SEBRING — Highlands County, as a whole, doesn’t do its best at “rolling out the red carpet” for visitors, said Tourism Development Council Lead Marketer Casey Hartt.
That said, she’s told the Board of County Commission about several plans she has to improve that, based on results of a study that informed the TDC’s strategic plan.
The first thing she asked for last Tuesday was for commissioners to approve a search-engine optimization project for the TDC website, visitsebring.com.
Commissioners did approve it, 4-1, with a price tag of $72,000. Commissioner Arlene Tuck was the lone dissenter, who said later in the meeting she wants to see much of the TDC operations revamped.
The optimization should help drive internet users to the TDC site, since most people search online to plan a vacation. However, commissioners were concerned about that, given that the design of the site can be a challenge to use and may not have enough information on it to help potential visitors to plan a Highlands County vacation.
VisitSebring.com often redirects internet users to the sites of local tourist attractions and businesses, but the strategic plan’s surveys found 47% of local attractions’ or accommodations’ online profiles are incomplete.
Of those, 64% have unverified (wrong) contact information, 64% don’t list operating hours and 90% need better photos, Hartt said.
There are also, the survey found, gaps in business practices, such as the inability to pay with a credit/debit card — cash only — difficulty accessing amenities and limited nighttime activities.
Hartt said the strategic plan is for the TDC to work with attractions and hospitality, individually and in seminars, to make each destination more appealing and engaging.
The TDC would also focus on digital assets and digital advertising — less on print and broadcast — going so far as duplicating print materials into easy-to-search and see digital formats. She would also have focused media/public relations campaigns.
Hartt said the TDC would streamline administrative duties, now has TDC Board meetings quarterly — not monthly — and has simplified the grant process.
She also plans to use $250,000 in the lakes improvements account to help enhance access to lakes with good public boat ramps, parking and restroom facilities.
Tuck had concerns over how the county department draws in visitors.
“We talk golf, golf, golf, golf,” Tuck said, adding that the county should attract cyclists and water sports, including Jet Skiers and anglers.
“It seems like, these days, everybody has a boat,” Tuck said.
Commission Chair Jim Brooks pointed out that golfing is “just a small part of our marketing budget.”
Hartt said she would be “more than happy” to sit down and discuss any part of the TDC budget or strategic plan. She said it’s the first real plan she’s seen for the TDC.
It cost $48,000, approximately, Hartt said, and is based on research from economist Brian London of London Publications.
London said people outside of Highlands County don’t know much about the area:
• 26% have no knowledge of Sebring while 76% claim some degree of familiarity.
• 38% have no knowledge of Lake Placid while 62% claim some familiarity.
• 43% have no knowledge of Avon Park while 57% claim some knowledge.
Hartt also said people in Highlands County, as they try to see themselves as others see them, should remember a few things:
First, what people accept as a natural part of living here doesn’t match tourist expectations.
Second, the days of getting small groups to handle marketing for the county are over. Tourism is a big local industry that needs a unified message.
Third, members of the TDC will need to listen to and engage community partners.
Also, there is not one single solution, Hartt said. Improvements will have to take place with small changes, little by little.