Despite sharp declines across the country, Polk County’s tourism guides remain optimistic about the future of the county’s largest business.

“We’re down – the entire state is down – but compared to our neighbors and the state as a whole, we are doing very, very well because of our sports and special events,” said Justin Laferriere, senior visitors service manager, Visit Central Florida . “While we’re down, it’s not as bad as it may seem and we’re starting to see incremental progress and growth in the tourism industry.”

Polk County’s local tourism guides recognize the county’s resilience to its focus on sporting events, which they believe has enabled more social distancing and other COVID-safe protocols.

There are tourism figures at the national level hit a low for the decade in 2020. According to preliminary figures from the tourism marketing agency Visit Florida, the tourism industry saw a 34% decrease in visitor numbers in 2020 compared to 2019.

The decrease is due to COVID-19. Health and safety risks associated with vacation travel and the large crowd drawn to popular attractions like theme parks kept many inside. Hotels and restaurants that rely on the numbers attracted to tourist hotspots also suffered and remain is on the verge of survival almost a year after the onset of the coronavirus.

How Polk County survived

While Polk County wasn’t immune, it could be worse, said Mark Jackson, executive director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing.

“Our numbers are way better than the state of Florida,” said Jackson. “In fact, they are much better than the surrounding counties.”

Jackson said the county is heavily dependent on the tourism industry, which brings in $ 2.4 billion annually for the area. He is optimistic that the economy will recover by 2022, as he expects tourism to pick up significantly in the summer before falling again slightly in the fall.

Jackson said the best metric for assessing tourism performance is aggregate demand, which is derived from assessing the number of nights spent over a period of time. He added that in relation to that figure, the US saw aggregate demand fall 33.9% for December 2020 compared to December 2019.

Jackson brought it back to Florida and said the state was down 37.9% year over year in December. In the east, Orange County was down 57.6% and Osceola County was down 52%. To the west, Hillsborough County was down 31.3%.

“Polk County ranks first compared to our surrounding counties, down 18.2%,” said Jackson.

Those numbers only take into account hotel and motel stays, Jackson said.

Jacqueline Johnson, the senior vice president of the Lakeland Convention and Visitors Bureau, attributes the large inequality to the type of events counties tend to focus on for tourism dollars.

“When you look at Osceola and Orange Counties, meetings and conventions are an integral part of their business,” said Johnson. “They are much worse than us because we are able to organize all kinds of sporting events and events that we can socially distance and conduct safely.”

Johnson said meetings and conventions haven’t really returned because they take place indoors in a confined space. Business travel is also on the decline.

Additionally, some counties have decided to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure by having no events at all. Polk County has picked up on this and poached events from neighboring counties. One such event was the FHSAA Cheerleading State Championship, which was relocated to the RP Funding Center in Lakeland after Gainesville refused to host.

“We’ve been able to recruit these events, bring in new tourists, and that’s what stimulates Polk County’s economy,” Jackson said.

Johnson said the county saw a 28% loss in tourism dollars over the past year, but “we’ve put on it again.” She said the county was ahead of its own annual projections, previously adjusted to reflect the impact of COVID-19. If it goes on, they could get a third record year out. She said the county will collect between $ 11 million and $ 12 million in bed tax collections this year.

While the focus on sports has kept Polk County from seeing as marked a decline as it is in neighboring countries, things are far from normal. For example, the RussMatt baseball spring practice is progressing, but as a shadow of its former self: instead of bringing 280 teams to the county, it will only be 30. Jackson said that’s because some colleges and universities don’t allow teams to travel for non-conference games.

“We’ve been told by hoteliers that they might not be in business if it weren’t for the sporting events,” Jackson said. “Our security protocols have convinced companies that we are a safe place to play. And we are open to doing business when other places have problems.”

Jackson said the past has shown that sports are “recession-resistant,” which makes them key to keeping Polk County in business.

Another thing that could improve the county’s number in 2021 compared to 2020 is the return of major events. Laferriere, with Visit Central Florida, said events postponed or canceled last year are back this year, such as an Iron Man event that was postponed to December in April and finally canceled. Laferriere said it will be back for 2021.

But there have already been some expansions: Laferriere said there were 66 events in Polk County between October 2019 and January 2020. Between October 2020 and January 2021 that number rose to 90.

In addition to sporting events, Polk County is focused on other industries that have grown rather than contracted during the pandemic, such as RV parks and fishing.

Increase numbers

Just because Polk County is doing better than other parts of Florida doesn’t mean businesses don’t need a boost.

Laferriere said the county declined 22% in tourism development taxes in the first four months of fiscal 2020-2021 compared to the previous year. This is the 5% tax levied on accommodations with a term of less than six months.

Are you visiting central Florida’s plan to kickstart this tax collection? Savings, savings, savings.

“Consumers are obviously looking for discounts and price cuts in this COVID world and a way to stretch that dollar a little further,” Laferriere said. “Our mission is plain and simple: Put your heads in the beds and let the cash registers ring.”

Visit Central Florida offers the free Polk Savings Pass, a digital mobile savings pass that offers discounts and freebies at hotspots across the county.

Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales is one of the attractions that offer a discount on the Polk Savings Pass.  The gardens voluntarily closed in March due to the pandemic but reopened in June with social distancing measures.

The pass was originally launched with 30 offerings at restaurants, shops, accommodations, and attractions like Bok Tower Gardens, the Polk Museum of Art, and even the RP Funding Center.

Laferriere said the plan is to “aggressively” expand these offerings. Since the pass is completely digital, new offers can be added during the year and the participating companies can also tweak what they want to offer consumers.

Laferriere said the hope is that the pass will influence the decision-making process for consumers and take them to the doors of Polk County’s businesses to convince them “to stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, our attractions.” visit and shop in our stores. ” . ”

While no one expects this year to be a blockbuster, the fact that Polk County has been able to stave off worse declines has sparked optimism in the tourism community. Time will tell if that optimism will translate into much-needed profits in the next 12 months.

“It takes a tremendous amount of effort and planning and research to get us to where we are now,” said Jackson. “We just have to keep going like this.”

Maya Lora

Maya Lora is best reached or 863-802-7558. Follow @mayaklora on Twitter.