Beach ambassador program provides a smile, puts visitors in the know
By Jane Bartnett
“Siesta Beach ambassadors are the gateway to the area and the first impression that visitors have,” proclaimed Jonathan Poyner, Siesta and South Lido beach coordinator with Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources.
“The volunteers who staff the information booth at the main entrance to Siesta Beach are our best recruiters for the entire region,” Poyner added. “They’re an integral part of what we do — they keep us relevant, viable and keep us as the No. 11 tourist destination.”
On any given day, visitors who stop at the brightly colored booth to ask about Siesta Beach and things to do on and near the Key benefit from meeting these friendly and informative volunteers.
The program that began in 2004 will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. As the season begins, Poyner hopes to welcome many more new ambassadors.
“We’re always recruiting and looking for adults with a heart for people who care about the environment and want our economy to grow,” Poyner said. “Becoming a beach ambassador is a great way for people who have just moved here to meet people and make a difference.”
A commitment of 2 1/2 hours a month is all that’s required to be a beach ambassador. The booth is staffed seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and filled with useful brochures, fact sheets, and local newspapers.
“Our ambassadors are primarily retirees,” Poyner said, “but we also welcome older high school and college students, ages 17 and up. Seasonal residents are also welcome. We schedule three shifts a day, seven days a week, and like to have two ambassadors together at the booth.”
Each year, beach ambassadors log more than 2,500 combined hours of service and during the past 19 years that amount of time has yielded $1.3 million in value to the county, Poyner reported.
Many ambassadors have been with the program for a long time, and there are currently more than 50 of them.
Siesta Key resident Ron Varilek is one of the program’s longest-serving ambassadors.
“Ron is an original,” said Poyner with pride. “He’s been with us from the start, and he has logged more than 2,500 hours (on his own).”
A retired civil engineer, Varilek joined the program in 2004 a year after he and his wife retired here from Illinois. He enjoys meeting the many different people who come to the beach.
“Families that come here love this beach,” he said. “It’s just a great place to be. Parking is free, there’s a playground for the kids, there’s volleyball and all kinds of things to do.”
A South Dakota native, Varilek served in the Navy and then went on to study civil engineering and graduate from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Although his career took him to many places, it was Siesta Key that won his heart. One of the things that he enjoys the most about his beach ambassador job is meeting people from around the world. He also likes to stay up to date on the latest trends and happenings on the Key and in the area.
“Restaurants and food are the No. 11 question that people ask about,” he said. “Then, they want to know about things for the kids including where to play golf, gyms and sports.
“And I get a lot of questions about real estate. They want to know if this is a good place to live. I tell them, ‘Yes, it is!’”
Over the years while serving in his beach ambassador position, Varilek has observed many changes on the Key and off. “We talk to a lot more Northeast people than before. They tend to go to the east coast of Florida and then come over here to see us,” he said.
“They like it here better,” he added with a laugh.
The Siesta Beach sand is another topic that Varilek and his fellow ambassadors are asked about all the time. “‘Where did the sand come from?’ is a popular question,” he said. “I tell them that our sand is very old, very unusual and that it got here a long time before I was even born.”
Said Poyner, “People like Ron Varilek have good hearts and they really care about the people that they meet and the whole area.”
Operated in partnership with Visit Sarasota County (the official tourism marketing entity for the county) and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, the program accepts applications from volunteers all year long. New ambassadors receive an hour-long education session and then shadow a veteran ambassador while working at the booth.
To learn more about becoming an ambassador, drop by the booth across from the concession stand in the pavilion and talk to an ambassador directly. Or, visit scgov.net/government/human-resources/volunteer.