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Tourism Marketing Backed After Hurricane, Red Tide

Dead fish on the shore of a beach.
Stephen Splane / WUSF Public Media
The Florida Channel
Dead fish litter a Pinellas County beach earlier this year.

The state’s tourism-marketing arm wants to send a message to potential visitors: Hurricane damage and fish-killing red tide don’t cover all of the Sunshine State.

The Visit Florida Board of Directors on Tuesday approved an $8.89 million marketing campaign intended to address the hurricane and red-tide issues and protect the state’s brand by stressing what is open across the state.

The agency has been using Facebook to post videos of parts of the Panhandle that weren’t hammered by Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10 and plans a website will go live Thursday to provide information outlining what is open, said Staci Mellman, Visit Florida’s interim chief marketing officer.

The site will also encourage visitors to try new areas. “If they like a certain kind of beach, maybe they might like something else,” Mellman said.

The crisis-response campaign, which is something Visit Florida officials admit they have had to become experts at the past few years, will expand as counties still digging out from Michael are able to start welcoming visitors.

The plan will take several approaches, including continuing to share local tourism-agency information on social media, targeting videos to domestic and international markets and having international tour operators work to manage “misperceptions of damage.” Also, it includes airing TV ads in 15 domestic markets, at an estimated cost of $2.65 million, and conducting international marketing campaigns in the United Kingdom and Germany, estimated at $400,000.

The public-private Visit Florida will also undertake a survey on tourists’ perceptions of Florida and intends to set up a grant program to help local tourism agencies as red tide --- along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts --- subsides and hurricane-damaged areas of the Panhandle reopen.

Visit Florida Board Chairman Lino Maldonado said the layered message --- mixing what is open with areas that are suffering --- needs to protect Florida’s image while setting the right tone to “to tell that story that is so desperately needed across the Panhandle.”

Money for the marketing effort will come from a combination of sources, including $1 million from the agency’s crisis funding, $1.3 million from shifting agency funds and $2.2 million from the state’s economic risk fund. Visit Florida will have to repay the money from the economic risk fund.

Visit Florida’s red tide-related efforts have been ongoing since July.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has attributed red tide to the deaths of thousands of fish, sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins and more than 150 manatees.

Meanwhile, Visit Florida board Secretary Dan Rowe of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau said the hurricane recovery is going faster than expected, and a message is that people shouldn’t give up if they plan to visit next spring.

Damage from Michael is mostly between eastern Panama City Beach and Port St. Joe. A timeline has not been set for the hardest-hit areas to return to business.

Rowe said about half the tourism lodging in Panama City remains offline and will have to be renovated and reconstructed, and the tourism situation is worse in Mexico Beach.

“It was almost a complete devastation, very few buildings are standing in Mexico Beach that did not experience significant damage,” Rowe said.

Visit Florida received $76 million from the state Legislature for the fiscal year that started July 1.

A year ago, Visit Florida enacted a similar $5 million winter-marketing plan to promote the Florida Keys after the island chain was ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

Jim Turner is a reporter for the News Service of Florida.