|By Dusty Ricketts, Northwest Florida
Daily News, Fort Walton BeachMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 31, 2011--The BP oil spill and the national media frenzy that followed resulted in a disastrous year for the local tourism industry in 2010.
Tourists were scared away from the Emerald Coast and instead visited other vacation spots. And there was no guarantee they would ever come back.
Not only did the tourists return in 2011, they did in record numbers.
"The months of May, June, July, September and October were the best months recorded in those months in the history of this area," said Mark Bellinger, executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council. "The occupancy percentages were the highest that this area has ever witnessed and the bed tax collections ... is the best we've ever had."
Bed taxes are collected in short-term rentals in counties' tourist development districts. For fiscal year 2011 -- from Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011 -- bed tax collections were up 31.98 percent in Okaloosa County, 34.98 percent in Santa Rosa County and 29.54 percent in Walton County from 2010.
All three counties broke records with their bed tax collections.
Although the oil spill was responsible for the dismal 2010 tourist season, Bellinger said it also helped bring the tremendous turnaround in 2011.
The TDCs in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties have received more than $21 million from BP. Bellinger said this is the first time that much money was ever spent to promote the Emerald Coast in such a short period of time.
That extra money allowed Okaloosa County's TDC to produce for the first time 30- and 60-second television commercials that appeared on major broadcast and cable television stations across the country.
"The amount of advertising that was done in this short amount of time was enormous," Bellinger said.
For Lino Maldonado, vice president of operations for ResortQuest, the tourism rebound wasn't a surprise.
"We know our product," Maldonado said. "This is one of the only places in the country with white sands and clear water, and as bad as the folks not making it last year was for 2010, we knew there would be some pent-up demand for them to get back to their favorite beach in the world.
"We felt anybody who had experienced our beaches before and tried something else, maybe the East Coast or the West Coast, we knew they would say 'Wait a second, we need to get back down to Destin and to the Gulf Coast," he added.
ResortQuest, which operates some 3,000 vacation rentals in Northwest Florida and south Alabama, broke several long-standing records last year. Among them were total dollars booked in a single day, total reservations booked in a single day and total number of phone calls answered in a single period.
Because of the success ResortQuest had during the peak tourist season, the company has expanded into the Gulf Shores, Ala., and Orlando markets.
"We wouldn't be that aggressive in terms of these acquisitions if we weren't confident that (2011) was not a fluke," Maldonado said.
Northwest Florida has long been one of the most popular drive-to destinations in Florida, but part of the reason for 2011's rebound was the success of Northwest Florida Regional Airport.
A record 900,562 passengers flew into or out of the airport during fiscal 2011, the most in its 54-year history.
"Since this has traditionally been a drive-in destination, there (has been) a tremendous margin and there still is for air service to contribute to visitors coming here," said Greg Donovan, Okaloosa County's airports director.
Northwest Florida Regional took advantage of the influx of funds from the BP grants to market the area in new markets served by Vision Airlines, which Donovan said helped bring more travelers to the airport.
Donovan said his goal going forward is for the airport to top 1 million passengers. He added that the airport is better prepared to handle more passengers with the completion of the terminal expansion, which added two jet bridges and two ground-level boarding gates.
Bellinger said the focus now is on how the counties can top last year.
Okaloosa has started doing more cooperative marketing and advertising with resorts, condominiums and hotels. The TDC is also doing more "gorilla" marketing with its Boast the Coast promotion, which features an RV decorated with pictures of the Emerald Coast touring the country and stopping at major sporting events and malls.
"We have to keep pushing the envelope, and now that we've set some standards and records we can't just get complacent," Bellinger said. "We have to say 'how can we push the envelope more, how are we going to take a little risk in marketing and advertising.'
"We're trying to do things that are different than other tourism agencies in the United States," he added. "We're trying to do new promotions that nobody else is doing."
Local counties are off to a good start so far. For October, the first month of the 2012 fiscal year, bed tax collections were up 14.66 percent in Okaloosa County, 42.7 percent in Walton County and 10.86 percent in Santa Rosa County. Numbers for November are expected to be released later this week.
Maldonado said different agencies working together is the best way to keep the momentum going. Rather than being competitive, he said all the TDCs, chambers of commerce and management companies in the area should cooperate to make sure potential guests know the beaches are clean and the local seafood is safe and delicious.
"When it's golf season, let's all talk about golf," Maldonado said. "When it's tennis, let's all talk about tennis. When it's fishing, let's talk about fishing. It really helps to get a consistent message. We need the chambers and TDCs all working in harmony with one another and less competitive.
"We're not just the beach," Maldonado added. "We are great lodging establishments, we're great restaurants, we're great entertainment, we're great shopping and we're great golf. For all of those reasons, it's going to be a great 2012."
(c)2011 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)
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