MANATEE -- The tourism season in the Manatee-Sarasota area is getting longer and will bring thousands more people to the area in 2015, experts say.
More tourist friendly events, a fast-growing sports industry and the reputation as a great place to relax are fueling a tourist boom expected to attract around 3 million visitors to Manatee County this coming year.
"This is a detox environment," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Tourism and Convention Bureau. "Our visitors are inclined to get away from it all."
Having watched visitor counts grow steadily over the past few years, tourism officials in Manatee and Sarasota counties said they expect the trend to continue.
In 2014, the number of overnight visitors increased nearly 12 percent from the previous year, according to Bradenton Area CVB consultant, Walter Klages of Research Data Services in Tampa. About 599,000 overnight visitors or "heads in beds" came to the Bradenton area during 2014.
Sports tourism is a top driver for tourism. Falcione and Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley say 2015 will likely bring more athletes to the area than at any time in the past.
More than 100 sporting events took place in the two
counties this past year, including soccer tournaments, foot races, triathlons and rowing and polo competitions. Rowing and multisport venue Nathan Benderson Park in University Park will host 40 events in 2015, up from 25 this year.
Also hosting big events: IMG Academy and the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch. The two athletic organizations recently signed a deal to bring international youth soccer tournament, the Iber Cup, to fields at both campuses for the next three years starting in April.
Falcione said the Iber Cup is a "big splash" event during a less active season in the tourism calendar. He said the CVB is working with the two sports organizations to attract tournaments and competitions during the summer and other parts of the year with less tourism.
Local hoteliers welcome the traffic. Kelly Dixon, director of sales for the year-old Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown Bradenton, said team sports greatly boosted the hotel's numbers during its inaugural year.
"Teams wanting to book our hotel has been a real bright spot," she said.
The hotel also saw strong traffic from corporate travelers and spring baseball training fans, she said. It allowed hotel management to charge room rates in the $169 range.
"Mid-January to Easter, we're getting top dollar for all of our rooms," Dixon said.
Inaugural events such as the Iber Cup are particularly important in drawing first-time visitors to the area. Falcione said Klages' research has found 94 percent of first-timers who come to the Bradenton area return sometime in the future.
The biggest single-weekend visitor attraction planned for next year is the inaugural Formula 2 powerboat regatta on the Manatee River in February. The regatta is expected to attract as many as 75,000 race fans to the Bradenton and Palmetto downtowns.
Other draws, including spring training and spring break, may also generate small increases in traffic, Falcione said. Hotels are largely rented out during peak seasons, so there is little room for growth there. Hotel developers will have to start playing catch-up to capitalize.
Falcione said up to 1,000 new hotel rooms could be built in Manatee County over the next three to five years. Projects in the works include a hotel at the Bradenton Area Convention Center with up to 250 rooms, and a 37-room boutique hotel expected to open on Anna Maria Island in 2016. In University Park, a 116-room Homewood Suites hotel is being built near The Mall at University at Town Center, one of two new lodging establishments planned for the area.
The new rooms will play to the area's strength, which is keeping visitors around for long-term stays. Klages said the average length of stay for a Bradenton-area visitor is 7.9 days, significantly longer than the state average, which hovered around four days.
That extra time added up to a $698 million impact from tourism-related spending in Manatee County 2014. Sarasota County recorded a $1.5 billion impact.
Klages said people who visit the area enjoy buying into the lifestyle.
"The Bradenton area is really different from a lot of other destinations," he said. "What separates it from most Gulf Coast destinations is it still has this quaint, almost small-town feel about it."
That small-town appeal isn't a well-kept secret. Of the visitors staying in overnight accommodations in the Bradenton area during 2014, most were from outside the state, including more than 78,000 Europeans, 28,000 Canadians and about 127,000 people from the Midwest, according the Klages.
The CVB is counting on more younger visitors coming to Bradenton this year. Gas prices near $2 per gallon make car travel more affordable for millennials and members of Generation X. Falcione said research shows the current cross section of local tourists, who are somewhat older, don't cut back on car travel until prices reach about $5.50 per gallon.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.