HOLMES BEACH -- Manatee County saw nearly 160,000 visitors between April and June, up 5.5 percent from the same period last year. Total economic impact of those visitors rose by 9.4 percent from last year to almost $179 million.
"No matter which way you turn, this is really a success story; it's not just the tourism industry but the airport, too. Their contribution is so significant because it brings a market we would normally not have," said Walter Klages, founder and CEO of Research Data Services Inc.
Manatee County's tourism industry grew by 35.8 percent in 2014, Klages told the Manatee County Tourist Development Council on Monday. He noted that 2014 growth was larger in Manatee County than in three other competing Gulf Coast counties -- Sarasota, Pinellas and Collier.
The TDC met at Holmes Beach City Hall and received updates on the airport as well as fiscal year third-quarter
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Mark Stuckey, vice president of special projects and development at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, said the airport has seen its traffic increase by more than 2 percent this year. They expect to see the increase continue over the next two years, fueled by partnerships with new airlines and service extensions from others.
The airport growth includes five new service announcements in 2015, including United Airlines service to New Jersey returning in December and Air Canada's year-round service, as they previously provided service only during Florida's busy tourist season.
Meetings are planned in the next couple of weeks to put together marketing packages for new service cities, Stuckey said. Dallas, Baltimore, Miami and Pittsburgh are on the list, among others. Pittsburgh tourists increased their presence in Manatee County by 3.8 percent over last year, the sixth largest increase of U.S. feeder markets in the third quarter.
When Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport brings in one airline, Stuckey said, it often stokes competition and brings in increased service or bigger jets on other airlines at the airport.
"By bringing in West Jet, we received a competitive response from Air Canada," Stuckey said. "They're bringing in another 200-passenger jet for season. It really extends those marketing dollars."
The airport will remodel its curbside area next and anticipates breaking ground on a new air traffic control tower in October.
Vanessa Baugh, chair of the TDC and District 5 Manatee County Commissioner, said she has only one complaint about the airport.
"Two different airlines I've taken flights on recently do not mention Bradenton or Manatee County; just Sarasota," Baugh said. "Those marketing dollars we give are meant to market Manatee County as a whole."
Stuckey responded with concerns about the consistency of announcements on landing flights.
"From the airport's standpoint, it's a very sensitive subject," he said. "We're overly sensitive about making sure Bradenton is represented in everything; on every sign and in every PA announcement made at gates, but the problem is when the flight is landing and the attendant says Sarasota. I don't know if it will ever get totally fixed because I think some attendants abbreviate."
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, suggested working with Baugh and members of the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority to achieve consistency in landing announcements. Without including Bradenton in the name, he said, the airport could more easily be mistaken for a smaller community airport, which is often perceived as more expensive.
"It's all about branding; let's put politics aside," Falcione said.
Falcione also introduced the council's newest member, Scott Busby, president of Charter One Hotels & Resorts Inc. Busby is a Florida native and works out of Charter One offices based in Lakewood Ranch.
Charter One was founded in Sarasota in 1981 and operates 13 hotels in Florida, North Carolina, New York and Ohio.
"I wanted to participate in the community and in helping Manatee County grow and develop," Busby said. "I can bring the perspective on issues from both sides of the county; I understand the barrier islands side and the east side."
"It will be great to bring Scott's experience to the TDC," Falcione said.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter@jayohday.