Along the Gulf Coast, relentless negative news deters tourists

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Hotels, resorts, and tourist offices along the Gulf Coast are on the offensive. Many have been battered this summer season, but they are not giving up the fight against oil, tar balls and relentless negative coverage in the news media.

However, recent signs indicate that the tourism impact of the still-growing oil slick might not be quite as bad for some hotels as it seems in the region generally.

Along the five-state stretch of the U.S. Gulf Coast, numbers from Smith Travel Research showed an 8.1% year-over-year increase in occupancy, to 65%, and a 6% jump in revenue per available room, to $66.90, for the week ending June 26.

The numbers come from hotels surveyed within 10 miles of the beach and do not include breakdowns by cities or resort destinations.

On the Gulf Coast, as in much of the rest of the country, hotels are not seeing much rate improvement, although occupancy is up in some cases, said Duane Vinson, STR’s vice president of content management.

"We speculate that that is because last year was a bad year, so we have good year-over-year comparables," he said. "And also we suspect that cleanup crews, other officials and media are occupying some of the rooms along the Gulf Coast, perhaps taking the place of leisure travelers."

Behind these numbers are hundreds of properties and CVBs that have been innovating on the fly to counter what one hotelier along Florida’s Emerald Coast described as erroneous reports in the news media that "all of the beaches in the Florida Panhandle are covered in oil and tar."

Jeanne Dailey, president of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties in Miramar Beach, between Destin and South Walton, Fla., reported that her summer bookings had plummeted and cancellations had escalated for the 200 condominiums and private rental homes her firm handles.

"We actually had a very good July 4 weekend," she said. "Business was down only 8% [compared with] the 2009 weekend, but I had more cancellations for July and August in the week leading up to the holiday weekend than I had had in the past 30 days."

More than 80% of Dailey’s bookings come from repeat guests, she said, adding that she fears that these guests will find a new destination this summer and not return to the Gulf.

"This is a new challenge and a difficult one." Dailey said. "We’d built back after the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, our numbers were coming back, but my bookings are dismal now."

Dailey reiterated, "There is no oil. We have no oil. But no matter what we do, there is the perception that we’re covered in the stuff."

Small tar balls "the size of a dime" were spotted more than three weeks ago, she said, "but these were immediately collected, the beaches were cleaned and there have been no new sightings."

Dailey, like many of the hoteliers in the Gulf, posts live videos, updated daily, of the beach area on her website (www.destinvacation.com), waives cancellation fees and offers beach guarantees for future stays if visits are affected by the oil.

She also participates in free marketing support offered by the TripAdvisor for Business initiative, which supports Gulf Coast businesses affected by the oil gusher to help balance out some of the declines in tourism.

Recent data from TripAdvisor reveal that Gulf Coast destinations are down sharply in their share of U.S. page views. The exception is New Orleans, which is up 9% year over year, according to Kevin Carter, manager of business and trade media relations.

Cities along the Atlantic Coast appear to be less affected than Gulf Coast destinations in terms of viewers per page, Carter said.

For example, page views for Fort Lauderdale were up 18% year over year through June, while Gulf Shores, Ala., was down 45%.

Taking advantage of its location, which fronts the bay as well as the Gulf, the huge Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Fla., opened a floating water park on July 2 in the bay, away from the ocean.

"We’ve got seven miles of beach," said Laurie Hobbs, Sandestin’s director of public relations and marketing communications. "But we’ve also got miles of bay, so we decided to take the offensive and add the park as another water option for peace of mind for travelers who may be nervous about swimming in the ocean, even though our beaches have never closed."

A waterpark ticket is priced at $10 a day. The resort also offers 19 pools, a marina, four golf courses and 15 tennis courts.

In Panama City Beach, Fla., the CVB launched a Random Acts of Appreciation program to thank visitors for coming.

Tourism officials randomly hand out certificates to visitors, who can redeem them at the Pier Park entertainment complex for a $25 gift card to be used at restaurants and shops.

The program runs through Sept. 7.

In addition, the destination has loaded its summer events calendar with activities and entertainment as an option to the beaches, even though the beaches remain clean and open.

Farther west, in New Orleans, tourism officials were quick to acknowledge the presence of tar balls in Lake Pontchartrain on July 5 and to reassure visitors that the tar balls posed no threat to tourism.

"While the lake borders the northern boundary of New Orleans, it is used primarily by locals for recreational purpose," said Kelly Scholz, vice president of communications for the CVB. "It is not a tourist attraction or a drinking-water source."

Situated 100 miles inland from the Gulf, New Orleans is not a beach destination, and tourism has remained robust and unaffected throughout the oil spill.

When a small amount of tar washed up on the beaches of Galveston, Texas, on July 4, officials there scrambled to collect, clean up and alleviate visitor concerns.

"We’ve got 32 miles of beaches here, and 18 gallons of tar balls were picked up that day, a very small amount," said Joe Jaworski, the mayor of the island city. "There is no oil sheen, no further sightings, and we have shoreline assessment teams inspecting the beaches continually."

In a public service announcement, Jaworski said that Galveston’s beaches "are clean, open, safe and awaiting summer tourists. Officials speculate that, based on the condition of the tar balls, they might have arrived via ship ballast, not ocean currents. We remain cautiously hopeful that this is an isolated incident."

The Galveston CVB, like many others along the Gulf, also reminds visitors that the city, with its museums, shopping and other attractions, offers "many reasons to visit in addition to the beach," said Alicia Cahill, spokeswoman for the City of Galveston marketing unit.

Padre Island, south of Galveston, reported "no oil spill activity. None of our properties are offering incentives or guarantees, because we have not been impacted at all by the oil spill," said Dan Quandt, executive director of the South Padre Island CVB.

This report appeared in the July 12 issue of Travel Weekly.

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