AMEX cards may not have been handed out as told

Chamber CEO Jim Hizer told his board last week that the process for handing out the AMEX gift cards was the visitor presented a hotel receipt and his driver’s license. Those were photocopied along with the jacket for the gift card, which displayed the amount of the card. Those copies were then stored and used to verify the cards were distributed properly.

However, that may not be how the gift cards were actually handed out.

We have begun to hear stories that not all of the AMEX gift cards were given to tourists. Locals would rent cheap campsites at Fort Pickens or motel rooms on the edge of town and get the gift cards with no ID check. A couple people have told me that they were given AMEX cards by concert promoters to buy tickets to their concerts at the Pensacola Civic Center.

The AMEX gift cards have become a staple of the area’s tourism efforts since May 2010 when BP tar balls began to wash up on our beaches.

In August 2010, BP gave a $7 million grant to the Northwest Florida counties. Escambia County received another $1.4 million. Visit Pensacola created and promoted an American Express voucher program—“You Play, We Pay.”

Visitors received a $100 gift card from American Express—up to $300—for each night they stayed in a hotel or rental property. The voucher program was publicized in Southern Living, and other media. Print and online ads were also purchased in key drive markets such as New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville. E-newsletters went out to visitors across the country.

In Spring 2011, the county received another BP grant. The TDC spent $585,700 for “incentivized travel,” focusing on gift cards made available to out-of-town visitors who stay in local lodging during the fall and winter seasons.

Last year, the gift cards were still part of the county’s tourism package, interim TDC director Terry Scruggs wrote in an PNJ viewpoint (Jan. 1, 2012): “Our team also initiated incentive programs offering gift cards for visitors, expanded social media campaigns, and ramped up outreach to media around the country.”

Depending on the level of detail in Clerk of Courts Pam Childers’ and Saltmarsh’s audits, we may find the once-touted tourism promotion was another boondoggle that only benefited a few locals.

If you have some AMEX gift cards stories that you would like to share, please email me–