At the same time that the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce is lobbying state officials to drop the sales tax on commercial rentals citing that such a tax is hurting our local economy by keeping outside businesses out, our Visitor and Convention Bureau (VCB) and Tourist Development Council (TDC) contend that raising the combined local sales tax on winter rentals from 9 to 11% won’t affect the number of RV visitors or snowbirds that visit Citrus County.
The people of Citrus County are being told that this higher tourism development tax (TDT) isn’t harmful because tourists pay for it, year-round residents don’t have to, and a mere 2% increase won’t keep tourists from visiting Citrus County. To those peddling such statements please provide the Suncoast Standard with some empirical evidence or take the time to conduct a study to see if this tax would be harmful to our snowbird economy. Tourists are not monolithic and cannot be lumped together. We have snowbirds, international visitors, spontaneous
day trippers, RV park visitors, and those who visit family but choose to stay in an overnight accommodation.
The tax may not affect international travelers from Europe and those who have to stay here due to family visits but could it affect how many RV park visitors we have a year? Show me the study or the survey where it won’t.
The people of Citrus County are being told that the extra money collected will further bolster the past marketing efforts of the VCB, that they have been directly responsible for the double-digit year-over-year rises in tourism and that we should continue to keep pumping dollars in outside consultants and ad agencies and increase the budgeting for advertisement placement. But, in reality, the Facebook page for our county’s VCB, “Discover Crystal River” has a staggering 102,000 likes and videos posted on Facebook and YouTube of manatee clusters on cold days have received millions of views mostly in a free and organic way.
Now, if the TDC is seeking to raise additional money to focus on the manatee and Crystal River for destination marketing purposes and pump more money collected locally from the TDT to outside businesses, then we need to take a hard look at putting all of our eggs in one basket and realize our county is a lot more than just Crystal River.
Let’s start with the basics of tourism marketing, search engine listings and organic search engine optimization (SEO). Type the word manatees into a Google search and what do you find? With hundreds of thousands of dollars given each year to Evok Advertising, consultants, and advertisers, and with 102,000 likes on its Facebook page, one would think that a county employee, consultant, or vendor could get Citrus County tourism’s website on the front page of a Google search when attempted IN CITRUS COUNTY (location matters for Google searches). Neither the original visitcitrus.com website (type visitcitrus.com and it is automatically directed to discovercrystalriverfl.com) nor the discovercrystalriverfl.com website is found on the front page of a Google search for manatees even in Citrus County. A 22-character long domain address, in itself, is a negative SEO factor and can lead to Google “down listing” unless you overcome such factors with daily postings or proper relevant links or returning the marketed domain address back to visitcitrus.com.
With a million dollars a year already at its control, does Citrus County have a smartphone application for visitors to find Citrus County, its events, or festivals or a smart phone application that can be used once they are here, like a manatee tracker? Has our VCB gone out into the field and convinced local restaurants to be registered on Open Table for visitors to use? Have they had a workshop with local transportation businesses to enhance Uber service for visitors and improved our intra-city and intra-county transportation systems for visitors? Have they written any charter transit grants?
Now it’s possible that a few viral videos and a mention in National Geographic might have put us on the map more than the money we spent on outsiders and ads because the normal basics sought in tourism marketing like SEO, smart phone apps, convention centers, and transportation systems are not currently in place.
In a county that has a VCB but lacks a convention center, and in a county that proposes a TDT increase without making a new convention center a primary priority, we may want to stop being a “one trick pony” only pushing Crystal River and the hotels that are there in case we ever have a major hurricane strike or if we experience a really bad breakout of red tide.
We have seen other parts of the County so overlooked by the VCB’s overemphasis of the City of Crystal River that the City of Inverness felt the need to set up its own Visitor and Events Department. When the Suncoast Standard asked the Inverness City Manager, Frank DiGiovanni, why he sought to set up his own tourism efforts, he showed me two event bags for the same annual bicycling event that Inverness sponsors. The year Inverness purchases its own bags for the event, the green bag, it clearly shows the attempts to brand the event. The year the VCB “helps” the City of Inverness by buying the bags for the event they brand Crystal River with no mention of the event’s sponsor, the City of Inverness.
The short-sighted approach to “over-brand” a city with only 2% of Citrus County population may not be enough to stop this tax before a study can be conducted or before rifts and rivalries can be healed. But, if we end up losing RV visitors and wealthy snowbirds over our greed to pay advertisers and consultants in other counties by now having a combined tax that is over 10% on their stays, I hope the backers of this higher tax, will also be willing to seek credit for that. If this is an important issue, please attend the January 24th BOCC meeting or contact your commissioners by calling (352) 341-6560.