Visit Florida’s latest ad campaign doesn’t feature sprawling beach scenes with toes in the sand.
Instead, look for craft beers, restaurants, museums and murals — a move designed to hook millennial travelers seeking to experience cities "like a local."
Though the marketing strategy was taking shape long before Red Tide hit the Gulf Coast, there’s probably no better time to market Florida without a focus on the beaches. Local tourism agencies are taking a similar approach, hoping to keep an integral economic engine running.
"This is a two-part process," said David Downing, the CEO of Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater. "One is to market through crisis. Second, assess post-crisis."
Part of the problem marketers face is figuring out just how long that crisis will last.
Although scientists hoped Hurricane Michael would break up Red Tide, it appears gusts of winds have just pushed the toxic bloom closer to Florida’s Gulf Coast. After a short reprieve, the nasty odor returned to Pinellas’ beaches on Wednesday.
So it makes sense for ads to focus on Seminole Heights in Tampa, street art in Miami and the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.
"Obviously, Visit Florida wants to help those destinations (dealing with Red Tide) with campaigns and marketing that shows there are some effects," said Santiago Corrada, the CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough County nonprofit that markets the area.
But at the same time, he said, the state wants to point out "there’s lots of other things to do" for fun.
A Visit St. Pete-Clearwater ad that ran this past weekend on NPR’s Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! was "front-loaded" to focus on St. Petersburg’s arts and culture scene, Downing said, because it matches the interests of most NPR listeners.
Visit Florida’s recent web-driven spotlight on Tampa is told from the perspective of local Rooster and the Till chef Ferrell Alvarez.
"When you come here, you can’t help but to feel a part of the Tampa culture," Alvarez says to the camera, as scenes showing Spaddy’s Coffee and Ulele flash by. "There’s a mix of people; there’s a mix of energy, and it’s just always positive."
In a statement, Visit Florida said the state is already well-known as a beach destination for relaxation and family trips, but "a lesser-known story is around the many cultural and experience-driven offerings."
Most millennials don’t want cookie-cutter beach vacations as much as experiences authentic to that destination, according to the tourism agencies.
It’s a starkly different strategy than the Sexy Beaches music video that Visit Florida, to much criticism, produced two years ago with Miami rapper Pitbull that focused almost entirely on beach life.
That flub also is coming back to haunt the state, as a viral video stringing together toxic blue-green algae and the Red Tide fish kill put to that Pitbull song had been viewed nearly 35,000 times on Twitter as of today.
Corrada, the Tampa agency’s CEO, said even the agencies like his own that aren’t marketing areas directly affected by Red Tide may have to fight a negative perception which algae bloom attracts.
So far, Corrada hasn’t noticed any major indications that Hillsborough County visitors have been drawn away. But if Red Tide persists this winter, usually a high traffic season, that could change.
"Some of our greatest destinations are hurting," Corrada said. "We’re all brothers and sisters. When something happens to one of us, we all feel that."
In Pinellas County, there’s no doubt local beachside businesses are struggling.
At least 47 small businesses have reported accumulative losses approaching $1.6 million to the county’s business development office so far. Statewide, the nine most-affected counties are reporting total losses nearing $130 million.
Downing said Visit St. Pete-Clearwater has been transparent to visitors, posting live condition reports at beachesupdate.com.
For now, Downing said, the marketing group is not making any changes to its coming winter campaign, which aims to coax shivering northerners to Pinellas.
Last week, Clearwater hosted the 10th annual Super Boat National Championship without a Red Tide disruption — the county’s efforts to keep the beach clear of dead fish were successful.
Visit Florida gets $76 million from the state, and local tourism agencies are largely funded by hotel bed taxes that counties collect. Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, for example, budgeted $12.5 million for advertising this year.
Downing said the newest campaign — which started over the summer but will double-down in cold cities come late December and includes 800 New York City subway train posters — features "aspirational" beaches.
One focuses on "taste" the beach (for foodies); another on "craft" the beach (for brewery lovers) and a third on "paint" the beach (touting an ongoing mural festival).
Meanwhile, Visit Florida and Gov. Rick Scott have directed $500,000 to create an emergency grant program to assist local tourism boards fighting Red Tide as needed.
As of today, the bloom and fish kills stretched 145 miles along the Gulf Coast from Collier to Pinellas County. It’s also touching several Panhandle counties and a few beaches on Florida’s Atlantic Coast from St. Lucie to Miami-Dade County.
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.