Even before the first tar ball washed ashore in the Panhandle, tourism marketers 430 miles away in Fort Myers doubled advertising spending to prove their beaches were "still pristine."
Nine straight mornings a crew hit the beach to tape a new 30-second TV spot of a quirky Chicago comic in a red Speedo yucking it up with locals including TV weatherman Willard Scott. They then paid an extra $750,000 to air them later the same day on ABC World News and the Weather Channel.
Costly? You bet. But it highlights the marketing nightmare confronting vacation promoters grappling with geographic misperceptions and bigger unknowns of a huge moving target still spreading in the Gulf of Mexico.
"This oil spill is not your average crisis," said Tamara Pigott, director of the Lee County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We don't know when it will end. The consequences remain undefined. Research found our vacationers confused. So we have to show people what it's like here right now every day."
Why the rush? Surveys showed 8 percent of vacation prospects falsely thought oil was already fouling Fort Myers Beach two months ago. Worse, 11 percent thought it reached the gulf beaches of Tampa Bay and 7 percent said it had hit Key West. And 10 percent of booked vacations statewide were canceled, according to Ypartnership, an Orlando travel research firm.
That unleashed loads of money on advertising to set them straight.
Much of the extra cash came from $25 million BP handed Florida, plus $15 million apiece for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to salvage their summer tourist seasons. But even though oil hit only 71 miles of its coast, Florida has blown through it, plus all $2.5 million of its own emergency reserve. BP last week rejected Gov. Charlie Crist's request for $50 million more, but discussions continue.
The additional cash would have continued Florida's $10-million-a-month ad spending pace, which is about what Visit Florida, the state's tax-supported marketing arm, normally spends on ads all year.
BP, which never paid for tourism ads during previous oil spills, prefers to deal with the fallout on a market-by-market basis. They prefer something more creative like the Jimmy Buffett concert that last Sunday drew 35,000 to the beach at Gulf Shores, Ala., and was nationally televised three times on CMT. Although Buffett, who owns a nearby hotel, appeared free, BP paid $3.5 million to stage the show, plus $1.5 million each for two more with other artists.
Crist countered the rejection, pointedly asking how much BP is spending on its own image-polishing ads in Florida.
"We don't divulge that, but it's less than $50 million," said Lucia Bustamente, BP spokeswoman.
The spill forced Florida marketers to constantly adjust to a crisis still unfolding. Even after the well is permanently sealed, it could take years to clean all the oil, especially if a hurricane whips the gulf into a toxic soup. Indeed, 184 million gallons of crude, 18 times as much as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, spewed into gulf waters that are also laced with 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas suspended in dispersants. So far, 11 million gallons of crude and 34 million gallons of a mixture of oil and water have been removed.
Normally marketers this time of year are nailing down themes for much larger statewide winter campaigns.
"Instead, we're still reacting to the 24-hour news cycle and looking ahead every three days instead of three months while resolution moved very slowly," said Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer at Visit Florida, the statewide tourist promotion agency that lives on $27 million a year from car rental taxes.
Florida's vacation imagemakers are old hands at disaster recovery public relations. They overcame the effects of the hurricanes dating back to Andrew in 1992, Americans' fear of flying after 9/11 terrorism and a string of murders of overseas tourists that dominated headlines in European tabloids in the 1990s.
On top of the usual dreamy beach photography, they sought out news and travel media to tell their story and filled travel websites with unvarnished facts detailing what was affected and what wasn't.
Visit Florida's strategy is the same this time. All the state advertising is designed to drive traffic to its website, VisitFlorida.com/floridalive. It offers live webcam views, hundreds of posted photos taken daily, and links to status reports from every market in the state.
Despite surveys showing more Americans (99 percent ) have followed spill news than the Afghanistan War, confusion persists about where the oil isn't.
"Our biggest problem is the effects so far are hyper local, and many people don't realize just how big and diverse Florida is," Seccombe said.
Nobody tracks how much advertising money is spent supporting tourism, which is a $60 billion industry in Florida that employs 1 million people and provides the state with 21 percent of all sales tax revenues.
Convention bureaus in most counties use taxes on hotel bills to spend more than $100 million. The Central Florida theme parks fork out more than $250 million annually. Universal Orlando, for instance, alone upped its annual ad budget by $14 million to $67 million to support a new Harry Potter attraction.
Until recently, many beach marketers spending all that money purposely avoided using the word "oil" in advertising. Now that consumers made the link, many hotels are touting "no-oil guarantees" and trying to talk the airlines into relaxing nonrefundable ticket rules like they do after hurricanes.
Odds are better than half that oil will get caught in the gulf loop current and move south to Key West and the East Coast, but thanks to the continental shelf, odds are a fraction of that for Gulf Coast beach markets like Tampa Bay and Fort Myers. So marketers at the St. Petersburg Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau just put a fuel gauge registering empty in all their ads to show "no oil here." They also confined their ads for the rest of the summer to in-state markets where people are most likely to know where the oil is.
"We're losing bookings already because of misperceptions that we have oil," said D.T. Minich, Pinellas tourism director. "But once it shows up in the Keys and Miami, we will be fighting perceptions the entire state has been hit."
An oil spill cleanup can take a toll for years, which can mean a long-term commitment to additional advertising. After a 1993 bunker fuel barge collision in Pinellas County, every storm for the next two years churned up hidden oil that beach hotel guests would track inside onto carpets and linens. Alaska needed five years of ads before vacationers accepted the Exxon Valdez spill was cleaned up.
"The good news is memories are short," said Peter Yesawich, chairman of Ypartnership, which had done research for Walt Disney Co., Visit Florida and the Mexican government after the swine flu epidemic. "Look how quickly people forgot about the earthquake in Haiti. Good deals will bring people back. But first you have to stop the oil and clean up the spill."
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.