As new hotels continue to open in Sarasota County, keeping these hotel rooms occupied continues to be a focus for Visit Sarasota County.

One important tourism segment with the potential to fill large numbers of rooms througout the year, especially during the week when fewer leisure travelers visit, is the meetings, incentives and small-group-travel market.

This market is important for destination organizations nationwide. Key findings from a report commissioned by the Events Industry Council and supported by the Meetings Mean Business Coalition show that in-person meetings and business events generated billions of dollars in revenue and nearly 6 million jobs in 2016 in the U.S. Further, people spending money to travel to meetings, attend them and dine out and shop in the destinations where the meetings are held expanded 23 percent from 2009 to 2016.

Yes, meetings mean business in Sarasota County as well as nationally.

In fiscal year 2017, Visit Sarasota County's efforts brought in 44 meetings, resulting in 7,321 local room nights and $5.6 million in economic impact.

But this is only a portion of the much larger number of meetings sold directly by Sarasota hotels. Hotels have sales staffs whose primary role is to attract and book meetings for their properties. Visit Sarasota County collaborates with these sales teams to provide leads on meeting planners who are interested in bringing their business to Sarasota.

Visit Sarasota County divides the meetings market into two segments. Large meetings and conventions are handled by one team member and we recently hired a manager to focus specifically on small groups such as weddings and motor-coach tours. This allows Visit Sarasota County to specialize and customize its services and marketing tools to these niches.

I’ll address the meetings and conventions market first. We stay attuned to the meeting-planners industry, which selects locations and coordinates logistics for the events. Understanding planners' needs and how they operate ensures that our team can tailor messages and match meeting planners with appropriate venues in Sarasota County.

Numerous factors influence a meeting planners’ decision to come to a destination.

In a comprehensive 2017 study by Destination Analysts, meeting planners were interviewed about their needs, challenges and operations as well as their relationships with destination organizations. It found that cost and ease of getting to a location are the leading factors influencing whether a meeting planner will select a hotel and/or destination to host their meeting. A study conducted for Visit Sarasota County in 2016 also reported these two factors as the leading reasons a planner chose the county.

Higher hotel rates and a perceived lack of bargaining power as hotel companies merge will directly affect the costs of planning meetings, which in turn affects the number of people who will attend. Safety and security are also top concerns.

Meeting planners also said that destination organizations like Visit Sarasota County are extremely important in the research phase of selecting a destination. Destination organizations are the best sources of expert information about their communities. They also are becoming more important to meeting planners because of their connections and neutral positions in the destination.

Armed with this knowledge, we have used a multi-layered approach to capturing meetings business for Sarasota County.

Visit Sarasota County attends trade shows, hosts meeting planners in the destination to showcase what we have to offer and sends qualified leads to hotel partners. We also have a meetings incentive program targeting new meeting groups. Qualified meetings groups can request a variety of resources designed to enhance the experiences people have while in the county for a meeting. Twenty meetings took advantage of this incentive last year.

Similarly, we tackle the small-group market by understanding how these organizers work and delivering what they need to ensure Sarasota is a bookable location for their groups. The small-group market includes weddings, motor-coach tours and social, military, educational and fraternal groups. Recently, our staff attended the American Bus Association tradeshow for tour operators, individuals and companies selling and organizing trips for groups.

These businesses said that educating people about local attractions and providing sample itineraries are  two helpful things Visit Sarasota County can do to make trip planning easier and to increase the odds of including the county on their itinerary.

In the weddings market, smaller wedding celebrations are becoming the trend, allowing the couple to spend more money on the wedding venue and vacation spot. We are positioning Sarasota County as a destination wedding location for these smaller weddings.

Visit Sarasota County promotes these markets by attending tradeshows, conducting targeted-mail campaigns, training qualified travel agents and tour operators, enhancing landing pages on our website and expanding brochures, information and itinerary suggestions for organizers. We also offer an incentive program for motor-coach operators, providing them with a variety of value-added and cost-cutting options to enhance their visit here.

Once meeting planners and group-travel organizers decide to bring their business to Sarasota, Visit Sarasota County helps them while they are here with visitor services such as providing welcome bags, hosting welcome and information desks at meetings and even arranging an appearance by our Visitor Information Vehicle.

Educated visitors — both leisure and business travelers — spend more money in the destination and many return to enjoy features they enjoyed or missed earlier.

Meetings do mean business. Meetings translate to direct spending and increased economic impact and jobs for the Sarasota County community, and our agency will continue to work hard to bring them here.

Virginia Haley is the president of Visit Sarasota County. She can be reached at 941-955-0991 or vhaley@visitsarasota.org.