Gov. Charlie Crist says the state needs to spend nearly $35 million on an emergency advertising blitz to calm tourists worried that Florida beaches might become fouled by the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
And he's got an idea who should pay the bill: petroleum giant BP.
Not a drop of oil from the spill has touched Florida yet. But hotels from the Panhandle to the Tampa Bay area say bookings are down and jittery customers are canceling reservations.
After hearing Wednesday that Visit Florida, the state's quasi-public tourism agency, could tap only $2.5 million, Crist asked BP to bankroll a $34.75 million campaign.
"Because of the constant images of millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, potential visitors are receiving negative and false information," the governor wrote to Lamar McKay, president of BP America. "We need your urgent assistance to correct the record. This action is critical to our economic survival."
A BP spokesman said the company was reviewing Crist's letter and planned to meet with the governor and Visit Florida officials. "We absolutely will respond in a very specific way," said spokesman Ray Dempsey. "BP is committed to support tourism in Florida."
BP pledged last week to give Florida $25 million to help cover the state's initial costs for responding to the spill. The money could be used for tourism advertising, said Dempsey, but that wouldn't preclude the company from giving additional help.
Tourism ranks among the state's top industries, accounting for $57 billion in spending annually. More than 900,000 Floridans work in lodging, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses.
The recession caused a historic decline in travel last year. Industry officials saw small signs of recovery in March and were hoping for a strong summer.
The spill could be as damaging as the multiple hurricanes of 2004, said Keith Overton, chief operating officer of the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach, at a hearing of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works on Tuesday.
"Even a further 10 percent reduction in Florida tourism dollars could force many of our tourism-based businesses … out of business," he said.
Overton told the committee that Florida needs to spend at least $100 million in advertising and public relations to counter tourists' concerns. ''We've got to get marketing dollars out there to say that Florida's in great shape," he said in an interview Wednesday
Crist dropped in on Visit Florida's governing board in Tallahassee early Wednesday and got an earful about the crisis.
Carol Dover of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a trade group, said Panhandle area hotels were frantic that their phones weren't ringing with tourists booking summer vacations.
"We can't seem to get the message out fast enough," she prodded Crist. "If we don't do something immediately, they're just going to die." Crist acknowledged to reporters that the agency's $2.5 million wasn't enough. His office announced the request to BP soon afterward.
Most of the money would go to Visit Florida for a $24.75 million multimedia campaign largely targeting Florida's bread-and-butter summer business: tourists driving from large and midsize metro areas in the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest.
Ads will direct consumers to the agency's website. Viewers will see live video of tourists rollicking on unspoiled beaches and enjoying attractions.
Visit Florida's advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach of Miami, has been working on the campaign for two days. But it will likely be seven to 10 days before a spot could be on television, said spokeswoman Kathy Torian
The 19 Gulf Coast counties under an emergency order by Crist — including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando — would be eligible for a combined $10 million in local marketing grants under the plan.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.