MANATEE -- If Manatee's roads seemed a bit more crowded in September than normal, that's because they were.
The latest bed tax receipts collected from tourists staying at hotels and resorts show that more people stayed in Manatee County in September than they have in the past four years.
September, normally the slowest month of the year, saw a 15-percent increase in bed tax revenue, one of the key indicators for tourism in the county, according to data from the Manatee County Tax Collector. Manatee area hotels brought in $449,478 in September, compared with $382,299 during the same month in 2012. That's up 44 percent from September 2009, according to tax records.
Those funds help pay for county parks, beach maintenance and tourism marketing. One of the beach communities, typically Holmes Beach, usually brings in the most tourism tax dollars out of any jurisdiction in the county. But this month unincorporated Manatee brought in the biggest collection with $158,839 in tourism taxes.
While it certainly helped that no named tropical storms hit Manatee in September, the way the tourism industry has shifted in Florida has also given September a considerable boost. Visit Florida's chief executive officer Will Seccombe told a crowd at the Service Design and Tourism Conference Friday that the state's tourism office has focused on telling the story of Florida to bring visitors here, representing a fundamental
shift in the agency over the past two years.
"I believe we're probably producing more travel content than any travel magazine in the country right now. One hundred percent of our content is focused on inspiring people through great storytelling to choose Florida over other destination ," Seccombe told the conference crowd at Ringling College of Art and Design.
Service design is a relatively new concept to U.S. companies. Its focus is to create great customer service and experiences by guiding customers through a service, whether that's how they buy tickets, how they line up at a theme park or how to get their driver's license.
For Visit Florida, that design was to help create and visualize an experience for people thinking about taking a vacation, and the agency decided storytelling was the way to go.
Visit Florida hired editors from the Tampa Bay Times and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel to head up a new team of 75 professional journalists to create content for newspapers, websites and television. Out-of-state newspapers including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Philadelphia Inquirer and websites like Huffington Post are using the free content and selling ads around the content, benefiting both industries, Seccombe explained.
Some of that work is happening here in Manatee County. Visit Florida produces chef Emeril Lagasse's "Emeril's Florida" on the Cooking Channel and Food Network where the TV personality highlights the Sunshine State's best dining spots. He recently visited Sean Murphy's Beach Bistro on Holmes Beach to film an episode, showing off Manatee's beach dining to the entire country.
Another campaign Visit Florida is using to draw people here is through Share A Little Sunshine, where Florida residents are encouraged to invite friends and family to visit them in Florida and post pictures of Florida using the hashtag #LoveFL on Twitter and Instagram, Seccombe said.
One of the more interactive digital projects Visit Florida embarked on will launch next year. Google is adding its StreetView option to every foot of Florida's public beaches. Four trekkers, as Google calls them, have walked every Florida public beach, including Coquina and Holmes Beach, with a special camera to capture the view. The beach walking will wrap up in Miami this week.
"We also found all the nude beaches in the state of Florida, so those will be blurred out as well as the faces, but it should be live on Google and VisitFlorida.com in the spring of 2014," Seccombe said.
In Florida, 23 percent of all sales taxes are paid by people not living in Florida, Seccombe said, and every 85,000 visitors support one job in Florida.
Probably Florida's best-known employer, Walt Disney Co., is leading the way in using service design in its new Chinese resort, Shanghai Disney Resort.
Luc Mayrand, executive creative director with Walt Disney Imagineering, shared with the audience the challenges and research Disney's experts had in creating a Chinese-first theme park set to open at the end of 2015.
The Disney researchers found that Shanghai guests didn't want traditional Chinese tales told at the park -- they wanted Disney stories, he said. They preferred French chateau-type castles instead of fortresses, and the park had to be designed for a family that includes parents, grandparents and one child.
"I'm trying to make them happy so they feel like they own this place," Mayrand said.
This was the first time the Service Design and Tourism conference was held in the United States. The conference was held at Ringling as the college is looking to create a curriculum in service design, said Ringling College president Larry Thompson.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.