On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, gushing out millions of gallons of crude oil and devastating the region’s marine and wildlife habitats as well as the fishing and tourism industries. After the well was capped and the largest petroleum disaster in history was assessed, the hospitality industry began to feel the strain: canceled hotel reservations, empty restaurants and deserted beaches.
Tourism came to a dead halt.
But it seems the industry has found its pulse again. Billions of dollars were pumped into restoring tourism to Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle to spread the news that the beaches were clean, the seafood was safe to eat, and hotels were ready to welcome back visitors.
the big easy
Tourism is key to New Orleans’ economy. Approximately 78,000 people rely on tourism for their livelihood, and although New Orleans was not directly impacted by the oil spill as deeply as the state’s rural parish communities, the messaging from the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau conveyed it was business as usual in The Big Easy.
“We developed a massive marketing campaign with key messaging that despite what was going on in the Gulf, New Orleans was unchanged,” says Kelly Schulz, v.p. of communications for the New Orleans CVB.
The city received a hefty $5 million dollars from BP—money used for marketing and advertising. From a social media photo contest cleverly entitled “Let’s Do Shots” to advertising campaigns highlighting New Orleans’ food and nightlife, the city braced itself for the worse, but seems to have weathered the storm.
Statistics show that in 2010 the city welcomed 8.3 million visitors, and that number went up to 8.75 million in 2011, only one year after the spill. And 2013 looks to be an even bigger and better year for the city as it gears up to host the 2013 Super Bowl in February, followed by Mardi Gras. The CVB also reports that Southwest Airlines is adding a total of 114 daily flights to New Orleans starting in March.
Many hotels have recently undergone facelifts: The Hyatt French Quarter completed an $18 million renovation that included upgrades to all 254 guestrooms, the hotel exterior, lobby and restaurants; W French Quarter revamped all 97 guestrooms, studio meeting spaces and its outdoor courtyard; and the Windsor Court Hotel completed a $22 million restoration to its 316 guestrooms and suites, restaurant spaces, pool, lobby bar and spa.
“The city has never looked better and the visitor experience has never been better than it is today,” says Schulz. “New Orleans is experiencing a new momentum that is really exciting to see from the food to the culture, the people and the city’s way of life.”
The coastal communities of Alabama and Mississippi are made for beach vacations. From fishing to golf and watersports, the region is saturated in Southern hospitality. Approximately $33 million was awarded to various tourism agencies in the three coastal counties of Mississippi.
“Considering it all, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is growing and surging onward in order to do what we have done for centuries, welcoming visitors to our beautiful destination with Southern hospitality,” says Taryn Pratt Sammons, social media and media relations specialist for The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The first year after the explosion, the CVB focused on mitigating the negative effects of media coverage on the condition of the beaches, so they created a YouTube channel showcasing the local attractions, restaurants and beaches. The CVB also focused on helping larger festivals and events with advertising and sponsorships to show that the area was open to visitors.
Mississippi’s tourism industry halted after the accident. According to Sammons, for the past year tourism indicators have been flat and the CVB is using its own budget to keep promoting the area. “Our beaches are clean, our seafood is delicious, and our attractions are open,” she adds.
Visitors can find some new attractions that have opened since the spill: The INFINITY Science Center located on Mississippi’s west coast; Margaritaville Restaurant & Casino in Biloxi; and The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library at Beauvoir, expected to open early this year.
Steve Cape, proprietor of Cape Travel in southern Alabama, immediately noticed the shift after the spill. “Normally we see an impact from the snowbirds that come to the Gulf Shores during this time of year. After the spill it seemed to come to a halt. Not even the locals were hitting the beach. This year it seems visitors are returning,” says Cape.
For the Gulf Shores, a patch of islands south of Mobile, it was all about crisis communication. “Immediately we knew that the area was going to be impacted by the spill and we wanted to be transparent about it,” says Joanie Flynn, v.p. of marketing for the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism CVB.
The CVB posted live video coverage of the area’s beaches while additional advertising, promotions, sweepstakes, beach concerts and TV ads, running alongside BP’s own ads, were aired.
Flynn says social media played a big factor in revealing to the cyber audience exactly what was going on in the area’s beaches. “Via social media we saw a great following of loyal and passionate fans,” she adds. The efforts to be truthful about the condition of the state’s beaches have worked—since early 2012 figures show a 15 percent increase in hotel taxes. Vacation rentals are the norm along the Alabama and Mississippi coast and ideal for those clients looking to spend a few days on the beach.
“The Gulf Shores is a dynamic vacation destination for families,” says Flynn. “We offer a warm Southern atmosphere with great seafood restaurants, fishing, golf, kayaking, biking and parks. If travel agents knew of the wonderful little gem we are, they would have no reservations about sending their clients to us.”
florida’s west coast
Approximately $30 million was dispersed among seven of Florida’s Panhandle counties: Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton. Yet the overall perception surrounding the oil spill devastated areas miles from the Panhandle.
“Visit Sarasota County did not receive any dollars from BP. But the perception was already planted that the coastal areas of Florida’s west coast were receiving damaging tar balls and product from the oil spill,” says Erin Duggan, communications director for Visit Sarasota County. Duggan adds that Sarasota’s beaches saw no tar balls.
In May of 2011, a year after the oil spill, Sarasota’s Siesta Beach was once again named No. 1 Beach in the U.S. by Dr. Beach. “This designation generated some great awareness of our beaches and community offerings as a whole. Since then, tourism numbers have soared and we’ve been doing very well,” she adds.
Vice president of marketing for the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, Susan Estler, says the area definitely saw a decrease in tourists after the spill, but once the well was capped people began to return. “We have experienced 16 months of continuous growth and our bed tax numbers continue to grow. We were lucky to be down only 1.8 percent after the spill.”
For the beach community of South Walton, the dollars were used for a multi-layered approach from TV ads to social media and gorilla marketing strategies.
“We have experienced 17 solid months of double digit increases to our bed tax collections,” says Dawn Moliterno, executive director of the South Walton Tourist Development Council and chairperson of the Northwest Florida Tourism Council. “We are back to our great pristine beaches that everyone has come to love.”
Florida is known for its pristine beaches and soft sugar-white sand. The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa in South Walton is located right on the beach offering 598 guestrooms. Ideal for families in Panama City Beach is Seahaven Beach Resorts, located steps from the Gulf. The Hyatt Siesta Key Beach Club in Sarasota offers residential-style luxury with beach access and comfortable accommodations.
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism CVB: (800) 745-SAND; gulfshores.com
Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa: (800) 559-1805; sandestinbeachhilton.com
Hyatt French Quarter: (504) 586-0800; frenchquarter.hyatt.com
Hyatt Siesta Key Beach Club: (941) 346-5900; siestakeybeach.hyatt.com
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau: (888) 467-4853; gulfcoast.org/travel-professionals
New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau: (800) 672-6124; neworleanscvb.com/travel-professionals
Panama City Beach Visitors & Convention Bureau: (800) PCBEACH; visitpanamacitybeach.com
Seahaven Beach Resorts: seahavenbeach.com
Southwest Airlines: southwest.com
Visit Sarasota County: (941) 955-0991; visitsarasota.org/travel-professionals
Visit South Walton: visitsouthwalton.com
W French Quarter: (888) 627-8260; wfrenchquarter.com
Windsor Court Hotel: (888) 596-0955; windsorcourthotel.com