SRQ miffed Tampa International included in Visit Sarasota, Wallenda promotion

cschelle@bradenton.comJanuary 28, 2014 

SARASOTA -- Government partnerships can involve some high-wire walking.

The daredevil act is getting a little hairy here as Visit Sarasota and Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport disagree on whether Tampa's airport should be with them for a Nik Wallenda promotion in London.

Visit Sarasota is partnering with Tampa International Airport to organize a March reception for tour operators featuring Nik Wallenda in London to get Europeans to come to Sarasota. But Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, president and chief executive officer of SRQ Airport, is protesting the partnership, saying Sarasota should not be taking money from TIA when it also promotes SRQ.

"This is an exclusive Sarasota County event. It is not a regional event," Piccolo said at Monday's Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority meeting. "We fully understand that Tampa International provides a lot of lift to this community as well. It's a wonderful airport, but we objected to their participation in the event because this is a Sarasota event only."

Piccolo doesn't believe there was any malice involved, but he is still disappointed.

Visit Sarasota President Virginia Hayley said SRQ was one of the early sponsors of the event and disagrees with Piccolo's concern that Visit Sarasota is taking money to promote Tampa.

British Airways is providing some airfare for the promotion, Hayley explained, and during unrelated meetings with Tampa International, staff there heard about the promotion and offered to help with a $10,000 to $15,000 contribution as a sponsor.

It's the first time the Tampa airport and Visit Sarasota have directly worked with one another on a promotion, she said.

"For us not to take advantage of advertising the different ways to get people here would be negligent on our part," Hayley said. More than half the visitors who fly to come to Sarasota arrive in Tampa, she added.

Europeans can also take Delta, U.S. Airways or United flights with a stop in Atlanta, Charlotte or Chicago to get to Sarasota-Bradenton, Piccolo said.

When working an international event, it's important for smaller cities to stand out and show the ease of connecting to other destinations, and that's why using British Airways from London to Tampa is vital, Hayley said.

The money helps defray costs of the reception, and earns sponsors a mention at the London event and a logo on an easel at the door, Hayley said. Area hotels and car rental companies are also sponsors for the event, she said.

One of the issues with the relationship comes from the visitor bureau's planning document, Piccolo said. Visit Sarasota's strategic plan includes an objective to work with Bradenton Area Convention Center and Visitors Bureau to promote flights to SRQ, Tampa, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International and Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.

"We don't believe it's correct to have competing airports in their strategic plans," Piccolo said.

Hayley, who is leaving for Chicago today to promote United's flights to Sarasota, disagreed.

"Ironically, our draft strategic plan just had SRQ, but didn't say not to use the other airports. The board looked at it and said aren't we being short-sighted," she said.

Sarasota-only promotions should only allow Sarasota or Bradenton area entities to be promoted in events, Piccolo insisted.

CVBs have a duty to show people how they can get to Sarasota-Bradenton, Piccolo said, and understand that they should list options for travel -- but marketing and advertising a rival airport is a bit much.

Airport Authority board member Henry Rodriguez agreed.

"That should be their charter -- is to promote locally," he said.

CVBs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties do not promote SRQ, Piccolo said, and the Tampa airport does not pay dues to Visit Sarasota.

"Why should we promote them when they don't promote us?" Airport Authority board member Carlos Beruff said. "It doesn't make any sense."

Visit Sarasota offered SRQ an opportunity to partner on a different promotion, but it's too late to drop Tampa out of the Wallenda deal, Piccolo said.

Wallenda, a Manatee County resident and Sarasota native, serves as an important tourism tool to promote the Sarasota area. His hometown is often repeated in the same breath as his name, and his feats at Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon created important exposure for the area. The Grand Canyon walk produced 83 million media impressions for Sarasota, according to Visit Sarasota.

Wallenda's involvement at the event is to draw people to Sarasota and to say a few words, Hayley said -- there will be no wire walking over the Thames.

Visit Sarasota is a contractor for Sarasota County government tourism functions and has its own board of directors, whereas Bradenton Area Convention Center and Visitors Bureau is a Manatee County government department.

Hayley said she would invite Piccolo and an Airport Authority board member to Visit Sarasota's board meeting next week to resolve the issue.

SRQ is working to expand its international flight capacities beyond offering flights to Toronto. The airport received design approval Friday for its expanded customs area, Piccolo said. The $1.2 million project would process 300 passengers per hour, and is expected to be put out for bid in the coming week. The larger facility would help the airport attract commercial and charter flights to Europe.

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck

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