|By Mark Albright, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 14, 2004 - The day after Hurricane Charley ripped through the heart of Florida, Vanessa Welter was ringing up the national media to volunteer details on which tourist facilities were open and which were closed.
After Hurricane Frances blew through much of the same territory three weeks later, many of the same reporters called her for updates.
"We don't have a full assessment for Frances yet, but Ivan has put us in a holding pattern," said the public relations boss at Visit Florida Inc. between interviews last week with USA Today, NBC's Today show, the New York Times, NPR and the Wall Street Journal. "Until we know where Ivan's going we can't say Florida is open for business."
Part of a battalion-strength force of tourist industry image-shapers working the phones statewide, Welter monitors media worldwide and doles out a straightforward version of the facts from her Tallahassee command post.
Last week the German media were riveted to the school siege killings in Russia. Japan's were consumed by a typhoon, while floods in the United Kingdom shoved Florida hurricanes to the inside pages of the British press.
"We got a break in the U.S. when the media followed floods from Frances to other states," Welter said. "But now the U.S. media is back with Ivan. We just have to deal with it."
Ivan may be headed in other directions, but a month of hurricane news damaged the state's image. On Monday, national media portrayed Florida as a state lining up to buy gas, feverishly hammering up plywood and fleeing to other states. Those are hardly visions of a vacation playground or a retirement haven.
Tourism industry leaders are worried about how fast business will rebound this fall. If Ivan strikes Florida, it will be the first time the state was hammered by three major hurricanes in one season since 1964. But weather experts say the image-merchants should get used to dealing with multiple hurricanes for the foreseeable future. Welter's bosses are talking of ordering a survey to see if Florida will be seen as some natural disaster magnet in the long term.
"It may appear Florida is wearing a "kick me' sign this summer," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "But the only real surprise is that Florida has not been hit more often in the last few years."
After a 24-year lull, hurricane activity in 1995 shifted to a more dangerous historic pattern that lasted from 1926 to 1971, according to a recent study compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Atlantic water temperatures inched up 1 degree while wind and air pressure patterns have shifted. Except for two years since 1995, twice as many hurricanes have been barreling into the Caribbean and more have been steered toward Florida.
Authors of the study described this summer's bumper crop of major hurricanes as the new normal.
Already a couple of media stories came across Welter's desk quoting tourists saying they will never come back and weary homeowners saying this summer's hurricanes triggered thoughts of moving elsewhere.
But demographers, economists and travel behavior experts all say it's doubtful much of that will happen.
"It is remarkable how quickly people's memories fade of hurricanes," said Peter Yesawich, chief executive of an Orlando ad agency that co-manages the Yankelovich National Travel Monitor. "People consider them seasonal and predictable events. They know you usually get five to seven days notice they're coming, so you can plan a trip around a hurricane."
Home sales will drop sharply as closings are delayed, home construction sites dry out and people about to make a transaction rethink the decision. Travel will decline until damaged hotels reopen, product shortages are sorted out and the travel industry stimulates demand. But within weeks, if not months, perceptions will return to where they were.
That's what happened after earthquakes erupted in California, terrorists leveled the World Trade Center in New York City and Hurricane Andrew flattened much of south Miami-Dade County in 1992.
"Maybe this will give pause to people about to move to Florida, but it won't last because Florida still will have palm trees and warm weather," said Bill Frey, a demographer who studies domestic migration patterns for the Brookings Institution.
"Americans tend to move wherever they want regardless of natural disasters. It would have to be a very sharp and ominous series of disasters to make them stop moving to Florida. People move in and out of places only for economic, job or social reasons."
Indeed, despite new competition from several states promoting themselves as retirement havens, Florida remains firmly entrenched as the fastest growing state in the nation. In 2003, the Sunshine State registered a net gain of 177,000 permanent residents, almost three times as many as the 61,000 person net gain of second place Arizona, according to the annual U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
With the first of the baby boom generation hitting 58 this year, nobody is revising forecasts of increased retirement housing demand for Florida.
They point to Miami. Thousands left only to be replaced by more new residents.
"People consider hurricanes normal for Florida, so I see nothing changing after a very short term dip," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.
And location is still ... location.
"Housing prices in flood-prone coastal areas of Florida have been rising faster than any other part of the state and that won't change," said Tony Polito, Tampa Bay market director for MetroStudy, which tracks housing demand in 30 major U.S. markets.
While migration into the Tampa Bay area settled down to 33,000 net new residents a year in the 1990s, Polito said the slowdown was caused by the economy, interest rates, building restrictions and the banking crisis in the early 1990s. In the past few years the flow of net new residents has rebounded to 50,000 a year, roughly the pace of the go-go 1980s.
"The only hurricane-related factor I see slowing migration down would be if insurance becomes unavailable or unaffordable," he said.
Such public perceptions are what's behind Florida tourist marketers' three-fold recovery strategy: Reassure people who already booked by laying out the facts. Call travel agents, tour operators and trade publications ranging from Travel Weekly to Conde Nast Traveler with regular updates. Offer unvarnished information to the mainstream media and travelers through a cornucopia of Web sites and toll-free call centers.
"Your message must be free of fluff," Yesawich said. "You just give people the facts. They are smart enough to figure things out for themselves."
Once things settle down, the volume is gradually dialed up on a steady drumbeat of advertising. Florida, which is neck and neck with California as the nation's biggest tourist state, has no shortage of that.
Including the theme parks, airlines, hotels and tourist bureaus in 37 counties, Florida's tourist industry spends as much on advertising as GM does on a car brand -- more than $500-million a year.
"Once we get past this pregnant pause of Ivan, the advertising reinforces that things are back to normal," said Barry Pitegoff, vice president of research for Visit Florida. "They figure if things are not back to normal, we wouldn't be advertising."
This year's hurricane trifecta, however, is giving the strategy perhaps its toughest test. For instance, a survey of 215 tourist industry businesses to assess the fall market challenges left by Hurricane Charley was interrupted by Hurricane Frances.
The authors stopped work when their Miami workplace was evacuated and now are being asked to do the survey again in light of Frances. The initial results were to be unveiled Wednesday at a state Commission on Tourism meeting in hurricane-ravaged Palm Beach County. Because of Ivan, officials last week postponed the meeting until Sept. 22.
If all else fails, the industry turns to pricing. Yesawich, whose agency handled ads for Bermuda, recalled research showing people were still afraid to fly six months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We discounted prices and a lot of people quickly lost their fear," he said. "Bermuda got 60 percent of its market back by simply offering a good deal."
Added Bud Nocera, Visit Florida chief executive: "Short term we're expecting a problem. Long term remains a great unknown. My gut feeling is we'll be fine."
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