BRADENTON -- When Bruce Langston of Lakewood Ranch heard that Manatee County Schools couldn't afford to send many students to see Leonard da Vinci's machines in their hometown, he decided to do something about it.
Langston, who worked with Boeing in Seattle, stepped up and donated more than $20,000 to bring kids to the exhibition, earning him the philanthropist of the year award -- a first-time award by the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"I couldn't believe something like that was coming to a small community like Bradenton," the Tennessee native said. "I came here with a sort of 'OK, what do you got?' I looked around and simply couldn't believe it."
During his visit, he also couldn't believe the paucity of students.
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"I saw one group of students and it turned out to be a home-school group," he said. "I asked about whether or not the Bradenton/Manatee kids were coming, and learned there wasn't enough funding in the budget."
The exhibit at the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium runs through July and features replicas of da Vinci's inventions. Those inventions should inspire a generation of problem solvers, Langston said.
The award was part of the CVB's celebration of National Tourism Week, when the organization announced that 2.8 million visitors came to Manatee County in 2013, up 1.5 percent from 2012.
Other awards handed out include:
Tourism Ambassador Award to Cihan Cobanoglu, dean of University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee College of Hospitality and Technology Leadership
Tourism Outreach Award to Rick Fawley, principal in Fawley Bryant Architects
Tourism Partner Award to Liz Andricks of A Paradise Vacation Rentals
"I love the island, I love tourism," Andricks said.Cobanoglu was in Lyon, France, recruiting students for the college and gave his acceptance speech in a pre-recorded message.
"This award is so meaningful to my heart," he said.
The work of those people and others in the industry helped Manatee County reach more tourists than they have before. Not only that, they are staying longer, too. The average length of stay is 7.2 nights, above the statewide average of about four nights.
"It proves the character of our destination -- that people want to stay longer. There's a lot to do," Falcione said. "They're getting away from everyday crazy life that we all live in with society today."
International tourists are helping with that number as they tend to stay longer and spend more. Continental European visitation increased by 30.6 percent from 2012 to 37,200, outpacing tourists from the United Kingdom and Ireland, which saw a 29.6 percent increase, and Canadian tourism, a 13.3 percent increase.
"It is so important to our sustainability of tourism on a year-round basis," Falcione said.
Other tourism statistics of note:
Tourism generated $40 million in state sales tax from the Bradenton area.
Visitors spent $403 million to stay in Bradenton area hotels, up 10.6 percent from 2012.
Tourism created a $909 million economic impact in Manatee, up 7.6 percent from 2012.
Tourism-related employment opportunities were 20,500, up 3.5 percent from 2012.
Domestic and international visitation increased by 6 percent to more than 570,300.
CVB Executive Manager Debbie Meihls attributed the Bradenton area's tourism growth to factors including increased efforts toward international visitors; continued growth in the sports marketing, agritourism, ecotourism and film.
Falcione said the county has to focus more on developing the Palmetto and Bradenton urban core markets more as the beaches are full, as well as working with Lakewood Ranch, which is primarily a sports market thanks to Premier Sports Campus.
"We have partnered with them [Premier Sports] to drive tournaments to the area that really fill non-peak tourism times of the year. It really drives our mainland community," he said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.