I’ve spent the last several weeks in the panhandle of Florida and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit part of the reason we came here is because, after the BP oil spill, we figured nobody else would.
Now, after having been awed by the beautiful beaches and the natural beauty of this area, I’m also sure we’ll probably never get as good of a deal again. Places from Pensacola to Destin and down into Grayton Beach where we have been staying, are filling up again. Though other parts of the gulf apparently still have serious problems, I have yet to see an oil-drenched seagull and I hope I never do.
Local television advertising, especially in southern markets, will be pushing the Panhandle region hard this spring, helped by a retiree whose gulf spill story in a TV commercial is inspiring people nationwide to vacation here.
The Panama City News Herald earlier this month trumpeted a story, “Researchers: Bay beaches oil-free” on page one, quoting scientists sounding suspiciously like publicists and declaring the “sugar-sand beaches along the Florida Panhandle are ready for the 2011 Spring Break!” Exclamation point included. And indeed, Panama City Beach has been loaded the last couple weeks with college kids spending their time, well, getting loaded.
None of the places I’ve just mentioned became oily messes after the Deepwater Horizon accident last April 20 that dumped five million barrels—as much as 180 million gallons–into the gulf.
But the Panhandle suffered a tourism collapse because millions of Americans saw that gooey slop on TV, though most of that was nearer to the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts.
“The media just beat us to death last year,” says David Cavileer, the GM of Raycom’s Fox affiliate WPGX Panama City. He says that despite that, the station still had a good 2010—the raucous Florida race for governor helped that a lot.
But since last year stations found a new advertiser the spill created: Attorneys looking to represent business people who wanted to file claims against BP. That, for WPGX and other stations along the coast, has become a growing category.
With tourism down, WPGX worked with local officials providing public service announcements and other inducements to encourage Panama City residents to get out to all the beachfront restaurants they usually avoid because of the crowds.
“You go to the restaurants at Pier Park and once, there would be lines to get in places and after the spill you could walk right in there,” Cavileer says.
About 90 miles away, the story is the same. “We were hurt, there’s no doubt about it,” says Terry Cole, the GM of Sinclair’s ABC affiliate, WEAR, in Pensacola, the 60th largest market, speaking more about the market than his station.
Even though the ugliest oil mess didn’t mar Pensacola beaches—“some tarballs and they cleaned those right up” –the vacationing public had a different perception. “It was as devastating as can be,” Cole says. “When you see a beach, you think Florida.”
For the station, though, it wasn’t so bad. “There’s probably $90,000 lost that we could attribute to the spill. Mostly that came from small businesses, beach businesses, that just couldn’t cut it without vacationers,” Cole says.
The U.S. Travel Association pegs the economic impact of the BP spill on Gulf area-tourism at $23 billion.
Mark Bellinger, the president of the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, can verify how grim things were.
Last July and August, tax revenue from the 15,000 beds in spots in Destin, Ft. Walton and Okaloosa Island were just two-thirds what they were the year before, in a place where rental homes go for upwards of $2,000 a week in season. “The oil spill came just as our biggest season began,” he said. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”
But Emerald Coast is fighting back and using television.
Later this week, Vision Airlines, an emerging carrier, will inaugurate major new service to the Panhandle from cities throughout the south. It will spend $550,000 on TV in those cities and Bellinger’s group is joining with them to blitz those cities with a $650,000 campaign of its own.
Among the targeted cities: Savannah, Ga.; Macon, Ga.; Greenville, S.C.; Asheville, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; Birmingham, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Shreveport, La.
So in a sense, the spill is creating a small TV ad opportunity far away from the scene of the crime.
Some of those places are further away than the five hour drive where most of the regions’ vacationers dwell. Bellinger is eager to expand the region’s reach, with Vision’s assist.
The BP accident was the fifth largest oil spill ever. But on national television, Bellinger says, the lingering image is a sad, oily seagull.
“It was always the same bird!” Bellinger says. “I’d like to find that bird. The thing is because of the winds and the currents, the Destin area wasn’t affected, really. This whole thing was affected by the wrong perception, painting the entire gulf coast.”
The new Emerald Coast commercials are letting bygones be get-gones. “Our ads say our beaches are clean, our water is clear,” he says. There’s no mention of the oil spill in the tourism bureau ads.
That’s in contrast to ads BP recently produced to woo vacationers nationwide. In those commercials—you hate to call them slick, but they are–recognition of the spill is front and center.
In vignettes, business people—a shrimper, a restaurant owner, and most notably, Rick Scali, a Destin vacation house rental agent–tell us how in their own words how BP working to help fix up the place and restore the economy. (See sidebar).
Even though Scali and Bellinger admire each other, Bellinger worries that the ads with the BP logo will simply remind people of oily tarballs on the beach.
“Rick does a great job,” Bellinger says. “But if those ads remind people of the spill, as a tourism professional, I’d like to see those TV ads disappear.”
Market Share by P.J. Bednarski, all about TV sales and TV sales people, appears every other week in TVNewsCheck. Bednarski is longtime TV reporter and a former top editor at TV Week and B&C. If you have comments on this column or ideas for future ones, contact him at [email protected] Read earlier Market Share columns here.