Grant request may inflate Tough Mudder’s benefit

Every hotel and motel room in Santa Rosa County would have to be filled for an entire week in April by Tough Mudder enthusiasts to achieve the economic impact of the two-day event as estimated in a request for state funding filed by the Tourist Development Office.

That’s because while there are 695 such rooms in nine lodging locations in Santa Rosa spread among Navarre, Milton and Gulf Breeze, according to county records, the TDO’s grant request projected that Tough Mudder guests will account for 5,000 room nights.

The tourism industry’s definition of a room night is one room occupied for one night.

“I don’t see any way you get to that number,” said Laurie Gallup, owner of Navarre Properties, which manages rentals of condominiums and houses on the beach.

The 161-room SpringHill Suites hotel is under construction on Navarre Beach but isn’t expected to open until December.

Area lodging managers estimate that while there are about 1,000 condos and houses on Navarre Beach that are rented at various times, Spring Break guests—unrelated to Tough Mudder–will largely occupy those in early and mid-April. Neither county records nor the TDO has an official count of the total available condo units or occupancy estimates.

The TDO’s grant request for $30,000, prepared by county employees at the agency, is being considered by the Florida Sports Foundation in Tallahassee, which administers the distribution of some funds allocated by the state to promote athletic-related activities that are expected to attract visitors from outside of Florida. However, the foundation doesn’t require that all the room nights projected in its grant requests be within a particular county—only that they travel from outside Florida and stay somewhere in the state.

A foundation official told the Navarre Press last month that because of limited state funding this year, no more than $13,000 is expected to be available to support the for-profit Tough Mudder Inc.’s military-style obstacle course. The New York City-based company is pricing participants’ tickets at $109 apiece.

Santa Rosa County commissioners voted in November to give Tough Mudder $80,000 in bed tax money as an incentive to hold its event here in April.  Last March, when Tough Mudder held its 2015 event, bed tax collections rose 29 percent from the same period in the previous year – but the rise was largely attributable to a 25 percent increase in the tax rate.

The county’s calculations

Julie Morgan, the county’s tourism development director, who prepared the grant request, asserted to the Navarre Press that her estimates of the Tough Mudder hotel stays and resulting economic impact are realistic. She based them partly on a survey by a San Diego State University sports business professor of last March’s one-day Tough Mudder event, which estimated that visitors for the event accounted for about 4,000 hotel/motel room nights in Santa Rosa County.

“We are expecting a regional impact increase in room nights…due to a second night stay,” Morgan wrote in an email to a reporter.

According to Morgan’s estimate of 5,000 room nights to be generated by Tough Mudder in April, the lodging revenue would be $755,000, resulting in $37,750 county bed tax collections.

But the San Diego state analysis, paid for with $4,000 in county bed tax money, has been challenged by volunteer members of the watchdog Tourist Development Council. Some on the council, which is authorized by the Florida Legislature to make recommendations to county commissioners on hospitality matters such as spending, have voiced doubts about the accuracy of the study.

Further, a Tough Mudder executive acknowledged in December that, despite the San Diego State study, which it commissioned, most Tough Mudder guests from out of this area who stayed in hotels did so in Escambia County.

District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson has indicated that in order for Tough Mudder to receive future funding from the county, the company will have to provide proof that it helped fill area lodging spots to capacity this April.

Tough Mudder has rankled some area lodging managers by asking them for 15 percent commissions on their revenue from guests who make reservations in connection with the company’s April event. In return, Tough Mudder promotes those facilities on its website and social media.

With the two-day activity just over two months away, six hotels and one condo management group with a total of about 500 rooms have agreed to pay commissions ranging from 5 percent to the full 15 percent, according to the managers or owners. They say reservations are trickling in slowly but expressed optimism the pace will increase.

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