Walton County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Dawn Moliterno took the podium Tuesday at the TDC's annual luncheon and excitedly reported a record-breaking year in tourism by every measurement.
Bed tax revenues were the highest ever recorded with double-digit increases measured for 16 straight months and an estimated three million visitors last year, she said.
To help keep the beaches clean with so many people on them, eight solar-powered trash receptacles have been added.
Moliterno credited the new brand and marketing strategies revealed last year for the increases and reported the efforts were recognized with 17 national and regional industry awards this past year.
Moliterno said a major component of the brand evolution was the TDC's new website, which was introduced last October, and has resulted in a 57-percent increase in web traffic.
Even the turtles had a record season this year, with 115 nests found on South Walton beaches.
Even with apparent success in marketing South Walton, the TDC is moving its message to a new advertising agency. Charlotte, N.C.-based LKM, the TDC’s previous advertising firm, announced in May it would shutter its doors after 25 years in business.
So at Tuesday’s meeting, Moliterno introduced Jeff Zehnder of Zehnder Communications as the person entrusted with the TDC's marketing strategies for the coming year.
Zehnder said he has been coming here since the 1980s and has visited every neighborhood in South Walton. His firm has offices in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Nashville, which are driving markets for South Walton. His firm is credited with rebranding the Drake Hotel in Chicago.
The number 16 surfaced again as Moliterno reported the addition of Gulf Place as the 16th beach community falling under the TDC's marketing and promotions umbrella, and the addition of another lifeguard station in Miramar Beach next season.
County Commission Chairman Scott Brannon was recognized for his eight years of service on the county commission, and his desire to protect our beaches, said Moliterno. Brannon is leaving the governing body as county commission chair.
Moliterno presented the Van Ness Butler Hospitality Award to Stella and M.C. Davis, who she called pioneers in promoting tourism in South Walton. Moliterno said thanks to South Walton possessing four state parks and a state forest, eco-tourism continues to grow in the area and is a growing trend nationwide. She said the Davises are deeply committed to Northwest Florida with a focus on the environment. The Davises own the E.O. Wilson Biophilia and Education Center east of Freeport on 50,000 preserved acres of land.
"We think it's important to educate the next generation," said Davis.
Moliterno closed by saying the TDC will continue to promote South Walton as a premiere vacation destination site.