Yes, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has sullied some of America’s favorite beaches and messed mightily with the meetings and event industry, but smart planners see opportunities beyond the tar patties.
From Florida to Texas, the main message from travel and tourism officials is that it’s business as usual. Most attractions, hotels, restaurants, exhibits, events and retail businesses are open and eager for business. Many have deals and, truth be told, most beaches have been minimally affected.
So, rather than relocating your event, get informed. City and state CVBs make it easy to stay on top of developments with daily updates on websites, live Web cams, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and promotions to fight attendees’ fears of finding oil-spanked shores upon their arrival. Within weeks of the spill, for example, the Panama City Beach CVB, was offering a $200 travel credit at certain hotels if oil spoiled anyone’s stay. More deals pop up every day, but you’d be wise to read them carefully.
In separate visits, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama encouraged Americans to keep their Gulf Coast appointments. “If people want to know what can they do to help folks down here,” the president stated, “one of the best ways is to come down and enjoy the outstanding hospitality.”
“It’s important for the rest of the country to know these places are just as beautiful as they have always been,” Ms. Obama said. “It’s welcoming, it’s pristine, and everybody should [still] come here.”
In Florida, the gigantic spill, the result of an April 20 explosion and fire on the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, impacted only cities in the Panhandle, from Pensacola to just east of Fort Walton Beach – and not to the extent first feared. Areas that remain untouched or barely touched include Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Cape Coral, Naples, the Florida Keys and all beach areas fronting the Atlantic Ocean as well as the inland Disney juggernaut of Orlando and Lake Buena Vista.
In fact, the spill has reached only about 10 percent of Florida’s 1,260-plus miles of coastline and only 49 (of 800-plus) miles of beach, according to Visit Florida, the state’s official source for travel planning.
“The geography lesson is the biggest thing here,” said Eileen Forrow, Visit Florida’s vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s really perception over reality.”
Helping keep perceptions real are the CVB’s 24,000-plus Facebook fans that have been consistently uploading photos and commenting, she said. “None of it is marketing-speak. It’s real people, real talk, real time.
“Destination does matter,” Forrow added. “But meetings don’t necessarily come to Florida for the beach.”
Still, the Knowland Group, a Maryland research firm, surveyed the region’s hoteliers in mid-June and found that 60 percent had suffered group-booking cancellations. Reasons most often cited were “tainted beaches” and “inedible seafood.” That percentage is up from a survey conducted two weeks earlier (42 percent) and one taken just after the BP incident (35 percent).
Kelly Shultz, vice president of communications for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, called it a “battle” as Gulf states continue to fight to get the true picture of the region before the public’s eyes.
Six Gulf-state cities are among the Top 20 U.S. spots for domestic business and leisure travelers, according to Hotels.com’s most recent list, but none are along the shore. New Orleans (14th) is closest, and it’s 100 miles inland. The others are Orlando (third), Miami (eighth), San Antonio (11th), Dallas (15th) and Fort Lauderdale (18th).
The New Orleans CVB is pushing activities that don’t center around water. Two of the first post-spill events, both in July, seem to indicate that the strategy is working. The National Education Association Convention drew 8,200 delegates and, while official numbers aren’t in yet, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about long lines and hoards of out-of-state visitors at the 16th annual Essence Music Festival.
But perception is perception. So tourism officials are using money from BP — $15 million each to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and $25 million to Florida — to help promote travel to and within the area. In recent weeks, gorgeous scenes and evocative ad copy about the region have become more prominent in magazines and newspapers and on websites as well as television and radio. They are targeting leisure travelers as well as the meeting and event industry.
Pensacola, for example, has been all over that strategy with its “Curious About Our Coast” campaign, designed to drive people to its frequently updated website. The same goes for Mississippi, with its “Wish You Were Here” campaign, which promotes a range of events throughout its three coastal counties and invites visitors to enter a “Wish & Win” relaxation getaway for four. The campaign also includes Facebook pages and YouTube videos.
The Mississippi coast, which has always been affordable, has become more so — especially for planners in search of activities for spouses, children or team-building exercises. Hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions are all offering discounts. And special facilities/attractions such as the Gulf Islands Water Park, Big Play Family Fun Center, Beauvoir (the post-Civil War home of Jefferson Davis), Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, Walter Anderson Museum of Art and StenniSphere at the Stennis Space Center are all beyond the reach of the oil.
As post-spill efforts passed the 90-day mark, the Beaches of South Walton advertised a list of “30 Reasons to Go Anyway.” It includes taking classes at an art gallery, spa experiences, wildlife tours on nature trails, kayaking or canoeing on island bodies of water, zip lining and ropes courses, and seeing a show at Seaside Repertory Theater.
In all, closures or advisories have been issued for only 49 of the 253 beaches in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a grass-roots environmental action group of lawyers, scientists and policy experts. Alabama and Florida and have been relatively unscathed, and Texas remains untouched.
“We have not had any oil, any tar balls, anything within hundreds of miles of our beaches,” said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, in a USA Today interview. “But perception is the problem.”
So why not grab a deal and get your group to the Gulf? You just might bump into the Obamas. The first family is planning a Florida vacation this month.