Gulf Goal is to Keep Travelers Coming

Let’s start with a basic geography lesson: Florida’s Gulf Coast is long. Seven-hundred-seventy miles, to be exact. Myriad beach towns line the coast, all with their own unique appeal. It’s unfair to lump them all together as one destination.

Hotels along the coast, reeling from its third disaster in 10 years, are busy building public relations campaigns and marketing messages to assure travelers are aware of this basic geography. The April 20 explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig that led to an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has polluted beaches in several regions, mainly along Louisiana, Alabama and a small portion of Florida. But thousands of popular beach destinations remain unharmed, and hoteliers are working hard to make sure travelers don’t sink the travel season by over-reacting.

“If you’re looking at the media right now, you think everything is like it is in the marshes, with the oil-soaked birds,” said Bruce McAlphin, owner of the Best Western Ft. Walton Beachfront in Fort Walton, Fla. “The reality is it’s not. Right now, looking out my window, it appears just like a normal, gorgeous summer day here.”

So far, McAlphin said day-to-day business at his Best Western isn’t too bad. The hotel has been getting a lot of walk-in traffic and people have been asking a lot of questions about the water. The real hit has come in advanced reservations.

“Since the oil spill through yesterday I’d estimate we’ve lost about $250,000 in cancellations,” he said. “And we’re not unique. I’ve talked to neighboring hoteliers and everybody’s in the same situation.”

McAlphin said efforts are focused on making sure potential guests call and gather information about the specific destination before cancelling their vacation. Every destination, he said, is being affected differently.

Aware of the potential strain the oil spill could place on the tourism markets along on the Gulf, the U.S. Travel Assn. got involved. President and CEO Roger Dow joined representatives of SouthCoast USA, a consortium of destinations along the Gulf that promotes the region, for a press conference this past Friday at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front Hotel in Pensacola, Fla.

Geoff Freeman, SVP of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Assn., said the efforts of individual hotels spreading word about clean beaches simply won’t be enough. Tourism boards, BP and the U.S. government need to team up to create an awareness plan, he said.

“The question really becomes ‘How do we save these jobs,’” Freeman said. “We can wait and rely on BP’s $20-billion escrow account to pay out claims or we can prevent the need for there to be any claims. If we can keep people coming to the Gulf Coast, if we can convince BP they have a responsibility to market and save the summer season, that’s what’s important. We’re not waiting for the next shoe to drop.”

The association has outlined three short-term goals: aggressively work with policy makers to help them understand this is a travel issue; become active in educating elements of the industry as to how they can get claims paid; and focus on a roadmap for recovery.

Freeman said the association will research past oil spills—it has already spoke to tourism officials in Alaska who experienced the Exxon Valdex oil spill in 1989—and share information with Gulf destinations. It will also lobby government organizations to take action, suggesting a proposal for marketing funds to help promote the region.

Officials from SouthCoast USA also announced at Friday’s press conference that they have signed a joint letter requesting BP to grant $10 million in marketing and advertising funding.

For Joe O’Connor, VP of the hotel division with BN Management Co., occupancy in the region is actually up considerably. O’Connor oversees eight hotels in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, including franchises in Berwick and Houma, La., which is about 45 miles from Grand Isle, where the most oil has washed ashore.

Several of O’Connor’s properties are housing BP employees and members of the U.S. Coast Guard who are helping cleanup efforts. Because of this, his portfolio is running around 76-percent occupancy, compared to 54 percent for the same time last year, and he has actually had to deny rooms to some regular clientele. But he knows it won’t last.

“It’s going to take effect after the cleanup settles down,” O’Connor said. “With the new restrictions on offsite drilling, that’s going to be a problem. Our properties depend on those crews that come on and off the rigs. They work three days a week, and then when those guys aren’t out on the rigs they’re staying in our hotels.”

Noting significant decreases in traffic among hotel and resort listings on TripAdvisor, the online review company recently launched a program to provide marketing support to those affected in the form of three months of free advertising.

The company noted within the first 20 days of May, after the leak began, there were significantly less pageviews year-over-year on TripAdvisor for the following regions: Biloxi, Miss. (down 25 percent); Gulf Shores, Ala. (down 17 percent); Destin, Fla. (down 8 percent); Pensacola, Fla. (down 40 percent); Panama City Beach, Fla. (down 18 percent); Clearwater, Fla. (down 19 percent); Fort Myers Beach, Fla. (down 19 percent); and Fort Walton Beach (down 33 percent).

“Immediately we thought about how we could help,” said Christine Peterson, president of TripAdvisor for Business. “We’re offering three months free advertising with no strings attached. The number is well into the thousands of hoteliers who are already taking advantage of the offer. We’re taking a revenue hit, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”

Peterson explained the opportunity allows properties to list their unique URL on their detailed information page, driving booking traffic directly to their own booking engine.

In Fort Walton Beach, McAlphin is scrambling to save what was shaping up to be a phenomenal recovery year before the oil spill. Numbers were creeping back up and hotels in the area were forecasting a record summer. Now McAlphin has lowered rates and is blowing through a marketing budget sending e-mail blasts to future guests and updating Facebook photos daily to assure guests that the water is clear. For now.

If oil drifts to Florida’s coast, “They say it won’t be like it is close to the well site. There may be some patches of it that can be easily cleaned up by the crews that are out there,” he said. “Our cancellation policy has completely changed–we got very lenient–you can cancel up until the day you arrive. We want them to stick with us and keep calling back.”