A significant increase in the number of visitors and the coming addition of new hotels bode well for St. Johns County’s tourism industry, the president of the local visitor and convention bureau told members of the SJC Chamber of Commerce last week.
At an Aug. 17 luncheon held at the newly renovated Sawgrass Beach Club, St. Augustine Ponte Vedra VCB President and CEO Richard Goldman gave chamber members an update on the region’s tourism industry, highlighting the contributions tourism makes to the overall regional economy.
“We’re essentially an economic development engine,” Goldman said, “and we work wonderfully with the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce.”
In 2015, Goldman said, 6.3 million visitors traveled to St. Johns County – an increase of 1 million visitors over the previous year – generating a $1.7 billion financial impact on local businesses. While some of that increase was due to the numerous activities surrounding St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary celebration, Goldman noted that the First Coast’s tourism industry has also benefited in recent years from travelers’ concerns about global terrorism and safety in other parts of the world.
“If I feel I’m not safe going to Europe or South America,” Goldman said, “I’m going to look for an alternative.”
Marketing the region
The VCB’s efforts to draw visitors to St. Johns County are funded by a 4 percent bed tax charged on all accommodations of six months or less. In 2015, that tax generated $9.4 million. Those funds are then divided among destination marketing efforts, arts and cultural activities – such as the popular Nights of Lights and July 4 celebrations – and Leisure and Recreation.
Approximately 44 percent of the funds are allocated toward marketing the region, and Goldman highlighted some of the creative ways the VCB works to attract visitors. At the chamber luncheon, he showed two humorous digital videos, one of which depicted a conquistador visiting the modern-day First Coast, interacting with tourists and even engaging in a “sword fight” with golfers at World Golf Village.
“The idea is to take something that people know about us – our history – and find a way to make that relevant to them,” Goldman said. “We focus a lot of marketing dollars on bringing people here, and these days digital is a large part of what we do.
“In the digital age,” he continued, “you can target people very, very precisely.”
Those tactics have enabled the VCB to focus on attracting more upscale visitors to the First Coast, he said, and both the renovation of several area hotels as well as the coming addition of two new St. Augustine hotels – including the boutique Lotus Inn & Suites – will help those efforts by providing more parking, and more modern and architecturally complimentary lodging options for upscale visitors.
Yet while the VCB’s marketing efforts have succeeded in boosting the number of visitors – especially among overnight visitors from outside the local region – Goldman acknowledged that not all county residents are happy about efforts to draw more tourists to the First Coast.
“We’re blamed for the traffic, we’re blamed for the long lines at Publix – especially on Anastasia Island….” Goldman said. “One of the challenges we have in St. Johns County is that a lot of our residents are disengaged from the local economy, as they are successfully retired.”
While those residents may not appreciate the economic benefits of increased tourism – or the fact that 27 percent of county employment is in some way related to tourism – Goldman said all county residents benefit from the increased number of arts, cultural and recreational offerings the tourism industry has spawned.
“We call them ‘local tourists,’” Goldman said. “The lifestyle and the quality of experiences they have here are important to them.”
He also noted that, traffic and parking issues notwithstanding, the trend of people wanting to come to St. Johns County is nothing new.
“Arguably, the first tourist came to our shores 500 years ago,” Goldman said. “His name was Juan Ponce de Leon.”