A binge-worthy marketing campaign? St. Pete/Clearwater sure hopes so

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T0621DONCESAR_C_HR_[Credit: Rachel Ayotte]
The iconic Don CeSar Hotel plays a prominent role in "Life's Reward," St. Pete/Clearwater's latest marketing campaign disguised as an eight-episode drama. Photo Credit: The Don CeSar
Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

How we consume media has changed drastically in the past 15 years, and the way that products and places are marketed through the media is also evolving at a head-spinning pace.

One example is a new collaboration between Visit Florida and Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater that is now available for download and for sharing on social media. It may not epitomize 21st century destination marketing … but then again, it just might.

This marketing vehicle for promoting Florida and St. Pete/Clearwater, which goes by the name of "Life's Reward," is a scripted drama, presented in eight short episodes, about a fictional character who gets stranded penniless in St. Pete/Clearwater with only a massive stash of travel reward points to keep him afloat.

As the privileged son of a high-profile wealth manager, Dan Kinney had it easy until he waged everything on a big gamble and lost. Now he's "stuck" at the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach and must adjust to an unexpected change in lifestyle and circumstances.

Intrigued? Not everyone will be. But Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, is betting the show will pick up enough viewers to make the $550,000 invested in the production pay dividends.

The key is the background photography, which shows off the destination in the same way a Coke can discretely placed in a feature film advertises Coca-Cola. It's not the foreground, but viewers see it nonetheless.

"So there's this cool story, and you're paying attention to the story," said Hayes. "But in the meantime what you're seeing is all these things about all the great things to do in Clearwater  whether it was the Dali (museum) the Don (CeSar Resort), the beach. And so it's all there, but as I'm wrapped up into the story, versus my story being interrupted by a TV spot," he said.

Hayes said a nontraditional way of reaching visitors appealed to him. "If I'm going to buy a 30-second spot, cable broadcast, whatever, then all I'm getting is a 30-second spot that's interrupting somebody's TV show," Hayes said.

By integrating the show and the message, there's no interruption. "In this case it is a 10- to 12-minute show that in the background we are marketing the destination by showing cool things that you can do here," Hayes said.

Hayes said he's not aware of any other destination management organization using such an innovative approach. Still, other leisure companies are using TV to integrate brands with dramas, such as Carnival Corp., which has been airing network TV shows for several years on Saturday mornings that are more about travel than they are about Carnival.

"Everything is there subtly," Hayes said of the approach. "It's not right in your face."

But with all the competition from dramas on cable TV and elsewhere, will people find it?  Hayes sees a tailwind from the pandemic.

"I think one thing you almost have to count on is that people have been cooped up, and they probably have watched just about everything under the sun. And so they're looking for new things that don't fit what they'd normally think of," he said.

Visit St. Pete will push awareness of the show through its social media channels, as will Visit Florida. "I think they are also putting some (advertising) media behind it, as well," Hayes said. Visit St. Pete is also devoting public relations resources to getting the show some attention, and it is working with its two international offices to build awareness overseas.

But distribution is going to rely on word-of-mouth and viral transmission as much as anything.

"Again, I think what we're trying to do is get nontraditional with it, and then see what happens, and then if we need to do some [marketing] things then we're able to. But let's let it grow organically first."

Hayes said he's not reducing any classic forms of destination marketing to pay for "Life's Rewards," which is also being supported by the St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commission.

"We have the full gamut of advertising out there. That's still running. We're not stopping any of that. This is just another way," he said.

All eight episodes of "Life's Rewards" became available starting May 10 on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, GoUSA TV, and Places.Travel.  A trailer for the series can be viewed here.

In conjunction with the show's release, the Don CeSar is offering the Life's Rewards Package. It includes: 

• Two-night (minimum) luxury accommodations in a Dan-approved suite 
• $250 recreation credit for ocean adventures or relaxing treatments at Spa Oceana 
• Daily $150 food and beverage credit at the resort's six restaurants and lounges  
• Complimentary daily resort fee 
• Daily valet parking 

To book, call the resort directly at (844) 338-1501.

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