Tallahassee, FL – In early May, television coverage of the spreading oil spill off the Louisiana coast began to border on the sensational, and confirmed tourists began cancelling their long-awaited vacations to Northwest Florida beaches. Later-deciding vacationers were taking their dollars elsewhere.
By the middle of the month, some hoteliers were reporting occupancy rates down nearly 30% from their usual near 90% level of hotel rooms occupied, and some experiencing occupancy rates in the teens.
Restaurant tables were empty, charter boats were in port and layoffs from much-needed jobs were becoming part of an unthinkable business model, and the Memorial Day weekend was fast approaching.
Memorial Day is the traditional start for the Northwest Florida tourism season, with many hoteliers and restaurateurs enjoying 70 percent of their annual revenues through Labor Day. We immediately began working in early May with our members of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA) to get the word out that our beaches remained clean, pristine and oil free.
Our members across the state inform us that the hospitality and tourism briefings we held in recent weeks, including Pensacola on May 6, Destin on May 14 and Key West on May 25, have started the phones ringing again. This, combined with our $250,000 media effort through two radio spots and a full page advertisement in USA Today, we believe was instrumental in this weekend’s bump in reservations. FRLA is proud to have made a difference in our initial marketing campaign; however, more must be done.
While initial reports from local hoteliers from Pensacola to Destin to Panama City and beyond show an increase in reservations days prior to this recent holiday weekend, there are just as many who were subject to the cancellations of weddings, reunions and conferences over the summer months. We must continue to emphasize that ‘Our Coasts Are Clear’ and Florida is open for business.
On behalf of FRLA, I want to thank Florida Governor Charlie Crist for the time he spent in Destin over the holiday weekend, meeting with local tourism leaders, and assuring potential national and international visitors that our beaches are beautiful.
Thank you to the Governor, members of the Florida Cabinet and Northwest Florida’s legislative delegation for securing more than $25 million from British Petroleum (BP) to fund a national media campaign. This will be crucial to bringing tourists back to the Sunshine State in the weeks and months ahead.
While FRLA is cautiously optimistic that oil will not wash ashore our beautiful beaches, we understand the severity of the situation and that this is fast becoming one of the biggest environmental disasters our country has ever faced. We encourage all hospitality entities affected by the oil leak, to check www.FRLA.org for ongoing information about business recovery and the BP toll free Claims Hotline.
The tourism industry as a whole brings into Florida $60.9 billion in travel spending, $3.65 billion in sales tax collections, and employs close to one million Floridians. These are real people and real families dependent on the jobs that are provided from tourism. As one of the state’s largest economic engines it was critical our industry step up to the plate to immediately counter the misinformation by those reporting tar balls were washing ashore our beaches.
We stand ready to partner with our hospitality leaders and to continue our aggressive marketing efforts in letting tourists know that Florida’s Coasts are Clear, our beaches are pristine, the fish are biting, and Florida is open for business.