The old motels dotting Gulf Boulevard still draw nostalgic baby boomers who remember childhood vacations, but the outdated properties are threatening the health of Pinellas County tourism, a consultant told tourism officials Wednesday.
"If we don't do something in the next two to three years, the gulf beaches could be affecting all of us," said Don Anderson, a consultant with Destination Consulting Group.
The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau hired Destination Consulting to assess the county's tourism offerings from the visitor's point of view. The firm's next assignment is to work with government and tourism industry leaders on a plan to make those offerings better.
As part of its research, Destination Consulting deployed "secret shoppers" who ate at restaurants, stayed in motels and visited shops, attractions, airports and visitor centers.
Overall, the consultants said Pinellas tourism rated between a 3 (good) and a 4 (excellent) on a 1-to-5 scale. But they said they found plenty of room for improvement.
Tops on their list: the state of repair and cleanliness of the county's restaurants and motels, particularly on the gulf beaches.
The beaches south of Clearwater Beach rated the lowest of five tourist zones the consultants examined, although they were still classified as "good."
Anderson, who teaches classes in tourism and hospitality management at the University of Calgary in Canada, said tourism on the beaches is at a "crucial stage. Either we do something or it's going to start to decline." A drop in beach tourism could have a wider impact because the beaches are one of the biggest reasons 4.5-million tourists visit Pinellas County each year.
Anderson cited the recent $15-million renovation of the Sirata Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach as an example of what could be done. But he said many of the structures built in the 1950s and 1960s look "tired" and are not up to modern standards.
Motel owners say updating their properties is not just a matter of finding the money.
"It's real hard to get a lot of work done because of all the regulations," said Jim Loncarski, owner of the Buccaneer Resort Hotel on Treasure Island. Federal, state and city regulations limit what owners of coastal property can build.
Loncarski said he also considers the small motels part of what makes Treasure Island "quaint and beautiful."
"Sooner or later if you don't renovate, it will affect the area, but I'm not worried about it getting to that point," he said. "This area is fundamentally so beautiful that sooner or later the upgrades will occur."
Indian Shores Mayor Bob McEwen said he is concerned that a push to upgrade property could lead to fewer places for tourists to stay. That's already happening in his community, he said.
"With the old mom-and-pops, the land is too valuable to continue that way," he said. "They're turning them into relatively expensive new condos that are not generally rental units. That's good for our tax base, but it's probably not so great for tourism."
Owners of some of the larger properties on the gulf beaches say they make improvements every year."That's what the traveler is demanding," said Rosemarie Payne, director of public relations for Fortune Hotels, owner of the TradeWinds and Sandpiper beach resorts in St. Pete Beach.
The consulting firm said Pinellas County's tourism strengths include the natural beauty of its beaches, warm weather, overall ambience and cultural and arts opportunities.
In his report, Anderson said St. Petersburg's downtown redevelopment and nucleus of museums have allowed it to maintain its attractiveness as a tourist destination. Weaknesses the consulting firm cited included the county's inefficient highways, inadequate and confusing road signs and an abundance of strip shopping centers.
The convention and visitors bureau, an arm of county government, is paying $17,000 plus expenses to the consulting firm, which is based in Lafayette, Ind.