|By Jeff Barker, Northwest Florida Daily
News, Fort Walton BeachMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 15, 2010 --DESTIN -- State officials and local business owners are sending an invitation to tourists who are shying away from the Emerald Coast in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association held an industry briefing at the Emerald Grande Friday afternoon. Officials vowed to mount an aggressive marketing campaign to showcase the area's stillclean beaches, while business owners wondered how and when they would be reimbursed for a decline in visitors.
Association President and CEO Carol Dover told the 200 or so people who attended that her organization is fighting to combat the "unfortunate vision" of black sand and tar balls, and to get out the message that beaches still are pristine.
"Florida is still open for business," Dover said. "The outcry from the industry right now is, 'Help!' "
Karen Poe, director of operations for Newman Dailey Resort Properties, said it was important to make an urgent public relations push, or else the prime summer season would come and go.
"The phones aren't ringing, that's the problem," she said.
Many business people expressed frustration with the BP PLC claims process.
Alan Laird, owner of AJ's Seafood and Oyster Bar, said he's worried Gov. Charlie Crist would take President Barack Obama's stance that "BP's spill is BP's bill." He said the government should front money to businesses and have BP pay it back.
"Why we are processing through BP is beyond me," Laird said.
Legendary Inc. President Peter Bos echoed the idea. He said the government could more effectively collect money from BP than individual businesses making calls for claims.
Wesner Stvil, general manager of the Holiday Inn Resort on Okaloosa Island, said he is worried about cash flow. Business this month is down 20 percent from last May, he said, and banks aren't giving him a line of credit. He's called BP to file a claim, but hasn't heard back.
"By the end of May I'm gonna need some cash," Stvil said.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who telephoned in to the meeting, said the state has contacted ESIS, the company adjusting claims for BP.
"We want them paid. We don't want the delays," McCollum said.
Dover said only six restaurants and 120 hotels in the state had filed claims with BP as of Friday. She urged businesses to file claims now rather than wait for the oil to arrive.
"Do not wait it out. Start immediately," Dover said.
Chris Thompson, president and CEO of VISIT FLORIDA, said the "full onslaught" marketing campaign will include a website where people can upload pictures showing clean beaches. Resorts are being urged to set up web cams so potential customers can see what the beach looks like.
Ideas floated at the briefing included handing out $100 gas cards to tourists and even enticing locals to help fill empty rooms.
State Rep. Matt Gaetz asked the state tourism programs to funnel most of the marketing money to Northwest Florida.
"Please hear our plea to keep Northwest Florida first," said Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
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Copyright (c) 2010, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach
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