The Rapture didn’t hit on May 21, and thankfully the predictions of the 2010 BP oil disaster destroying tourism along the Gulf Coast for the next three years appear to be way off, too. Thanks to the efforts of Visit Florida, Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce, tourism has bounced back and business owners are cautiously optimistic about this summer.
For Perdido Key, this year began well with a strong snowbird season. For the first four months of 2011, the rentals at The Purple Parrot, Perdido Sun and Beach Colony Condominiums are ahead of last year, according to John Hallam, Perdido Key Resort Management manager, setting the stage for what he hopes will be a much busier year than 2010.
“When the North experiences a heavy winter followed by an early spring, people are itching to get down here,” Hallam explained.
Eden Condominiums’ three-bedroom condos are booked for the month of July. It is a good indication of how well business will be during the summer season when the one- and three-bedrooms are booking up in January through March, Eden Condominiums’ Rental Services Director Melanie Tremaine said.
“Our goal is and shaping up to look like 2009,” Tremaine told IN.
Eden’s business began picking up in February. There were a third more reservations made in the beginning of the year than there were last year during the same time period before the BP oil spill disaster.
“I predict business will be 30 percent more than last year,” Tremaine said. During the Spring Break week of April 2-9, Eden was almost fully booked with Spring Break families.
FIGHTING NEGATIVE NEWS
On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and leaked approximately 205 million gallons in the Gulf at the peak of tourist season in Northwest Florida. It was the largest man-made environmental disaster in the history of the United States.
In a white paper for the Pensacola Young Professionals that was published recently, Ed Schroeder, the vice president of tourism for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and the director of Visit Pensacola, described the impact of the disaster on local tourism. He wrote that the phones at hotel reservations stopped ringing when NOOA included Pensacola in forecasting where the oil slick could possibly reach. When the oil reached Escambia County’s shores on June 2, trip cancellations began.
“With nearly 20 percent of our local economy dependent on a robust tourism industry, everyone was watching to see how bad it would get—especially the media,” said Schroeder. Even though the worst damage was in Louisiana, viewers believed Pensacola was covered with oil because so many of the broadcasts were from Pensacola Beach, according to Schroeder.
“For the next several months, beach destinations from Gulf Shores to Panama City were devastated, some losing over half the revenues they would normally,” writes Schroeder.
To survive, Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key had to overcome coverage of oil spill broadcasts by cable and network media and more than 28,000 negative stories published about the spill. BP provided the county with over $2 million to support marketing to counter those stories and bring back visitors to the area.
“A novel promotion that basically paid vacationers to come was the American Express gift card promo,” Schroeder wrote in his white paper. “Visitors from 45 states and three countries took advantage of the $100 cards to come back to the beach. One result of the promotion was the virtual sell-out of the beaches on Labor Day weekend.”
The American Express gift card promotion launched Aug. 24, 2010 brought many vacationers to Perdido Key. The promotion, called “Keys to the Keys,” offered a $100 gift card for each night booked at a condo, resort or RV park in the Perdido Key area up to $300, which could be spent anywhere. Visitors picked up their gift cards at Perdido Key Visitor Center when they presented their paid booking, a copy of the program registration and their identification.
Many vacationers took advantage of this opportunity, and over 3,900 rooms were booked, according to Alison Davenport, broker of Davenport Properties. “Perdido Key did exceptionally well with the gift-card promotion,” she told IN.
“It was fabulous,” Tremaine said. “Eden Condominiums filled up in two days flat.”
MORE BP HELP
In April, Gov. Rick Scott announced that Florida was getting a $30 million grant from BP for tourism. The grant is spread over three years and must be used for the purposes of tourism promotion and awareness building. During the three-year period, BP will evaluate expenditures, and tourism council partners will provide quarterly updates on tourism program activities and other information. Seven counties–Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf and Franklin–will benefit from the grant.
Escambia County was allocated $4.38 million. However, the county has yet to approve how the funds will be used. The Escambia Tourist Development Council reviewed 35 applications and made a recommendation to the county commission to fund 11 of the proposals.
The Pensacola Bay Area Chamber is slated to receive $2,463,694 for broad national and regional advertising and gift-card campaign similar to “Keys to the Keys” to attract tourists to the area. The Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce will get $940,084 to promote the island.
Other recipients include:
Deluna Fest $546,342
Pensacola Sports Association $180,703
Pensacola Mardi Gras Inc. $120,000
MWP Pensacola Events $36,000
Pensacola Beach Chamber of Commerce $26,000
Community Redevelopment Agency’s Pelican Drop $25,000
Pensacola Songwriters Festival $25,000
Pensacola Seafood Festival $16,000
Pensacola Big Game Fishing Club $6,000
Commissioner Grover Robinson told IN that the TDC met for six hours and listened to all the presentations prior to making its decision on how to distribute the BP grant. “We could not have had a more open or fair process,” said Robinson. “We are the only county that does it this way. Others simply turned their entire grants to tourism authorities who spent them as they saw fit.”
Unfortunately, the Board of County Commissioners didn’t agree with the TDC recommendation, or at least one commissioner didn’t. Commissioner Marie Young objected that no funds were allocated to African-American groups. The commission voted to delay the vote on how to spend the BP grant until its next meeting in June.
POST BP DISASTER ADJUSTMENTS
While the Perdido Key Chamber waits for the county commission to make up its mind, business on the Key continues to boom. Property managers have had to make some adjustments due to the perception issues caused by the BP oil disaster and the tighter economy. Condominiums have changed their reservation policies and retooled how they market themselves to vacationers.
Eden Condominiums changed their reservation policies. Vacationers at one time were required to stay at Eden for a minimum of seven days, but now they will find the requirement has been reduced to three days. The majority of Eden’s visitors now stay between three and five days.
Like Eden Condominiums staff, Susan Carleton, owner of Pointe South Realty, is encouraged by the start of 2011. “The snowbird roost turned out great,” she said.
Pointe South Realty manages a hundred vacation rentals, including condominiums and beach houses, and 165 long-term rentals. Because of the uncertainty of how the BP disaster might impact the beach on any given week, Carleton saw more last-minute reservations last summer than normal. People watched the news reports and The Weather Channel before they decided to vacation on Perdido Key. The fear of the oil spill kept people away from planning ahead.
A year later, Pointe South is excitedly booking vacationers early, and many people who were unable to come last year are returning this year. Pointe South has booked many repeat guests, and their reservations have been made as early as December 2010 for their summer vacations.
Pointe South is 25 to 30 percent ahead of their reservations from 2009 and 40 percent ahead in reservations from February 2010.
“Business is great and people are energized. People love Perdido Key because it is so laid back,” Carleton said.
BP ANNIVERSARY WORRIES
There was some concern that media coverage of the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion might hurt the momentum of the tourism recovery. Business owners feared the coverage would once again cast our beaches in an unfavorable light.
For tourism directors like Schroeder, all they could do is hold their breath and hope the impact was minimal. “Pleasantly, their interest seems to be a celebration of recovery, not a focus on reliving it,” said Schroeder.
On April 20, 2011, Gov. Rick Scott walked the beaches on Santa Rosa Island with Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward and area business leaders. He wanted to make it clear that Florida’s beaches were open for business.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam appeared on “Morning Joe” from the deck of The Fish House and touted the area’s seafood.
The message was loud and clear that Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key have recovered and are ready for a big summer season. Vacationers got it and have continued to book rooms and plan to visit our area.
RETAIL & RESTAURANTS UP, TOO
Condos aren’t the only businesses that thrive with an increase in beach visitors.
The Crab Trap on Perdido Key saw their business begin picking up after the first of the year. Spring Break was a good time for the restaurant on the beach, but Memorial Day through Labor Day is when they see a real kick off.
“Business is improving,” said The Crab Trap manager Matt Carstens.
The Crab Trap Restaurant has locations in Destin, Fort Walton, Pensacola and Perdido Key. The Perdido Key restaurant has been open for 10 years and is the only Perdido Key restaurant that sits on the beach with views of the Gulf of Mexico. Last year The Crab Trap was expecting their best year since they opened, and then the BP oil spill disaster happened, Carstens explains.
Last summer the parking lot was filled with busloads of BP oil spill cleanup crews. “People do not want to see cleanup crews and equipment on the beaches while they are enjoying their vacation,” said Carstens.
This year, there are no cleanup crews on the beach and the talk of oil on the beach has subsided. “No one got to go to the beach last year, so we are hoping everyone has the summer itch,” said Carstens.
If business continues as it has, the manager predicts it will have a great summer busier than any years before. “Busy busy busy, is our hope,” Carstens told IN.
On the retail side, the impact of the BP disaster was just as devastating. The Perdido Key business community experienced a rough summer, but new businesses have begun to spring up along the Key. The Sports Bar of Perdido Key, Bella Luna Pizza, Mr. Hollywood Arcade and The Market on Perdido Key are a few of the dozen new businesses that have opened in the last year.
“The opportunity is here,” said Anne Frechette, owner of The Market on Perdido Key, which offers women’s designer apparel, jewelry, shoes and accessories, art, antiques and unique decorative curios. Much of the store’s business comes from locals, but it thrives on the business brought in by non-residents and the tourist industry just as much as most beachfront businesses do.
Considered a new business—opening its doors in January 2010 at The Villagio—The Market on Perdido Key is a sister store with The Market and Mainly Shoes, which has been part of Pensacola’s business community for 27 years.
“The Market on Perdido Key was on track and ahead as of April 20, 2010,” said Frechette. The business plan was to be within 12 months at the break-even point. Once the BP oil spill disaster occurred on April 20, the new store on Perdido Key found its numbers fall to zero within three days.
By September the numbers had begun to turn around. “Since March, it has been a healthy climb,” said Frechette.
SEAFOOD IS SAFE
Tourists enjoy our area’s fresh seafood, which is why Commissioner Putnam made the appearance on “Morning Joe.” The Florida Department of Agriculture has successfully negotiated a $20 million settlement from BP—$10 million for testing and $10 million for advertising and marketing Florida seafood.
Over 200 seafood samples have been tested. Only 11 percent had any traces of oil and that was one one-thousandth of the level at which FDA has concerns. The $10-million grant will allow the testing to be expanded to 80 samples each month for the next three years.
“The science tells us that we have absolutely no reason for any concerns about our seafood,” said Putnam when he met with area business leaders in April. “We have the most tested seafood in the world.”
In April, the Department of Agriculture ran a full-page ad in USA Today to promote our seafood. It has created an online tutorial for restaurant workers to help them deal with questions from customers about seafood. They are developing a website on which the public can enter the tag number of the snapper that they bought and find out who caught it and where.
“The oil spill is our most recent body blow, but it’s not really the only blow our seafood industry has taken over the past few years,” said Putnam. “We’ve dealt with rising fuel prices, recession and the BP spill. It’s important we save this industry for this state.”
At the first of the year, Perdido Bay Seafood started to see a turnaround in business as well. A family owned and operated business that has been opened for 23 years, Perdido Bay Seafood owns two commercial fishing boats along with six privately-owned fishing boats. Most of the seafood sold is locally caught.
All its fish is inspected regularly by the state. “Everything comes back clean,” Teresa Fagan, co-owner, told IN. Perdido Bay Seafood has been reassuring people that everything has been tested and is safe to enjoy. Fagan says their seafood has never been contaminated with oil. She states during the months following the BP oil spill disaster their store was filled with seafood—just no customers.
“We catch our own fish, we filet the fish, and we eat the fish. It is sitting right there and it is beautiful,” Fagan says.
When the BP oil spill disaster occurred, Perdido Bay Seafood saw its summer business dry up. During the months of May through August, Perdido Bay Seafood normally has between 100-200 customers a day in their store, according to Fagan. After the oil spill, the store had no more than 23 customers a day.
“It was hard,” Fagan said. The first of the year brought in good business with the snowbird season helping out. Spring Break began and Perdido Bay Seafood has had between 80 and 90 customers through their doors a day, and the numbers are steadily increasing each day.
“We are excited,” Fagan tells IN. “At the end of the day, if my feet hurt then we had a good day.”
The Original Point Restaurant opened its doors in 1985, and they have been serving the community with good food and live entertainment ever since. Its business also slowed down following the BP oil spill disaster. The number of people dining with them was down 50 percent, leaving many empty tables. Normally the month of July is booming for the restaurant. Last year, July resembled December, sitting only one or two tables during the lunch and dinner hours, the whole day.
The months after the BP oil spill disaster were horrible, owner David Lively explained. The business struggled to make ends meet. Lively cut hours for his staff as it become more and more difficult to make the next payroll. Many left because the hours cut and reduction in take-home pay made it hard for them to pay their bills.
“The BP checks helped through the winter months—it got us through it,” said Lively.
The snowbird season also helped. Lively feels they are well on their way back to normal numbers. “We are just now starting to see people,” he said.
With people returning to Perdido Key, Lively is rebuilding his staff. He has added people to the kitchen staff and to the wait staff. The objective is to staff up for a normal summer.
“We have been getting shorthanded lately, which is a good sign that we are getting busy,” Lively says. “The Spring Breakers were encouraging.”
Schroeder is proud of how well tourism has bounced back. In his paper for PYP, he said, “Our success in this mission can be judged by the comparatively shallow drop in tourism revenues suffered and speed at which we recovered.”
The area saw tourism revenue losses of about 12 percent in June 2010, 24 percent in July 2010 and 15 percent in August 2010. “We recovered in September, are currently 15 percent over year-to-date revenues earned last year, and the forecast for this summer is for this trend to continue,” said Schroeder.
“We have overcome the perception of oil, our image has been restored, and the story to tell is of triumphant victory over the worst man-made environmental disaster that our nation will hopefully ever see.”
To find out more about our tourism:
PERDIDO KEY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE & VISITOR INFORMATION CENTER
15500 Perdido Key Drive
Toll free: (800) 328-0107
PENSACOLA BAY AREA CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU
1401 E. Gregory St.
Toll free: (800) 874-1234
PENSACOLA BEACH CHAMBER OF COMMERCE & VISITOR CENTER
735 Pensacola Beach Blvd.
PYP WHITE PAPER
“BP Oil Spill: The Effect on Tourism and Creative Solutions to”