COMMUNITY: The Selling of Southwest Florida.

Each year, visitors from all over the world descend upon Lee County in search of precious treasure that goes by the name “the dream vacation.” Here’s how the masterminds at The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel find them — and why it’s so important these visitors don’t leave disappointed.

It’s another beautiful day in early November in Southwest Florida. The sky is clear blue, the temperature is in the 80s and on the beach, the sweet sights and sounds of the gentle Gulf of Mexico waves give this afternoon an almost hypnotic rhythm. All is well in this world.

Meanwhile, in downtown Fort Myers, an enthusiastic and expert team of 32 hospitality marketing professionals at the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau — working under the brand “The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel” — are at it again, doing everything they can to efficiently and effectively deliver today (and every day of the year) an average of more than 12.82 media impressions of our destination to the audiences most apt to act on them. And ultimately choose to vacation here.

The marketing of visitor destinations in the greatest tourism state in America is a bit different than in most other states. Here, each of Florida’s 67 counties identifies a tourism marketing budget — and many (including Lee County) are larger than a lot of state budgets. Yes, destination marketing is big business — and very often, a pressure cooker job for those at the top.

Tamara Pigott is that person at the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. A member of the organization for more than 15 years, Pigott has served as Executive Director since 2010 — and in that time has presided over a record-setting span of tourism-based prosperity.

“The last few years have been phenomenal for travel in general,” she notes. “In our case, we’ve had six straight years of revenue growth — some years at double digit numbers unheard of really — and helping deliver those results to our community has been very exciting.”

So what about those numbers? What makes them so important?

In a word: jobs. Here in Lee County, visitors this year will inject $3 billion into our local economy — directly — in the process helping to create more than 40,000 positions (plus another 16,000 related). That’s one of every five jobs.

“When you measure the economic impact, the value of the work of the VCB (Visitors & Convention Bureau) is profound,” asserts Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson. “With professionalism and quality, they’re reaching out to the world to invite folks to visit one of the best places on the planet. Clearly, it’s working.”

Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) like Lee County’s are generally 100% funded by bed tax — a tax that resorts, hotels, vacation rental firms and the like will attach to a room sale. That means that of the $39 million in bed tax Tamara Pigott estimates to be generated in 2016, not one dollar will come from any other tax that residents might pay. In effect, it’s “free money” for Lee County to invest — which it does so wisely, by funding the Visitor & Convention Bureau ($19 million), beach and shoreline programs, and debt reduction on tourist-attracting stadiums.

Fortunately for those of us who live and work here, in the hands of Pigott and her marketing team (including highly respected travel advertising agency MMGY), that $19 million is money very well spent — generating roughly four billion earned media impressions of Lee County (via public relations efforts), almost 683 million advertising media impressions, 1.8 million visits to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel website last year, more than 17 million inquiries fulfilled, plus a social media audience that’s mushroomed to 600,000-plus followers. The bottom line? Close to five million visitors in 2015, with this year looking just as impressive.

It happens in no small part due to the multi-media branding that Pigott, Director of Marketing Brian Ososky and the rest of the VCB lead and manage — be it traditional advertising, innovative digital and video programs, social media campaigns, outside-the-box promotions and even educational or informational programs for Lee County hospitality partners.

But as effective as the selling of Southwest Florida has been, Pigott is quick to point the credit elsewhere. “We have such a beautiful place,” she says, “it’s not too hard to sell nirvana. That certainly makes the marketing easier. But we also work with great hospitality partners — our resorts, hotels, attractions, restaurants and many others — who do such a great job of customer service. We could do the most innovative marketing in the world, but if visitors come here and they don’t have a wonderful experience, they won’t be back.” To that point, studies show that 70% of first time visitors plan to return, and 50% to do so within one year.

Yet others would say: give credit where credit is due. “Tam Pigott is relentless and tireless,” says Colleen DePasquale, Executive Director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. “Her job is not Monday to Friday, nine to five. She’s traveling constantly, always thinking, finding new ideas and bringing them to us. She’s amazing, and we’re lucky to have her.”

Tony Lapi agrees. Chief Executive Officer of Sanibel Captiva Beach Resorts, and board member of the Lee County Tourist Development Council for five years, he finds Pigott is “very good with analytics and at making sense of data, of identifying what works best so we can get the most bang for our marketing dollars. Tam and her team put out a great deal of valuable work, and we really get our money’s worth with them.”

If there’s pressure to leading a $19 million a year organization that generates $3 billion of local revenue, while serving upwards of 1,200 constituents each with his or her own priorities, another amazing thing about Pigott is that she doesn’t show it. “It can be a tough job,” she admits. “After all, you’re servant to many masters. You have to have a thick skin some days, you have to be diplomatic others. But I love what I do, I love the people I do it with — I’m so proud of the team we’ve built — and I love where I live. It’s such a beautiful place, and what’s so special is that we treasure our many gifts of nature here. Our commitment to the environment and wildlife makes us the best place in Florida to visit, at least to me.”

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