The leadership of Visit Florida, the state tourism agency, made Franklin County the last stop on a 12-stop cross-state tour of the state.
Speaking before an audience of 50 tourism professionals and government leaders at the Armory on Sept. 12, Visit Florida Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young outlined the tremendous impact tourism has on the Panhandle, including presentation of videos about the county and St. George Island that she said have helped expose the county to a wide audience.
She discussed the positive impacts of Florida’s number one industry and the ways Visit Florida drive more visitors to area businesses. Young’s statewide tour included the major tourism markets in the state including Miami, the Keys and St. Augustine.
Sheila Hauser, director of marketing for Collins Vacation Rentals and Jerry Hall, treasurer of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, which administers the Tourist Development Council, both addressed the gathering.
“When I came here 35 years ago, Apalachicola and Franklin County were what you could refer to as a one-horse town and also a one-tourist town,” said Hall, who now owns an extensive number of tourist-related businesses in Apalachicola.
“If you will envision, you could rent any commercial building in town for $125 a month and probably not make enough money to pay the rent on time,” he said. “Tumbleweeds rolled down our streets, dogs slept peacefully in our intersections.
“Seafood was king in those days and when I approached the local bank to but our first restaurant in 1992, its president at that time told me there would never be enough tourists in town to pay back the loan,” Hall said.
“From that humble beginning, the county slowly grew, we prospered, and before Hurricane Michael, our chamber had roughly 575 members, mostly involved in some fashion with tourism,” he said. “After Hurricane Michael many of us were unsure of our future. Our county and the areas surrounding us were devastated; the housing we relied up9on for tourist mostly non-existent, out TDC coffers in jeopardy.
”We were very worried that the tumbleweeds were about to return,” he said.
Hall said the chamber and TDC, both led by John Solomon, devised a plan “to tell the world we were still here and open for business.”
The planners went ahead with the Florida Seafood Festival, and now, “nearly one year after the hurricane, many of our businesses are showing bottom lines well ahead of last year and we are showing all-time record revenues from our tourist development tax,” Hall said.
He said the confidence to rebuild was helped by advertising dollars from Visit Florida, including $174,000 in promotional funds.
“Being included by Visit Florida as one of the major tourism markets is very important to our tourism industry here,” said Solomon, TDC director. “We instantly became a major player in tourism in the state by being recognized by the state tourism agency.
“We are on track to far exceed last year in terms of revenue, visitor center traffic and website metrics,” he said.
Solomon said Visit Florida’s marketing assistance helped get the word out through a multi-media campaign that included digital, print, web, television and direct mail to reach a targeted demographic of potential visitors.
“We have seen a noticeable increase from the areas we targeted.” said Solomon. “We are getting calls and visits from people that would probably not otherwise have known about us this year.”
Newly elected District 7 Florida Representative Jason Shoaf was also in attendance at the meeting.