Gulf tourism faces daunting task: Restoring a battered image By Gay Nagle Myers / August 31, 2010 Share 1 -- Almost four months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill 115 miles off Louisiana's Gulf coast, shrimp boats have begun trawling nets instead of containment booms. Shrimping is a $100 million industry in Louisiana, supporting 14,000 jobs, according to the state's Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. Will there be shrimp? Will distributors buy the shrimp? Will consumers eat the shrimp? Two weeks ago, the first family licked ice cream cones, dined on fish tacos and dolphin-watched from the helm of a converted Navy launch on St. Andrews Bay in Panama City Beach, Fla., 175 miles northeast of the BP drilling rig that exploded April 20. The questions weighing on the destination are: Will tourists buy into that scenario? And if so, will it translate into a business boom? Is a photo of the president taking a dip in Gulf waters truly worth a thousand words? Will a 27-hour "vacation" designed to show tourists that the Gulf Coast is open for business ratchet up consumer confidence enough to boost tourism revenues, which officials throughout the region have estimated are down between 20% and 50% this summer? (See story below on how Panama City Beach is handling the public's perceptions of the oil spill.) The oil spill delivered three blows to the tourism-dependent coastal communities: the actual presence of oil; the misperception that oil was everywhere; and the uncertainty of what had happened to all that oil. Early on, Mike Foster, vice president of marketing for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama, declared, "The damage has been done -- both real damage and the damage caused by perception, even though we're not soaking and dripping in oil." Perception became the wild card in how the oil disaster would ultimately affect the region's travel revenue. (Click on image at right to view a chart of the public's perception of the oil spill.)The economic damage to the tourism industry is projected at $22.7 billion over the next three years, according to analyses conducted by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association. "Perceptions matter a lot, and changing perceptions is key to mitigating the effects of the disaster," said Andrew Sacks, managing director of Oxford Economics. 'Roadmap to Recovery' U.S. Travel called for a $500 million emergency marketing fund from BP to assist destinations in distributing correct information to travelers, who spent more than $34 billion along the Gulf Coast in 2008, helping to support 400,000 jobs. The association also launched GulfTravelUpdate.com to centralize links to travel and recovery information for Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. It was all part of a 10-point Roadmap to Recovery that U.S. Travel presented to the government, arguing that the fund could reduce the economic impact of the oil disaster by $7.5 billion. At 770 miles, Florida's Gulf coastline is the largest in the region. Tourism and recreation spending in Florida totaled $65 billion in 2008, employing 1 million people and generating about 21% of the state's sales tax revenue, according to Visit Florida. Losses from the oil spill could top $11 billion and cost 195,000 jobs along Florida's Gulf Coast, according to a study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. The study noted that although only 16 of the 180 beaches in Florida's western Panhandle have been affected by the spill, the impact of graphic images from the spill could affect travel decisions for the entire state, from Orlando's theme parks to South Florida's luxury hotels. Visit Florida had serious concerns about the financial dent Florida could endure if tourism dropped off precipitously. A June Ypartnership survey of 1,300 travelers indicated that 10% were uneasy about traveling to Florida as a result of the oil spill. A later survey by Conde Nast Traveler revealed that 15% of travelers said their travel plans had been affected by the oil spill, although 60% said they would consider travel to the Gulf Coast within the next six months. Travelocity's mid-August poll of 2,000 Americans found that many respondents believed that the oil had spread far beyond its actual reach. One in four named the Florida Keys, where not so much as a tar ball has been sighted, as being among the destinations affected. All sorts of studies are out there, and many reveal consumer confusion and misperception, which perhaps explains the significant cancellations in group bookings in more than 60% of Gulf Coast hotels this summer, according to the Knowland Group, a Virginia-based marketing firm. Today, 672 miles of the coast are still tainted by, or at risk from, oil, mostly in the marshes, wetlands and estuaries of Louisiana, where the final tally of marine life destruction might not be known for years. And now, microbiologists at the University of Georgia report the presence of small oil particles spreading eastward along the floor of the Gulf, threatening the ecosystem where the food chain begins. All but two beaches along the Gulf Coast are open, some never closed, and the BP hazmat crews in yellow jumpsuits are pretty much gone now. The red "no swimming" flags now signal riptides, not health advisories. With Labor Day weekend approaching, tourism officials are working hard to salvage the fall shoulder season with offers of incentives, reduced rates, resort credits, special events, restaurant discounts and waived cancellation fees. Restoring a battered image is the order of the day. Will the tourists come next year? Can first-time visitors be persuaded to vacation in the Gulf next summer? Will repeat guests pack up coolers and kids and head on down to the Gulf they've known for years? Too many photos of sheen, slicks and oil-soaked pelicans did the damage early on. Even as Key West mounted live webcams showing oil-free beaches, brown tar balls washed up on the sugary sand in Gulf Shores, Ala. Cancellations came in on each tide for family reunions booked in Biloxi, Miss., and for beach weddings in Pensacola, Fla. For condos, hotels, inns, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, dive shops, caterers, scooter rentals, musicians, photographers and attraction venues, the sun set early this summer in the Gulf. The geography of the region seemed to confuse the media as well as the masses. While the oystermen and charter boat captains remained sidelined by closed fishing grounds in Louisiana, and Mississippi's Dauphin Island was ground zero for cable TV anchors, Mexico Beach near Apalachicola, Fla., remained clean, wide, white and empty. The doomsday rumor that "oil is coming, oil is coming" crippled tourism in Galveston, Texas, for a couple of days and even emptied the beaches further south on Padre Island. The few oil blobs that did wash up in Galveston were collected, examined, analyzed and found to be old bilge from cargo ships long since gone. Tourists not familiar with the region were often left with the impression that every wave on every beach was bringing in the toxic stuff. Video of the gushing well spewing out thousands of gallons a day for weeks was relentless. The start of the summer tourist season along the Gulf coast coincided with the arrival -- or threat -- of oil, unexpected, unpredictable and deadly. Tourism officials geared up to battle this enemy, but lacking crisis management plans to cover this particular type of disaster, it became a matter of too little too late for many communities and businesses. Marketing strategies evolved on the fly and included deep discounts, waived cancellation fees, new events and live photos of beach conditions posted daily on websites. The tourism industry in the Gulf this summer was in full-fledged crisis mode, juggling two missions at once: working to protect their shorelines from oil, while assuring tourists that their beaches were clean and the waters healthy. Transparency became the only path available to reassure travelers. Sanibel and Captiva islands on Florida's west coast never saw a tar ball, but Alabama's 32-mile shoreline had oil on its beaches, which was reported via video on the tourism department's website. "The greatest thing we stand to lose is not an overnight or a one-week stay but credibility," Foster said. Tourism leaders from Louisiana to Florida asked BP for advertising money to counteract the negative news coverage from the oil spill and to persuade nervous tourists to travel to the oil-threatened shores of the Gulf. Mississippi got BP to foot the bill for a $7.5 million-a-month, three-month national media campaign that shifted the focus from the state's oily beaches to its casinos, entertainment and family attractions. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist squeezed $35 million from BP for an emergency advertising and marketing blitz. Alabama's Department of Tourism unveiled two TV spots, produced with a $25 million grant from BP, and later announced campaigns to shift focus away from the oil crisis to the state's musical roots. Louisiana received $15 million to help promote tourism, with more expected. An alliance of state, federal and local community officials launched the Gulf Coast Ready 4 Takeoff coalition on Aug. 26, designed to revitalize the coastal economy through diverse development projects. Click here to view a slideshow on the cleanup efforts underway.Perception, not oil, vexes Panama City Beach, Fla.PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- "It's very easy," Tony Johnson told me. "The hard part is getting your balance, standing up straight and looking out at the water, not down at your feet." On a humid Friday morning in mid-August, Johnson was doing what he'd been doing each day this summer: teaching rookies the basics of stand-up paddleboarding. Before we left for a sheltered lagoon on the bay to put his teaching to the test, several customers came through the door to rent surfboards and paddleboards for the day. Business seemed pretty good at Tony's Surf Shop on the east end of Front Beach Road here at the midpoint of the Florida Panhandle. "It's steady, but it's been a rough few months," he admitted. "June was up, July was down, don't know about August yet. We've been open all summer, but it was real slow at times. People were crying, 'Doomsday is coming. The oil is coming.' It never did, but the anticipation that it would was tough." It's a refrain I heard over and over. Although oil never did taint the sugar-sand beaches here, the expectation that tar mats would roll ashore in waves, followed by the misperception that they actually did, "are what has hurt our business and other businesses down here," Johnson said. A stroll along Panama City Beach's 26-mile, oil-free coastline was encouraging. There were visitors in the surf, on the sand, in the beach bars and restaurants, although their numbers were down from summers past. Empty chaise lounges at the Tidewater Beach Resort where I stayed attested to that, as did the number of available rooms. Thanks to a strong base of repeat customers, clever promotions and a varied product line, the Surf Shop stayed afloat. Those strategies worked for the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, as well. "We came up with new ideas day after day," said Dan Rowe, president and CEO. "We had to keep the visitors coming and the revenues rolling in." June tax revenues were down 5.8% from June 2009, and Rowe was pleased because early projections for June had forecast a 20% drop. The bureau launched reward programs, vacation guarantees, cancellation and refund policies, and visitor appreciation days. Its summer-long events calendar promoted activities on and off the beaches, including concerts, fireworks, outdoor movies and even a belly-dancing performance to benefit the National Wildlife Federation's oil spill restoration fund. The destination's Facebook page, launched in October 2008, climbed to more than 100,000 fans this summer, according to Susan Estler, the bureau's vice president of marketing. "We love our fans and the enthusiasm they show for Panama City Beach," Estler said. During my brief visit, a group of concerned Missouri residents calling themselves the Gulf Caravan arrived in town on the final stop of their four-day trek along the Gulf Coast. The group's mission was to visit businesses, spend money and raise awareness about the impact of the oil disaster, according to organizer and small-business owner Dennis Gorg. "So many businesses in the Gulf region are losing customers, employees and dreams because of the impact on tourism and fishing," he said. "We are doing something here. We are tourists with a purpose." The caravan of 15 traveled from Bay St. Louis, Miss., to Panama City Beach, stopping and shopping at local stores and businesses en route. "We hope that our efforts lead to more spending and tourism in the long run and that others plan their own caravans," Gorg said. In Panama City Beach, they received the keys to the city, dined at the Sunnyside Grill, visited Pier Park, walked the beaches and overnighted at the Sugar Sand Motel. Just like tourists everywhere. -- G.N.M.