Beaches of South Walton TDC - Behind The Scenes

June 12, 2010 by Joyce Owen

For lodging providers in Walton County, collecting bed tax is just part of doing business. Explaining why the money is collected and where it goes is not part of the mission for the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council, but it’s becoming an important aspect in the business of running the organization.

“We are misunderstood,” says Tracy Louthain, director of communications for the TDC. Given the chance, she explains not only the basics – how and why the TDC exists – but also what it does with all those bed tax dollars.

Florida Statute 125.0104 established tourism bureaus with provisions for statewide and local groups. Visit Florida promotes tourism throughout the state. Local tourism bureaus work with business partners to highlight their own destinations.

The TDC is funded through the tourist occupancy tax – or bed tax – 4.5 cents, charged on every dollar paid for short-term lodging.

Here’s the breakdown:

The first two cents are for marketing and maintaining the area’s 26 miles of beaches. The maintenance includes daily cleaning of the shoreline and 60 public beach accesses including eight regional accesses that offer parking and restrooms.

The third cent pays for beach nourishment – projects like the beach restoration in western Walton County completed in 2007.

The fourth cent funds new product development that often reaches beyond the beaches. It helped to create Autumn Tides, Artist of the Year and certified nature-based tourism providers. Also under the new product category are beach safety enhancements, which include the educational program Seemore the Safety Crab and lifeguards at the regional beach accesses. A newly designed website is another new development product, says Loretta Shaffer, director of marketing for the TDC.

The latest addition to bed taxes was approved in 2009. The half-cent increase was originally proposed to support bringing a low cost airline to one of the nearby airports. Now that Southwest Airlines flies to the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, the money is being used to promote South Walton to visitors flying in from Orlando, Houston, Baltimore and Nashville.

The TDC communications director has read the letters to newspapers and seen the complaints from many that believe the organization has outlived its purpose, but Louthain says, “The TDC’s role is as vital as ever, especially with the opening of the new airport and the need to expand efforts to attract visitors from the new markets Southwest Airlines reaches.”

The goal of the tourist organization, according to its mission statement is “to direct and manage activities that will strengthen the position of the Beaches of South Walton County brand in the tourism marketplace.”

But attracting tourists is not enough. The TDC also must “manage and maintain our beaches as a primary attraction and as a responsible industry organization to take a leadership role in addressing issues that affect tourism and the quality of life in Walton County.”

All staff members have a copy of the mission statement and follow a strategic plan that outlines not only overall strategies, but provides daily goals and tasks. Employees know what they do and how it fits into the overall scheme of the organization, Louthain says.

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