MANATEE -- If the Hernando DeSoto Historical Society had to sum up what they do and why they do it, member Derek Williams said it would probably be: “We’re about community.”
With more than 10 events in April, starting with the DeSoto Seafood Fest and ending with the DeSoto Grand Parade and After Parade Party, lots of people might be under the impressions they are all about the party.
But the group’s leaders say there is far more to the annual DeSoto Festival than the festivities.
This is their chance to showcase Bradenton and Manatee County to business leaders from across the nation; to raise money for their foundation, which gives money to charitable causes every year; and it’s an opportunity to get children and teenagers involved in community activities and volunteerism.
To get the word out about who they are and what they do, the Historical Society is partnering with the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to launch a survey and prepare a marketing plan. In addition, they eventually hope to have an economic impact study that will show the financial impact of their festivals and other efforts on Manatee County.
Jim Curran, associate professor of marketing at USF, is working with the Hernando DeSoto Society to create a brand awareness and marketing project for students starting this fall. Students will conduct focus groups and then develop a survey to find out what most people know about the Hernando DeSoto Historical Society, its foundation and its mission.
Finding out what they are known for and whether people are aware of the impact they have beyond the festivals would take place over the span of a semester.
After that, students in the spring semester may use the information to develop a marketing plan for the society.
“This is not a theoretical exercise,” Curran said. “The organization will use the information to promote what they are about. It gives the students a flavor of what the business world is like.”
Curran said students take on projects like this for non-profits throughout the area and even prepare marketing plans for small businesses and start-ups “that don’t have the where-with-all to pay for a marketing company and research like this.”
All of the projects are monitored by Curran, who has a doctorate in marketing, and the organizations have ample opportunity to ask questions and help set the direction.
“We exchange expertise and training for the opportunity to sharpen their (students) skills,” Curran said. “I believe strongly in this.”
Derek Williams, secretary for the Hernando DeSoto Society and a member of the Community Leadership Council for USF, heard Curran talking about the student projects and immediately thought about getting the students to analyze what the historical society does.
Earlier this month, the Conquistadors -- volunteer members who dress in historical costume -- invaded the USF campus and the idea took life.
“I plan to sit down with them in May to work out the details and see what we can do with them,” Curran said. “I don’t know a whole lot about them myself. I am looking forward to learning more about what they do.”
Measuring the benefit
Even the society has not developed solid estimates of the financial benefits it brings to the county in terms of promotions and charity and how they might affect the business community.
Their members travel across the country to network with other organizations and with businesses. The mission is to promote Manatee County on a number of fronts: tourism, economic development and to exchange ideas.
Their festivities attract people from across the region, promoting local businesses and giving Manatee County’s attractions and real estate more visibility, which is one reason that they have events in various locations.
They can showcase downtown Bradenton through the Seafood Fest, the Children’s Parade in Palmetto and the Bottle Boat Regatta at Palma Sola Bay.
“Last year we filled seven hotels for the parade,” said Gus Sokos, president of the Hernando DeSoto Historical Society.
Putting on just one event contributes to the local economy in terms of paying for security, entertainment and rentals.
The expenses for this year’s Seafood Festival totaled about $250,000, which all went to local businesses and to the city of Bradenton for permits, clean-up and extra police time.
Society members donate their time to organizing and running the events. It takes 20 committees and 225 society members to pull off the month’s events, which draw hundreds of thousands of people to the county.
The result of all that work is that every year the society donates 5 percent of their foundation’s endowment fund and up to half of what they raise at the festivals to local charities. The other half of their proceeds are used to build the endowment for the long term.
“We want to be prudent to make this a long-term fund for our community,” said the society’s chairman, Gary Kortzendorf. “We are now in a strong position.”
The group can typically donate about $50,000 a year. In addition, the society offers scholarships to the DeSoto Queen and the members of the court.
For Manatee Children’s Services, which receives donations from the Her- nando DeSoto Historical Society, such help is essential.
“We absolutely would not be able to provide the standard and quality of care that we give to these kids without these kinds of donations,” said Gigi Kelly, chief operating officer for Manatee Children’s Services, which provides services for abused and neglected children.
“If we didn’t have those clubs, individuals and foundations who donate to us, we wouldn’t have Christmas for our kids, no new beds or linens, no computers for online virtual school classes, even our clothing stock and some other essential items are donated.”
Last year the society donated Christmas gifts to the children in the agency’s shelter.
In the past two years, the agency has seen an increase in homeless teenagers and young adults who come to the agency for food, just to make it through the week.
Something they didn’t have to deal with before home foreclosures and unemployment levels skyrocketed.
It is making those kind of contributions that keep most of the society’s members working and planning throughout the year and they take pride in what they do.
“We’ve been doing this for 72 years,” Williams said. “We’re about community. We’re here to raise the profile of Bradenton and Manatee County throughout the nation and, of course, we have fun doing this.”