The founders of the Destin Fishing Rodeo figured out in 1954 that the month-long competition could help keep the town's economy running strong after the typical tourist season ended. Almost 60 years later, nearly every business in town is proving them right.
Everyone from restaurants to hotels, seafood markets to charter boats, and retail stores to merchandising kiosks get a big boost to their income because of the rodeo. And that's been the idea all along: keep the money flowing in a town that depends on tourism, hospitality and leisure to keep the economy running.
The Destin Fishing Rodeo itself is a 501(c)4 non-profit organization. It takes approximately 2,500 work hours from 140 volunteers in the month of October alone to keep one of Destin oldest traditions alive, executive director Helen Donaldson told The Log. The money they generate from sponsors, advertisers, boat registration and merchandise is all put back into the rodeo.
"I can't imagine how much money it actually takes to put the Rodeo on," said Donaldson, who is one of only two paid employees as part of the event (the other being Bruce Cheves, the venerable weighmaster.
All the official numbers for 2013 aren't in yet, but it was a record-breaking year with 1,540 fish weighed in on the barge behind AJ's Seafood and Oyster Bar for the competition. Donaldson said they estimate about 35,000 anglers from 38 states actually fished on registered vessels during the month. Of those, about 22,400 stayed in local lodgings for an average of 5.78 nights.
"If they paid only $65 per night for their accommodation, just the lodging income produced by the Rodeo equals $8,415,680," Donaldson said.
The Emerald Grande sees not only a boost in hotel and condo rentals because of the Rodeo, but also boosts to all the businesses at HarborWalk Vilalge. Marketing coordinator Jamie Hall said she looked out her window at HarborWalk one day in October and she couldn't believe how many people were there.
"It was like somebody let out a movie theater," Hall told The Log. "So the fishing is good, the business is good and the people are here. That's a good thing."
Of course, the industry most directly affected by the Rodeo is the charter fishing industry. More than 100 charter boats registered for the Rodeo.
"I ran about 10 days in September, and almost 25 days in October," said Scott Robson, co-president of the Destin Charter Boat Association and captain of the Phoenix. "This Rodeo and all the publicity that surrounds it … it's grown to quite a thing."
Robson said it's the competition that brings customers back year-after-year. He said what made this year special compared to recent years was the two-week red snapper season at the start of the Rodeo. Once that season ended, business tapered off some, but not until Oct. 31 at the end of the Rodeo does the slow fall-and-winter season officially begin.
"Go walk the docks now as opposed to last week, and go walk the docks tomorrow and all next week. Whoa, the bottom falls out," Robson said on Oct. 31.
Seafood markets are an industry with close ties to the local fishermen. James Duff, manager at Destin Ice Seafood Market on Highway 98, said their business drops about 40 percent at the beginning of November. It picks back up right before Thanksgiving, but if it weren't for the Rodeo, the drop in business would probably start in September and last the entire month of October, Duff said.
The biggest boost for Destin Ice Seafood Market's business in October is in sales to restaurants and the shipping of seafood. When anglers from out of town are unable to keep or transport their fish home, the market can store it and ship it to their home.
"I do a lot of shipping during the Rodeo," Duff told The Log. "And, of course, what I sell to the restaurants makes me money, because they go to the restaurants and eat."
Retail stores also enjoy the crowds of anglers who come to compete. Bass Pro Shop at the Destin Commons has two major sets of customers in October, general manager Ryan Cox told The Log: local fishermen who come for supplies like fishing tackle, rods and reels and tourist anglers, who use the charter boats' gear, but buy things like clothes and gifts for family during their visit.
"It's a big part of our community. The heritage of Destin is that Rodeo,” he said.
And honoring that heritage is far more important than dollars and sense, said Alan Laird, owner of AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, which has hosted the Rodeo for more than 10 years running.
“I’ll be honest with you, if I ever business penciled this and broke it all down by time, profit and effort, I don’t know if it would make financial sense. But this is for the community,” Laird said. “When life starts being all about the money I quit.”
He noted that the milestone rodeo got off to a rough start with the “attempted hurricane” and cancellation of the 35th annual Seafood Festival.
“That was a sad start, but as we progressed we had a great year,” he said of the record rodeo. “Every year I wonder how can you keep setting records?”
Then he remembers: “Destin is God’s best work, and October is your month to get to know us,” he said. “The summers may bring you here, but it’s months like October that will keep you coming back.