By DOTTY NIST
At their meeting featuring discussion of Walton County’s Events Grant Program, the Walton County Tourist Development Council’s (TDC) Marketing and Communication Committee also got updates on combined marketing activities for the county as a whole being undertaken by the Walton County Tourism Department.
This was at the committee’s Oct. 31 meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
Funded through the Tourist Development Tax (“bed tax”), the Events Grant Program reimburses promotional expenses for events in Walton County. Kelli Carter, marketing director for the tourism department, noted that application for the program had been reworked to encompass the whole county.
This reflects the bed tax currently being collected both north and south of the bay following a November 2020 decision by voters north of the bay to impose the tax for the first time in north Walton County on short-term accommodations.
Carter discussed an emphasis with the events program on applicants having a lodging partner or partners for their events, as the committee had suggested—and asking for a letter from the partner or partners being worked with to accompany applications. It was discussed that there would be less lodging associated with smaller community-type events, but Carter said legal counsel had indicated that applicants should still make an effort to secure lodging to some extent, since the funds are coming from the Tourist Development Tax (TDT).
She also pledged to provide the committee for their consideration with options for the scoring of applications that they would be asked to do in connection with the events grant program, options that could simplify the task of working with the numerous applications that are received.
The application forms are set to become available in January 2024, and plans are for the committee to begin scoring completed applications in April 2024.
Turning to a director’s update, Carter told the committee members that final bed tax numbers for the 2022-23 fiscal year were not available yet and would not be provided for another week or two.
She provided numbers for August 2023, the most recent month available. The TDT collection for August 2023 she reported as $5,453,235, with this number including the whole county. The figure for the area north of the bay was $19,917 and the portion for south of the bay was almost $5,433,318.
Carter said bed tax collections were tracking about 4.36 percent lower year-to-date south of the bay than for the previous fiscal year for approximately a $1 million difference, with those for north Walton County tracking about 2.2 percent higher, equaling about $4,918 more over the previous year.
Carter said collections were promising to yield between $60 and $61 million for the year if they continue to track at the rate they have been, which should be well in line with the amount budgeted for the year for the department.
Carter spoke of some upcoming big announcements related to what is now known as the “Beyond the Beach” tourism promotion effort for the area north of the bay. She explained that more than 200 people who live, work, and play north of the bay responded to surveys done by the department asking what the respondents thought of in connection with this area. The information was used, Carter explained, to create a new brand for the area that would be unveiled at the next TDC meeting on Dec. 5, which would be held at the Best Western in DeFuniak Springs.
Invitations are to be sent out, she said, to encourage everyone to attend the unveiling and see what the new brand will look like.
Carter was proud to report that the tourism department is now working with five lodging partners in north Walton County who are surveying their guests to see “what their guests are looking for.” The department is seeking other lodging partners as well.
Carter revealed that a new website for Walton County Tourism had launched on Oct. 30 that is to replace the previous partners page for county tourism. She said there would be more to come with the website, the web address for which is www.waltoncountyfltourism.com.
Nicole Everett, communications director for the tourism department, also addressed the committee. She highlighted the upcoming Hospitality and Service Job Fair, which she said the tourism department views as part of the department’s most important roles, providing a connection between qualified job seekers and the industry.
Everett said the fair is held every year at the Boys & Girls Club facility in Santa Rosa Beach and that tourism department staff are working with the club to get a date confirmed for the fair, after which information will be sent out encouraging community members to participate.
Committee member Tracy Louthain announced a new committee she is working to form to do an art in public places project in Freeport using Freeport’s signature anchor as an artistic symbol. She said partners in the program would include the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County and the tourism department and other interested individuals.
Louthain said the anchors for the program would be cast in concrete and would be decorated by local artists to enhance the “sense of place” of the city. She pledged to keep committee members posted on progress with the program.
In closing, Carter encouraged community members to take advantage of the items that are available at the Walton County Tourism Visitor Center for their Christmas shopping—offerings which include culinary items and will soon feature a cookbook showcasing “anything and everything in Walton County that’s good.”
These meetings are open to the public, with details available on the Walton County website at www.co.walton.fl.us