After lull, Gulf coast tourism in the Tampa Bay area continues to recover

02/02/12 Janelle Irwin
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Tourism along the Gulf Coast took a big hit following the 2010 BP oil disaster. The St. Pete – Clearwater area felt the impacts even though their beaches were unaffected. The St. Pete Beach Chamber of Commerce re-capped marketing efforts at an event yesterday which helped the tourism economy recover.

Doreen Moore owns Total Realty Services. That company rents condos and other accommodations to tourists. Moore said the area’s beaches were tarball-free, but that didn’t stop condos, hotels and restaurants from feeling the effects of the oil spill.

“World wide perception was, thank you to the media doing such a great job of being able to spread doom and gloom, but the impact of that was that we were painted with the same brush as the panhandle, as Louisiana, as Alabama. So, we did see an immediate impact to our tourism dollars, to our visitors and that was very difficult to overcome.”

Moore’s business and others relying on tourism have gotten some new visitors, but she’s worried some people might not come back.

“When you have people who have been loyal to the panhandle, have been loyal to Pinellas County, have been loyal to the beaches of the Gulf coast, gosh, they suddenly went to other locations. Whether it was Myrtle Beach or Savannah or Atlantic side, do you lose that person forever?”

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater is a firm whose sole job is to promote the area’s beaches and attractions. Their deputy director, David Downing said the Deepwater Horizon disaster created a new obstacle, but it also brought in advertising dollars. Of the $25 million given to communities in Florida by BP, the St. Pete – Clearwater area got $1.2 million of it.

“One fortuitous thing was that it happened during the summertime. So our summertime markets are our local markets – the greater Tampa Bay area and Orlando. That was the one thing that really saved us is we could get into those markets, they aren’t expensive markets compared media wise. If that would have happened in winter, we would have had to go into New York and Chicago and Washington and some very expensive media markets and there’s no way we could have gotten the message penetration that we did here in Florida with that.”

In December, the DVD of Dolphin Tale was released. It featured Winter the dolphin. She lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and has become something of a sensation because she has a prosthetic tail. Winter’s movie dramatized the story behind her injury and survival, but it gave Downing another tourist draw.

“To have a destination centered film like that and be the destination where the movie happens and in the movie it’s Clearwater and in the movie it’s Clearwater Marine Hospital and Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It’s a one and a lifetime opportunity for a destination. So, we kind of pulled out all the stops this year. We did national advertising in USA Today to hardwire the fact that that movie takes place in Clearwater, that that movie in this destination, you can come and meet that dolphin. So, we did that. We did a lot of online giveaways, a lot of trips, a lot of sweepstakes, with different tour operators. We’ve done advertising, if you go to Tampa Airport you see the trams going back and forth.”

And the work done by visit St. Pete – Clearwater appears to be working. They projected a 3% boost in tourism last year. That number grew to 8%. Chris Sanborn enjoyed that success. He owns Speedboat Adventures, a company that offers guided boat tours and boat rentals. His company wasn’t around for the oil spill, but he attributed his success so far to being in the right market.

“What I like about it is it’s not all the big franchises and big corporations. It seems like a lot of, more mom and pop people are really trying to build it. Events like these are great. I think the more the better. I think that everybody seems really focused whether it’s the Chamber of Commerce, Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Tampa Bay and Company, everything I’ve gotten is really pushing it. It’s a great place to be.”

Visit St. Pete-Clearwater also taps into the Orlando theme park market to borrow tourist activity. Downing, the deputy director from that organization, said families traveling internationally often base their destinations on theme parks, but after that they start looking for the beaches. That, he said, is where good marketing comes in.

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