These days, Pinellas tourism officials are selling more than just sand and water.
They say the county has become a “younger, hipper and more sophisticated” tourism destination that’s attracting a younger, more active and more diverse crowd of tourists to match.
The billboard, digital and print ads still feature gauzy, sun-drenched images of visitors. But now they’re doing more than just enjoying the beaches.
They’re checking out art museums and baseball games. They’re riding personal watercraft and paddleboarding. They’re enjoying concerts and craft breweries.
“I truly believe the destination has really been evolving that way,” said tourism director D.T. Minich. “We’re becoming more sophisticated, more hip. We have more nightlife. The dining experiences have exploded. We had 16 craft breweries open in the last 18 months.
“There are things that are just really happening in this destination, and it’s setting us apart from other beach destinations, and really from other destinations in the state.”
Pinellas County attracted a record 5,579,900 visitors in 2013, an increase of 2.6 percent, or 144,900 visitors from 2012. It was the second-straight year the county set a visitation record. Tourism officials said research showed that a growing number of new visitors come from a more diverse demographic. They tend to be younger, single and visiting as couples.
They’re also visiting in the fall, giving the county a boost during its nonpeak tourism months. That’s because families tend to visit during the busy spring and summer months — and younger, single and coupled visitors want to avoid them.
“They’re coming when we need them because they’re not tied to school holidays,” Minich said. “They want to be here when we don’t have a lot of families.”
The average age of the Pinellas tourist has dropped by a year since 2004, according to the county’s research, from above 48 to nearly 47. A small change, but tourism officials call it a significant one considering the past volume of tourists of advanced age.
Pinellas is also seeing a more diverse group of tourists, especially from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. But, instead of seeking out a Key West party vibe, Minich said those tourists are coming to Pinellas to relax and enjoy romantic weekends at the beach.
“We’ve been working that market for several years, but we’re ramping it up,” Minich said. “It’s a growing market for us.”
This new direction for Pinellas is a far cry from when Minich first took over the tourism agency seven years ago. The county still suffered from what he called the “Cocoon effect.”
The 1985 film was about a group of St. Petersburg retirees who found rejuvenation thanks to alien visitors (tourists, of course). The retiree vibe from the movie stuck around for a long time. “People were still perceiving this destination as a sleepy retirement beach community,” Minich said.
That’s finally starting to change.
“We have some of the best beaches in the world, and we’re famous for that,” Minich said. “But people are starting to see that there’s so much more to the destination. It’s becoming a younger, hipper place.
“It’s no longer looked upon at all as a place to just come and retire.”
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.
(c)2014 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.