Tourism Plans Respond to Visitor Interests in St. Augustine

Strategy: Enhance Your Product, Focus on Customer Potential, Know Your Customer/Product, Leverage Anniversaries

Type of attraction: Main Street/Community, Tourism Organization

Summary: For many years, St. Augustine, Florida, has hosted some five million visitors annually to enjoy the city’s historic sites, dining, shopping and beaches.

For many years, St. Augustine, Florida, has hosted some five million visitors annually to enjoy the city’s historic sites, dining, shopping and beaches. In recent years, though, as economic times became more challenging, extended stays and bed tax revenues were decreasing, says Dana Ste. Claire, St. Augustine’s director of heritage tourism and historic preservation.

“We were seeing heritage and cultural visitors economize their trips. Rather than staying two or three days, many were spending a long day. They were arriving early, shopping, having lunch, visiting museums and attractions, and maybe eating dinner before driving home.”

Thanks to intensive planning by the St. Johns County Tourism Development Council and Convention and Visitors Bureau in the years prior to the recession, St. Augustine was ready to address these changes with strategies to encourage visitors to extend their stays while recognizing the profound impact that daytrippers have on the local economy.

The City of St. Augustine’s Department of Heritage Tourism and Historic Preservation oversees tourism infrastructure including visitor information centers, parking garages, pedestrian plazas, historic properties, museums and the Colonial Spanish Quarter, a two-city-block living history complex. The department organizes the visitor experience citywide, as well as promotes and interprets the city's history.

“We have entered a new time where city government understands the important role the city plays as a cultural heritage tourism destination,” Ste. Claire says. “At one level the department has become the economic development agency for the city.” Planning and development has centered on what Ste. Claire refers to as his “mantra” – understanding visitor behavior – their expectations and preferences, likes and dislikes.

“When you know your customer, it gives you a huge advantage in the marketplace,” Ste. Claire says. “These data allow you to develop programs that respond to visitors’ needs and expectations. The more layers of quality and compelling visitor experiences you offer, the longer the visitor will stay and the more money he or she will spend. It’s a pretty simple formula.”

To implement new tourism plans, organizers relied on visitor surveys, studies of the market, and a new destination master plan developed by the St. Johns County TDC and CVB. In particular, organizers realized the importance of enhancing the sites and stories related to the city’s Spanish history, leading up to the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine’s founding, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental U.S.

Significant attention was given to a signature attraction, the Colonial Spanish Quarter on downtown’s historic St. George Street . “It was in a state of hibernation of sorts,” Ste. Claire says. “We have retrained interpreters and upgraded the heritage landscape, while ensuring the site’s authenticity. We are showcasing Colonial life at more engaging levels through immersive living history programs.”

Research also showed that visitors are looking for authentic Spanish Colonial cuisine and traditional Spanish culture and crafts. They are also interested in archaeological digs, history museums, historic ships, and after-hours events.

Some enhancements were simple, such as placing a new sign outside of the Taberna de Gallo on St. George Street to let visitors know of the traditional colonial tavern experience. This change, along with new interiors and period tavern keepers, resulted in a 250% increase in attendance and revenues within a few months.

“We are also working with the National Park Service and the University of Florida to develop a new visitor orientation center which will interpret military and civilian life in Colonial Spanish Quarter,” Ste. Claire says. “The University is creating historic preservation programs that will greatly benefit the city’s historic resources.”

Extensive changes help visitors find their way to St. Augustine and plan their visit. Starting with an interstate-to-downtown wayfinding system, visitors arrive to find ample parking and a 15,000 square-foot visitor information center. Once at the visitor information center, visitors encounter hosts who are thoroughly trained to help plan a visit. “Rather than allowing visitors to struggle through learning how to navigate through the city, we help them connect with desired experiences,” Ste. Claire says. “Rather than putting out a map and saying ‘Here’s how you get to St. George Street and have a great day,’ they now say ‘Welcome to St. Augustine. What are your interests?’”

In addition to welcoming visitors year-round, tourism planners are gearing up for the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine’s founding in 2015, much like Jamestown’s 400th celebration in 2007. “It will be a commemoration of unbroken history and cultural diversity,” says Ste. Claire.

Plans call for a series of signature events as well as activities across the state starting in 2013, the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s landing, and continuing through 2015. A key goal stated in the strategic plan is to enhance tourism through planning, marketing, and events, as well as creating sustainable tourism.

St. Augustine’s new model for tourism development will undoubtedly position the city to capitalize on this special anniversary. As Ste. Claire notes: “Visitors are no longer content with a two-dimensional descriptive tour. They want to immerse themselves in the experience. That is where we are moving the whole model in St. Augustine.”

For more information, visit www.staugustinegovernment.com; contact Dana Ste. Claire, dsteclaire@citystaug.com; 904-825-5033.