Updates, education part of Gulf states’ marketing strategies

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To the list of booms, berms, skimmers and suction hoses being used to contain and control the toxic soup in the Gulf, add digital billboards, date-stamped videos, websites, e-blasts and webcams.

Image-driven perceptions of ruined vacations are as big an enemy in the Gulf as the tar balls on the sand and the oil sheen on the water. And that enemy threatens to kill the tourist season along the coast.

In response, tourism bureaus from the Louisiana bayous to Florida resort areas have ratcheted up their marketing to persuade tourists to come this summer.

Oil spill updates are posted on the home pages of the official websites of the four states affected by the spill so far: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

Within minutes of the gooey muck called "tar mousse" rolling in with the tide on June 23 along three miles of beaches in Pensacola Beach, Fla., VisitFlorida.com posted that information along with a health advisory from the Florida Department of Health warning of the temporary closures of two area beaches.

"We’re proactive and have to stay that way," a VisitFlorida spokesman said. "We owe it to our visitors."

Hotels along the coast were busy last week creating marketing messages to ensure that travelers were aware of basic geography. Some beaches along the Gulf Coast have been affected, but thousands of popular beach destinations remain unharmed.

Panama City Beach, east of Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle, launched a Summer of Fun celebration through Sept. 6 that features street festivals, movies and fireworks.

Meanwhile, Fort Myers and Sanibel, along Florida’s west coast, aired nine 30-second TV spots from June 21 to 25 to address consumer misconceptions and reassure visitors that the oil spill is not affecting the area’s beaches. The second installment runs June 28 to July 1.

Spots are filmed, edited and aired in one day and feature a traveler experiencing a different part of Fort Myers each day.

"Tourism is the lifeblood of our local economy," said Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. "Our doors are open. Our shores are clean. We need our visitors."

Hotels and destinations along the Gulf Coast are getting help from TripAdvisor. When the online review company saw significant traffic decreases in page views after the leak began in April, it launched a program to provide marketing support in the form of three months of free ad space for hotels and CVBs.

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