It’s starting to become a challenge to keep track of all the feathers Sarasota has in its cap. The city is currently home to the #1 beach in the United States, has the one of the highest concentrations of Zagat-rated restaurants in Florida and leads other small cities throughout the nation as the top destination for the arts.
Last week, Sarasota was bestowed with yet another honor when the Atlantic Caribbean Chapter of the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) claimed the city as a temporary home base to hold their Annual Professional Development Meeting from May 20-23. Lido Beach Resort hosted the writers, who convened from cities all over the eastern United States to hold their annual meeting.
The trip certainly was not “all work and no play” for the writers. When they weren’t in meetings and conducting SATW business, the writers partnered up with Visit Sarasota County (formerly the Convention Visitors Bureau) to take in the sights, sounds and tastes of the town.
“I’ve never heard the word ‘paradise’ said so often as I have today,” said Ringling Museum Director Steve High during the SATW’s closing reception in the museum courtyard. “The feedback we’re receiving from these writers has been absolutely incredible. I mean, I’m still knocked out by this place and I’ve been living here for a year.”
During their four-day stay in Sarasota, the writers had a chance not only to immerse themselves in Sarasota’s vibrant arts and culture scene during visits to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the Ringling Museum of Art and the Ca’ d’Zan, but they also took a voyage down paths less traveled by seizing opportunities to take a kayak eco-tour through mangrove tunnels and go birdwatching at Myakka State Park.
Some also went on the morning rounds at Mote Marine, visited Big Cat Habitat and Selby Botanical Gardens, explored the Downtown Farmer’s Market and filled up on as many meals as possible at restaurants around Sarasota and Longboat Key.
“If there’s anything I regret from this trip, it’s that I didn’t have enough time to really explore the food scene,” said Beth D’Addono, a food and travel writer based out of Philadelphia and New Orleans. “When I come back, I have a lot of restaurants to try.”
“I’ve lived just 50 miles north of Sarasota for the past 43 years and until this trip, I had no idea how much this city has to offer,” said Bob Jenkins, a freelance writer and member of the SATW Board of Directors who resides in St. Petersburg.
“I can’t wait to come back and really concentrate on experiencing this city as a tourist rather than spending so much time in business meetings,” he added.
Sarasota wasn’t the only city in the spotlight during the SATW’s business vacation. Writers also had an opportunity to stay in town for two additional days and experience North Port and Venice, where they enjoyed breakfast at the Horse and Chaise, took a dip in the Mineral Springs and toured the Venice Theater, in addition to a variety of other activities.
Hosting the SATW in Sarasota has a tremendous share of benefits, not just for the writers who got a chance to take a business trip unlike any other, but for the city itself. Dozens of writers who pen articles for travel magazines, newspapers, blogs and other web publications all over the United States returned home from their annual SATW meeting with heads full of ideas and praise for our fair city.
“Having this group of travel writers is even more powerful than traditional advertising,” said Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley.
“As a traveler, when I read an article or a blog about a destination that the writer experienced firsthand, I give it a lot of credibility,” she added.
Some of the writers such as Lucy Tobias, an Ocala-based author known as “the authentic Florida expert,” have visited Sarasota in the past, but were pleasantly surprised by the manner in which the city has progressed since their last visits.
“It’s been over 10 years since I visited Sarasota, and I am just blown away by the amount of arts and culture. Now I wish I lived here. I always just assumed that Sarasota shuts down during the summer, but you guys are really rocking with the theater; the summer concert series — there’s just so much to do,” Tobias said.
“What I find interesting,” said Haley, “is how many of them keep saying how surprised they are by how progressive Sarasota and the people they’re meeting here really are.”
Tobias believes that other cities, including her own, could learn quite a bit from a visit to Sarasota.
“I want to bring some of the city commissioners from Ocala back here to see what we saw. I think it could really change some hearts and minds about what a city is capable of,” she said.
Rick Sylvain, a public relations director with Disney World in Orlando, was just as enchanted by Sarasota as the other writers.
“I’m in the business of enjoying myself and this has just been such an enjoyable place. I’m blown away by the friendliness of the people and the fact that this is one of the greatest natural settings in Florida,” he said.
“At Disney, we’re all about magic and amazement, but where we’re standing —” Sylvain gestured to the soft tangerine glow of the sun setting over the Ringling Museum courtyard, “—this is just phenomenal. You guys have really raised the bar.”
And there you go, Sarasota. Give yourself a pat on the back. When Disney tips its hat to your magic and says you’ve raised the bar, you deserve to feel a little self-congratulatory.