BRADENTON -- Tourists are flocking to Bradenton -- but they aren't necessarily coming for the beach.
This October, an estimated 34,900 visitors came to the Bradenton-Anna Maria area -- a 7 percent increase from the 32,600 visitors that came in October 2011. And city officials point to a community focus on sports tourism as one of several reasons that direct expenditures and total economic impact for the past eight months have each increased by 12 percent.
Visitors spent roughly $325 million and created an economic impact of $513 million from January to October this year.
"The CVB has worked hard to diversify our marketing," Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Manager Elliott Falcione said. "We are going after the leisure crowd -- and the sports segment."
The county is bringing in visitors -- athletes, parents and spectators -- through the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, Pirate City, Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, Nathan Benderson Park and the IMG Academy, Falcione said.
And it shows in the numbers -- visitation is up 9.2 percent from this time last year too. Falcione says that's good news, but that growth was not necessarily unexpected.
"The state of Florida is flourishing right now -- people are excited to come to our state," Falcione said. "We're only successful with strong partnering in our industry."
Joe Pickett, executive director of the Bradenton Area Sports Commission, has strived to attract more major sports events in the Bradenton-area for the past decade. He's seen a difference too.
"We are experiencing our largest ever sports boom during the month of October and November basically in our history," Pickett said Monday.
New, larger events that have taken years to negotiate are finally being hosted in this county and expansion of facilities has only increased what the area can offer, Pickett said.
Like the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships, which has been hosted by IMG Academy for years. Or the Nike International Friendlies soccer tournament at the Premier Sports Campus, which in its second year brought thousands to area hotels. This weekend, participants of the Tough Mudder race stayed as far as Tampa because local hotels were so booked.
Pickett said he and his staff try to pay attention to dips in the season and bring in events during those time periods. They collaborate with other counties to share costs and resources. That combined with good weather and area attractions often is enough to negotiate contracts with national event organizers, and guarantee growth to the area.
Some of these negotiations have been in the works for years.
"It doesn't happen overnight," Pickett said, who said the area still has to compete with bigger markets for events.
Falcione says sports tourism isn't the only factor in visitor growth.
He believes businesses are doing better than ever to market to a Canadian and European market that already visits Florida during the off-season and to a demographic with higher earnings that isn't as directly affected by American recessions.
Canadian and European visitors are visiting the Bradenton-Anna Maria Island area in stronger numbers -- visitation from these groups increased by 12 and 9.5 percent respectively from this time last year.
Falcione attributes that to increased efforts to encourage local hotels, condos and rental facility owners to engage with European tour operators, which European travelers primarily utilize on vacations to the states.
"We encourage that," Falcione said. "We educate them on how to work with tour operators. We don't want them to have that off-peak season."
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.