Visit Pensacola, the new Escambia County tourism development organization, held a meeting Tuesday, April 15th with the Pensacola/Escambia County Black community to discuss plans to attract Black tourists to this area. The second floor conference room at the DeVilliers Square office complex was filled to capacity with business owners, chamber of commerce members, dance groups, public relations and media owners, non-profit representatives, neighborhood groups, concert promoters, a Masonic fraternity, and a local community foundation. As those in attendance introduced themselves, they shared background on their past events and their interests in future pursuits of attracting tourists to Pensacola and Escambia County.
Visit Pensacola was approved by the Escambia County Commission on Tuesday September 24, 2013 to manage funding generated by visitors that stay in Pensacola or Escambia County. The Visit Pensacola’s mission is to develop, administer, and promote tourism through the provision of events, activities, products, and services that increase the number of overnight guests. Those overnight guests pay a four (4) cents tax on hotel, condominium, or bed and breakfast rooms that this year has generated an estimated $8 million. The value of tourism to the local area is projected at $1.2 Billion industry, with $500 Million in annual earnings creating up to 25% of taxable retail sales.
A group called the Destination Marketing Organization led the transfer of power from the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber by organizing a lobbying and relationship building campaign led by Ron Ellington who works with Innisfree Hotels (Pensacola Beach Hilton & Pensacola Airport Hyatt) owned by Julian McQueen. A strategic factor in the new Visit Pensacola approach was proposing new categories or classes of board members, which for the first time included at-large minority seats. Robin Reshard, who holds one of the at-large seats, facilitated an outreach effort to organizations that have been involved in attracting groups of visitors and local population to local events and activities.
Following the introductions and comments from the community, Steve Hays, the President of Visit Pensacola, began to share his approach of immersing himself into the culture and the spirit of the local marketplace by taking walks looking for stories. Hays lives downtown since December, and says that he likes to take walks through the neighborhoods visiting the restaurants, taking in the atmosphere of the places that make up the city. He says with a sense of conviction that, “Tourism is really all about telling stories. You are telling stories of your community and what’s there.”
Hays, then, shared an innovative approach that he made to the ad agency component of Visit Pensacola. He said that he approached Dick Appleyard with a vision to do things collaboratively to promote Pensacola overall to attract the visitor that stays overnight that spends on the average $1800 per visit in grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses at the local level. The vision was to create an effort that would bring the local ad agencies together in this local community (“that know this local community”) to work together to make up the local ad agency. What emerged from that vision brainstorm is now called “Showcase Pensacola” made up of local agencies in town who have come together to tell the story of Pensacola and Escambia County to potential visitors in the tourism marketplace.
During the question and answer session the challenge for the potential increase in Black tourism included dialogue on the number of hotel rooms, the availability and size of meeting space, targeting the right size of the groups that match Pensacola’s tourism facilities, attracting the tourist dollars to other areas in the urban area in addition to the beach, the lack of minorities in the marketing and advertising materials, in addition to a very serious inquiry about the perceptions of cultural and racial insensitivity in the hotel industry not being as accommodating to Blacks.
On the insensitivity issue, Hays responded that he has discussed this issue with Visit Pensacola Board Member, Robin Reshard. He commented that his focus will be on the importance of educating “the front line on the value of tourism; especially by your different audiences”. Hays added that he feels he can bring the experience from his former home and place of employment, Tampa, Florida, because he believes, “they learned their lesson the hard way”.
Robin agreed to follow up with those in attendance with Steve’s contact information so that they may go directly to him with their ideas and strategies for events to increase Black tourism in Escambia County to the benefit of the overall community.