SEBRING - Thirty-one years ago, as Bob Bennett has learned the story, the West Palm bikers rode to Kenilworth Lodge once a year. However, the club, which no longer exists, quickly realized something.
Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach roads were dangerously congested. Sebring and Highlands County, said Bennett, 75, were scenic and safe.
So the group partnered with the Kenilworth Lodge, which became the host hotel for an event that started and finished in Highlands County.
Bennett, a former Baltimore physiologist, and his wife Rita, a saleswoman, biked onto the scene five years ago after the Tour of Sebring had grown to 200 riders. They became the event directors three years ago and applied for Highlands County Tourist Development Council grants to promote last year's event.
Along with event photographer Jim Harris, the Pedalers designed their own website, promoted the tour with ads in online cycling magazines, posted flyers at other bike events, and emailed a list of 2,300.
Bottom line: 516 non-club registrants paid to ride in this year's Labor Day weekend event, 25 club members paid $10, and 23 volunteers rode free. Do the math: 569 total.
Bennett estimated the economic impact at $110,000 in hotel rooms, rider fees that were directly spent on breakfast and lunch, on-their-own suppers and gasoline.
"That doesn't count the shopping?" asked Tourism Director John Scherlacher. "I think that estimate may be low." Because each dollar is respent 1.73 times as waiters spend their tips and restaurants buy more food, Scherlacher fixed the economic impact at $210,755.
Based on the survey, the Bennetts estimated the event filled 338 rooms for 761 room nights. Last year, Scherlacher verified 649 room nights.
"We fill our hotel with that event," confirmed front desk manager Amber Kelly. The Kenilworth has 108 rooms, so 230 riders stayed elsewhere. "We hold all our rooms for those attending. If anyone other than a bike rider stays here, it's because of a last-minute cancellation."
"I think this shows these types of things - and most people don't pay a lot of attention to them or they think they come here and they don't spend any money - but it does help generate money for the businesses in Highlands County," said County Commissioner Jim Brooks, who read Bennett's numbers aloud in a Tuesday meeting.
The age range was 8 to 86 years, said Bennett, who surveyed 109 of the riders; 35 percent were female.
"I know, from being a parent involved in Little League, we'd spend several hundred dollars a week when we went with them, and that was in the late 1990s," Brooks said.
This year, Lake Placid Chamber CEO Eileen May reported greater crowds at the Caladium Festival, the Heartland Triathlon set an attendance record, and now the Tour of Sebring.
"Things are getting better out there," Scherlacher said. "And awareness of Highlands County is also increasing."
The county is becoming known for signature events like the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo at the Sebring airport and 12 Hours of Sebring.
The Bennetts are now enhancing the Tour of Sebring experience.
Riders pedal 63 miles around Istokpoga on Saturdays, 105 miles to Bok Tower on Sundays, and 62 miles to Crewsville on Mondays. Shorter rides are also scheduled, but they're ready to eat when they return to the hotel.
"We upgraded the food dramatically by getting Chef Mac at the Palms," Bennett said. A hot after-ride buffet lunch is served. This year, Sunday's menu included carved turkey breast with cranberry sauce and cornbread stuffing, grilled mahi mahi with pineapple relish, or grilled chicken Veracruz.
Rest stops are staffed with volunteers and stocked with fruit, sandwiches, water and sports drinks.
Currently, most of the riders are from the South Florida metro centers, plus a few from neighboring states. Next year, Bennett is thinking about advertising in Ohio, where a significant percent of Highlands County's 20,000 winter visitors come from.