, from Navarre Beach Marine Park and fishing pier to the Blackwater River and historic Bagdad Village.

The TDO's recently-redesigned website highlights all areas of the county — not just its section of Gulf Islands National Seashore's white sandy beaches, also keeping tabs on where viewers are located geographically.

Based on site traffic, Morgan said the top five market areas are Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville, New York City and New Orleans, in that order.

"The tracking is always going to be helpful, because it lets us know if we're targeting the right market," Morgan said. "Google analytics and ad agency reports give information about who's visiting the site, expressing interest in our ads and where they are located geographically across the U.S."

Jack Sanborn, owner of Adventures Unlimited in Milton, said business is up about 20 percent from the same time last year, attributing it to great weather, improving economic conditions and the increased promotion.

"The zipline tour has been busier than last year, and it's looking real strong," Sanborn said. "People are coming from all over the United States to come ziplining."

With this being her first tourism season with the county, Morgan said she plans to continue promotion to niche markets into next year, also gearing up for the annual Beaches to Woodlands tour to keep visitors coming through the fall.

"Our goal is to continue to increase bed tax collections, to continue to offer an excellent product to our visitors that makes them want to come back," Morgan said.