By MITCH STACY
DESTIN, Fla. - Gulf Coast tourism officials who gathered for a meeting at a Florida Panhandle resort this week weren't exactly jumping for joy over the prospects for growth in 2011, even with the worst of the recession and BP oil spill in their rear-view mirrors.
Instead, there was measured optimism that this would be a year of modest recovery - that vacationers would continue coming back to the beaches and seafood restaurants in communities whose images and economies were battered by the oil spill last year. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill occurred April 20, ruining the lucrative summer season and the year for tourist enclaves that were still fighting off the malaise of the recession. The gusher was finally capped three months later.
Millions of dollars in reparations from BP were invested into national promotions for the beaches and gulf seafood. Tourism officials reported good - but not great - March spring break crowds this year, with the more family oriented Easter break and typically busy summer seasons still on the horizon.
But many hotels still are offering deep discounts to keep rooms filled. In Pensacola, BP workers walk the beaches regularly to round up stray tar balls, and tourism bureaus continue to fight the perception around the country that the white-sand beaches in the Florida Panhandle and coastal Alabama are awash with oil.
"I think we're cautiously optimistic," said Colette Boehm, special projects director for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism in Alabama, where oil and tar balls stained parts of the 32 miles of coastline last summer. "With the (survey) numbers we're getting, we can't discount the fact that there is still some perception of an (oil) issue out there. But the anecdotal data that we're getting is that's getting better as time goes on."
Last year was expected to be a banner year for Panama City, Fla. The Panhandle beach town saw a record number of spring break visitors in March 2010 and had scheduled the opening of a new international airport for May amid great hoopla. The airport went online as expected, but its debut was overshadowed by news of the April oil spill and uncertainty over if and when crude would hit the shore. Beaches in Panama City saw only some scattered tar balls, but the crowds still mostly stayed away - despite a visit from President Barack Obama and his family designed to show that the beach was clean and the seafood was safe.
"Ecologically, we've fully recovered. Now we have an economic recovery," said Dan Rowe, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. "But we can't get back the momentum we lost with the opening of the airport - 2010 was going to be a springboard for the future. We'll do OK in 2011, but it's really about trying to sustain and get that momentum back. If we continue to tell our story, we may over time get back to that trajectory we were on before the oil spill."
Rowe and other tourism officials said the oil spill pushed them to utilize Facebook and other social media more to get out their message, convince people the beaches were clean, promote events and generally connect with visitors on a more personal level. That online following is considered a vital part of the public-relations strategy for most tourism bureaus now.
"They have done an incredible job getting that message out there," said Duane Vinson, whose Smith Travel Research analyzes lodging trends for the industry. He said the company's research projects a slight increase in average daily rates paid by hotel guests this year, and that rising gas prices won't be a huge factor when it comes to people deciding whether or not to travel this summer. Hoteliers in the southeast expect a "strong summer season," he said.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand out there, people who have held off on those vacations over the last couple of years," Vinson said. "They're going, 'We haven't been to the coast for a couple of years, let's go to the coast.' We're going to see those people heading back to their old vacation haunts, to the places they've enjoyed."
John Russell is president of Sandestin Investments, owner of the lovely 2,400-acre Sandestin Gulf and Beach Resort that hosted this week's tourism conference. Russell said the challenges last year taught him and his promotions staff that they have to work harder for their business, offering discounts when necessary, fostering relationships with online travel companies and using email blasts and social media often to promote events and specials.
"There is no longer a 'you build it and they will come' in this business anymore," Russell said. "You have to be the best marketer in the business."