Written by Dave Berman
Local tourism leaders are poised to unveil a new strategy to boost their industry — promoting what they are calling the “Hidden Gems of the Space Coast.”
The campaign, which has been 1½ years in the making, centers on a new website and printed material touting local attractions beyond the ones most people know, such as the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. It includes seven half-day to full-day self-guided tours of nature, historic, archaeological and space-related venues.
Among the attractions featured are the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the historic Pritchard House Museum in Titusville, the Air Force Space and Missile History Center and Turkey Creek Sanctuary in Palm Bay.
The success of the effort would boost the local economy by increasing attendance at the attractions promoted, as well as providing more revenue for local hotels, restaurants, retail shops, fishing and other water recreation establishments throughout the Space Coast, tourism officials say.
“It can be a big deal,” said Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism.
One of the goals of the hidden gems campaign is to persuade out-of-town tourists to spend more time in Brevard County by making them aware of all the Space Coast has to offer.
Varley said the typical travel party is two or three people, and that party would spend an average of $341 a day while in Brevard. So the dollars can add up if tourism promoters can get more travel parties to spend four or five days here, instead of three, for example.
The hidden gems website has seven detailed self-guided “adventures,” consisting of two to four attractions each, plus suggested nearby restaurants. The adventures and restaurants were researched and written up by local experts.
The site’s space adventure, for example, lists two space museums that are less-known than KSC, which is Brevard’s most popular paid tourist attraction. They are the U.S. Space Walk of Fame & Museum in downtown Titusville and the Air Force site just outside the security gate at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The four nature-focused adventures, called “wildlife encounters,” list attractions in four parts of the county — north, central, south mainland and south beaches.
“We give them information that people here on the ground know,” said Linda Brandt, chief executive officer of Merritt Island-based Brandt Ronat + Co., who designed the hidden gems website and helped coordinate the gathering of text and photos for the site. The information might include the best time of the day or season of the year to see a manatee or scrub jay.
Brandt said most of the sites highlighted are free or have low admission prices.
“This is an idea that has brewing for a long, long time,” Brandt said.
Varley said the approach “sprung out from our desire to promote nature tourism” at a time when the space shuttle program was winding down.
“We can’t just hang our hat on space and the beach,” Varley said.
Initially, Space Coast tourism leaders organized three meetings in August 2010, at which they asked local residents to discuss their favorite area places and activities. Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten and Titusville restaurateur and ecotourism advocate Laurilee Thompson then co-chaired a Tourism Loop Steering Committee from which the hidden gems adventures evolved.
Winsten said local tourism officials next week plan to start a four-month blitz to promote the hidden gems, which will run through mid-July. That will include promotion of the website, as well distributing printed copies of the maps and descriptions of seven self-guided tours to about 80 sites in Brevard, including local chambers of commerce, hotels and restaurants.
“This is a grass-roots effort,” Winsten said, initially focusing largely on development of the website content and on organizing the content to optimize the chances that people searching for tourist information about the Space Coast will view the site.
Major tourist attractions like the KSC Visitor Complex and Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach are mentioned on the website, but that is not its focus.
“I don’t think tourists have a problem finding KSC or the beach or the zoo,” Winsten said.
In contrast, Winsten said, 99 percent of our tourists don’t know about the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera, a prime viewing spot for many species of birds, as well as alligators, turtles and otters. The Grissom wetland site is featured on the “wildlife encounter of Central Brevard adventure.”
“That’s a great hidden gem,” Winsten said. “It takes people someplace off the beaten track.”
Thompson, who is co-owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville and a member of the Brevard County Tourist Development Council, said experts wrote the content for the website, and top local nature photographers provided many of the images.
“Each of the seven experiences has been carefully curated, and we’re very proud of the product,” Thompson said. “We’d like these experiences to be ‘stay-extenders’” that encourage visitors to stay in town longer so they can visit more attractions.
To see more information about Brevard’s hidden gems, visit www.spacecoasthiddengems.com.