The St. Johns County visitors and convention bureau spent Thursday morning celebrating the last year's success of the tourism industry here and the expectation is that it's going to continue.
Tourism leaders from the area came to listen to national travel analysts as well as an emotional speech from Richard Gonzmart, co-owner of the Columbia Restaurant Group.
From a pure visitation standpoint, 2017 wasn't quite a record. According to the county's Tourist Development Council, there were 6,497,090 visitors last year, down about 300,000 from 2016.
But from a revenue standpoint, based on bed tax collections from short-term lodging, the county continues to see growth. Richard Goldman, CEO and president of the VCB, announced that the 2017 fiscal year was the seventh straight year of growth.
And in budgeting for the current 2018 fiscal year, the estimate was further growth of about 5 percent.
"The state of our county's No. 1 industry is terrific," Goldman said. "It's strong. It's vibrant. And even after two hurricanes, it's resilient."
According information provided by the VCB, tourism had a $2.4 billion economic impact on the county, generated $8.5 million in sales tax revenue and provided 29,000 jobs with $730.7 million in compensation.
Goldman said the lodging industry's record-breaking year included a 1.2-percent increase in average occupancy, a 3.4-percent rise in average daily rate and growth of 4.5 percent in total room demand.
Erin Francis-Cummings, president/CEO of Destination Analysts, shared research on the state of the tourism industry both globally and locally. She said the information showed continued interest in travel in general as well as a high rate of familiarity for St. Augustine/St. Johns County as a destination.
She said one of the things that travelers say about this place is that it's so different from the typical Florida beach town because it has true historic sites — like the Castillo de San Marcos and others — and a vibrant downtown.
Research also indicates that one of the most important aspects of a destination that potential travelers research before visiting somewhere is the food scene.
By most accounts, that has seen vast improvements in recent years here. But one of the stalwarts of St. Augustine's restaurant industry has been the Columbia, which is celebrating its 35th year in St. Augustine. (It's been around for more than 100 years in Tampa.)
Still owned by the same family, Gonzmart shared his story about coming to St. Augustine as a boy on a family trip and later as the one who set up the new restaurant here.
Gonzmart, who lived here for two years before going back to his hometown of Tampa, said the tourism scene in St. Augustine has changed a lot over the years. When the Columbia first opened here, Gonzmart said the season for visitors was mostly limited to the summer.
Now, it's easy to find a crowd in the Columbia on a weeknight in March.
The restaurant has been a good fit in a place that has certainly blossomed into an increasingly popular tourist destination.
"Without tourism, what would we have?" Gonzmart said. "This is a place that people come to make memories. When I come to St. Augustine, I think of that day and I know exactly where I was when my father said, 'One day, we'll open a Columbia (here).'"
Gonzmart was also presented with an award recognizing his industry leadership and philanthropy supporting organizations serving youth and cancer research.
• During the event, the Lightner Museum received the first Tourism Impact Award for its Dressing Downton: Changing Fashions for Changing Times exhibit.
The award is given to individuals or organizations within the tourism community that have made a significant and immediate economic impact on the growth of the industry and the destination as a whole.
The Lightner's hosting of the exhibit helped the destination in garnering international publicity and helped increase visitation when the exhibit was on display between October 2017 and February 2018.
• The master of ceremonies for Thursday's meeting was Kevin Verardos of Vernardos Circus. In addition to providing some entertainment, he also announced that the circus would return to the parking lot of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre this year for a six-week run, starting in December.