Fla. officials recount election's tourism impact

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MIAMI -- Election 2000 has been a three-week boon for hotel occupancies in South Florida and Tallahassee, with hundreds of reporters, TV crews, lawyers and political activists holed up in hotel rooms for the duration.

Nevertheless, few executives from Florida's tourism industry appear in the know about what impact, if any, the earthquake of media coverage will have on tourism trends this winter and beyond.

"The publicity has been immeasurable," said a Visit Florida spokesman in Tallahassee. "If anybody in the U.S. or the world wasn't aware of Florida three weeks ago, they sure are now."

In Broward County, Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she was stunned by the media exposure raining on the Sunshine State since the evening of Nov. 7, when Florida's pivotal role in the historic election first dawned on the world.

"Every time a TV reporter talks on camera underneath the sunshine, we smile," said Grossman. "Unprecedented numbers of people are seeing the names Broward County and Fort Lauderdale, and the weather looks great on TV."

Will the Sunshine State parlay the political spotlight into tourism promotion initiatives?

Apparently not, according to the Visit Florida spokesman. He said Visit Florida did receive some unsolicited examples of good creative tourism tie-in ads from a few ad agencies.

But the controversy surrounding the election, he said, has been "too emotional" for many citizens around the U.S. and to "trivialize it" in a tourism campaign might prove too offensive.

The state's ad efforts, he said, will continue to focus on the diversity of the state's appeal and its major draws -theme parks, beaches and sunshine.

In Palm Beach County, the brunt of jokes because of its butterfly ballot, the possibility of piggy-backing on the election spotlight remains, but there is nothing imminent, according to a spokeswoman for the Palm Beach County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Ideas and promotion taglines have been bantered around such as "Counting the Reasons You Need to Come to Palm Beach County: Beaches, sunshine, etc."

West Palm Beach hotels, especially those near the airport where the counting was in progress, did extra business. Occupancy during the post-election period in West Palm Beach is usually around 72%, and it reached about 78%, the spokeswoman said.

She thinks the jokes about the voting process will be forgotten by early next year, and the winter outlook continues to appear very strong, she added.

Of all Florida's cities, Tallahassee, the state capital, has tallied the biggest gains from all the hoopla.

The city has 5,000 area hotel rooms, and historically, hotel occupancy tends to peak during major football games and other special event periods or when the state legislature is in regular session, March through May. In fact, the pre-Thanksgiving period is kind of "slack," the Visit Florida spokesman noted.

John Citron, vice president of the Tallahassee Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that the city's fortunes literally were reversed with the election controversy.

Tallahassee avoided a major overbooking disaster the weekend of Nov. 18, when the University of Florida-Florida State football game was in town, drawing upwards of 30,000 out-of-town visitors who filled rooms as far out as Panama City and Lake City, a 60- to 90-minute drive, respectively.

Media representatives who arrived before the game were informed by city hotels upon check-in that they would have to vacate their rooms over the three-day game period. Football fans had reserved those rooms as long as one-year out, Citron said.

The hotels and the bureau established a hotel hot line and other emergency assistance, he said. Some 400 calls for space were handled over the period, he said.

A CNN crew of 40 was housed in a police academy dorm, he recalled, which was reopened at the bureau's request. Meanwhile, even private homeowners volunteered to take in the media, he said.

The football game alone had a $4 million economic impact on the city, in addition to the huge sums spent so far by the media during the past three weeks, Citron said, and the spending was still ongoing at press time, as legal decisions and the possibility of the state legislature reconvening loomed.

Agents sound off on election mess

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- "I've lived here my whole life, and I've seen a lot of things, but this beats all," Mary Hurley-Lane, owner of Eileen's Travel here, said of the ongoing election debacle in Florida.

The agency is two blocks away from ground zero -- the West Palm Beach office where ballot recounts were taking place. She and some of her staff strolled over one day to see history in the making.

Agents who work at Eileen's Travel found themselves booking air travel for some journalists -- one reporter who returned to Germany and a few others who headed back to Washington.

"It has definitely helped our economy -- flights, hotel, car rentals ... we were just in the right place at the right time," she said.

But, she added, "In the beginning it was interesting. Now it's just frustrating."

A few blocks away from Eileen's, Steve Barofsky of Sunrise Travel said the election mania in town hadn't brought him any new clients, but he noticed that some of his law firm clients appear to be staying put for now.

Barofsky added that he would like to see the politicians go home.

"All these Republicans and Democrats come in here and criticize the way we do business, the way we count our votes," he said. "It's just like the pot calling the kettle black."

Many agents agreed that while the constant coverage of Florida was negative, it was too soon to tell what that would mean for the tourism industry.

"It's hard to say," ASTA South Florida chapter president Jan Hammond said. "[The coverage] probably is casting a negative impact or impression. But it's hard to relate that to travel."

Doris Green's agency, Nina Travel Service of Miami, hasn't seen any extra business from the influx of reporters, lawyers and politicians crowding into Miami, but it certainly hasn't hurt travel in the area --the airport was "just packed," she said.

"It's a shame it's had negative publicity," Green said. "We feel we're getting a raw deal in the press. Most people out there think we're idiots."

Barofsky had a different opinion: "I think any publicity is good," he said. "It puts us on the map."

Jim Wacksman, owner of Adventures in Travel of Tallahassee, said that for the most part, it's been business as usual for the past few weeks.

"We had a call from a gentleman with the Republican Party and he was trying to find hotel rooms and rental cars," Wacksman said. "At the time we weren't able to help him out. Hotel rooms were really hard to come by a few weeks back."

The University of Florida vs. Florida State college football game in Tallahassee on Nov. 18 didn't help matters much. "People were getting offers to rent out their homes that weekend," Wacksman said. "So no one was having much luck finding a hotel room within 60 miles of Tallahassee."

Charlie Hunter, owner of Tallahassee-based Astro Travel and Tours, said his business has slowed down a bit since the election.

"We do a lot of business and state government travel and we're finding that a lot of those clients aren't leaving town right now," Hunter said. "We've had quite a few lawyers and state workers call and cancel trips because they want to stay in town for what's been going on."

Most Tallahassee-based agency owners did agree on one thing: It's been more difficult finding flights in and out of the state capital since election night.

"Load factors were really high to begin with, and now they are out of control," Shannon Lyle, manager of Tallahassee Travel and Tours, said. "I would have to say that's been the most annoying part of this whole thing."

-Joseph Kornik and Rebecca Tobin contributed to this report.

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