MANATEE -- Florida and Bradenton area tourism has always been focused on advertising the sandy shores, sunny skies and warm climes known by tourists around the world.
But diversification is essential in a competitive marketplace and tourism officials say finding other reasons to attract visitors is an important component in growing their numbers.
It's called niche marketing and includes attracting movie production, wine connoisseurs and art lovers. Officials with the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau are working to expand and develop unique tourist draws.
And they have come up with something new: medical tourism -- an effort to attract people here for medical procedures like knee replacements and then they can stay and enjoy the beauty of Manatee County while recuperating. Ballplayers rehabbing injuries and Canadians seeking quicker elective surgery also can be enticed to come where they have the added benefits of warm weather and beautiful beaches.
Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, was involved with a task force that included the Manatee Chamber of Commerce and local
stakeholders last year investigating the medical tourism potential.
"We know people are coming here for (medical procedures)," she said.
But developing that niche market has stalled until more support can be garnered from those who would directly benefit.
"We know Canadians don't want to wait for six months to schedule an elective surgery," Elliott Falcione, executive director for the convention & visitors bureau, said. "But starting a new program is challenging."
Many of those involved now seem to be happy with the status quo.
"You have to be careful going into niche markets with partners," Falcione said. "You want a good ROI (return on investment)."
The Pittsburgh Pirates embody the potential of medical tourism. The organizations' 200 minor league and 60 major league players come to Bradenton to recover after an injury.
"If players get hurt, we use Bradenton as our rehab center," said Trevor Gooby, senior director of Florida operations for the Pirates. "This is our hub location, it's easier to have a player come here because of our housing facilities, the doctors and trainers down here, and the weather, of course."
Necessary surgery is usually done in Pittsburgh and then players are sent to Bradenton for rehabilitation, either at private facilities like Coastal Orthopedics or IMG Academies.
Sometimes the major league players have a short stint in a Bradenton Marauders uniform before heading back north.
"It doesn't get any better than that," said Falcione.
Sports performance tourism has developed from a niche market into a segment market, Falcione said, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators a year for activities like rowing, soccer, ice skating and polo.
"The average stay for visitors is seven nights but we hope to add a day to that or have people come back again with niche markets like this," Falcione said.
Other niche markets currently being developed by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau include:
Film production: Manatee County has joined with Sarasota's film commission in an effort to attract more interest from Hollywood and New York in filming movies and commercials.
"Give us a shot," proclaims Bradenton's film commission's promotional materials that extol the area's historic mansions, beaches and riverfronts as scenic shooting spots.
"If you can attract the right movie, you can get people who want to check you out," Falcione said. An example of an area that had overwhelming success is the city of Clearwater, where the movie "Dolphin Tale" was filmed. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which has seen attendance quadruple with visitors from all over the world, is now planning to build a new $160 million facility.
Meihls said a package of incentives is being developed for filmmakers and producers, hopefully by year's end. She hopes to draw some of the business away from the state's biggest filming spots -- Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
"The West Coast (of Florida) is considered an "underprivileged area" for films," she said.
Arts and cultural events: Nestled next to downtown Bradenton, the unique Village of the Arts -- billed as Florida's largest art colony -- is a definite tourist draw for those with an artistic bent.
Linda Bronkema, president of the arts guild, said the village of artist studios and residences, attracts quite a few tourists from October to April.
"We service the locals all year round so when they have visitors, they bring them here," she said.
Many, including visitors from Germany, Holland and France, find the area which boasts 30 galleries and five restaurants through a search on the Web.
It's uniqueness makes it a powerful draw in a niche market, Meihls said.
Agritourism: From fishing to dairy farms to wineries, the Bradenton area has enough attractions to make agritourism a growing niche market, tourism officials say.
"We have people who come from all over the U.S. and Europe," said Antonio Fiorelli, owner of Rosa Fiorelli Winery in eastern Manatee County. He gives them a tour of the winery and tries to educate them on the type of grapes and wine produced in Florida.
"They are usually very surprised at the quality of wines produced here," he said. "It's not like the wine in California and Europe."
Most of the response is positive with a possible exception of the French who believe their wine is the best, Fiorelli said. "But we take all comments," he chuckled.
The Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau works with PR firms in London and Frankfurt, who publicize the area through the media and working with tour operators. The number of European visitors was up 15 percent in 2012.
And niche marketing may be helping to push visitor numbers too. In 2012, there was a 9.3 percent increase in tourists from the previous year with a total economic impact of $575 million, up 12.5 percent from 2011.
Length of stay, occupancy and room rates were all higher in 2012.
"There is just so much out there," Meihls said.
And, not surprisingly, visitors rank the No. 1 attribute of the Bradenton Area -- its beautiful beaches.