LAKEWOOD RANCH -- While best known for beach tourism, Sarasota and Manatee counties this year will hold more than 100 sporting events in 20 categories, estimated to bring in more than $50 million to the local economy, according to Visit Sarasota County.
VSC President Virginia Haley, and Nicole Rissler, director of sports, were the featured speakers Wednesday at the July membership luncheon of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance at the Polo Grill at Lakewood Ranch.
SportsEvents Magazine readers named Sarasota the Sports-Friendliest Vacation Destination, Rissler announced to about 50 business people and members at the luncheon.
Rissler said the economic impact last year from sports events increased 47 percent from the previous year, proof sports is now an important part of the tourism equation helping drive the region's economy.
In 2014 alone, Sarasota and Manatee staged a number of world-class sporting events in Lakewood Ranch, including the Sunshine State Games at The Premier Sports Campus and the Modern Pentathlon World Cup Final at the Sarasota Polo club.
The rest of the year promises more tourism dollars with the international Dragon Boat Festival coming to Nathan Benderson Park in October, featuring more
than 3,500 breast cancer survivors from around the world.
Rissler says regional sports tourism is based on two elements: a growing inventory of venues built recently in Sarasota and Bradenton that can compete with others around the world, and partnerships formed with groups such as the Sarasota Polo Club, the Baltimore Orioles, who hold spring training at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, and IMG Academy in Bradenton.
"We have fantastic facilities and we reach out to them to make sure that business is booked in our community. You can see from these partnerships why we are successful," Rissler said.
Jessie Torres, sales manager for the Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn & Suites in Lakewood Ranch, said the community is in a great location to benefit from sports tourism in both counties.
"Hoteliers are definitely feeling the impact. We are now starting to refocus the way we sell ourselves now because sports tourism is really growing in the area."
"We're all busy. Our restaurants are full. The shops are busy, especially the sandwich shops for sports events. Our international visitors all shop, so the malls are benefitting and the mom-and-pop stores," said Judy Athari, sales director for Buffalo Lodging, which oversees the Marriott Courtyard and Hampton Inn hotels in University Park. Athari assisted Visit Sarasota County in developing its sports tourism marketing program.
David Fink, chairman-elect of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance Board, said the Visit Sarasota Sports and Tourism program has great execution and results.
"It takes a lot of perseverance," Fink said. "Tourism impacts one in five jobs in our area. If this doesn't get you excited, it should."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.