Following the Mark Bellinger financial scandal last year, Okaloosa County’s Tourist Development Council virtually stopped spending money to market the area as the agency went through a major overhaul.
The fallout is coming into focus, as the county’s bed tax collections were down for the second month in a row in May and for four of the past six months.
The county collected a little more than $1.26 million in bed tax revenue in May. That was a decrease of 2.5 percent from May 2012, when more than $1.29 million was collected.
“In talking to other people and in my business, everybody is off this year, and it’s a result of what we think is the lack of marketing at this county,” said Tim Edwards, co-owner of Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar and Grill.
Dale Peterson, chairman of the TDC and president of Dale E. Peterson Realty, said the board recently approved an expanded marketing plan for the fall to try to build back the county’s profile in its major markets.
“We really have been in a holding pattern with our funding,” Peterson said. “The pendulum swung all the way to one side where it should have been in the middle when we were dealing with what happened in the past.”
The TDC’s fall marketing strategy originally was scheduled to start in September, but the board has decided to kick it off Aug. 15 instead.
Peterson said his business is running very similar to the bed tax collections: fairly flat compared to last year and slightly down in some months.
For the first eight months of fiscal 2013, Okaloosa County has collected $5.14 million in bed taxes. That is down 0.64 percent from the same period in fiscal 2012, when $5.17 million was collected.
Edwards said his biggest concern is how the county rebounds next year.
“If we don’t have the business, we can’t hire as many people. We can’t hold on to as many, and that’s what’s worrisome right now,” Edwards said. “If next year is going to be like this year, we’re just going to have to have fewer employees, and right now we’re not hearing anything from anybody that gives us confidence that next year is going to be any different from this year.
“That’s the part that’s alarming,” Edwards added. “This year we’ll get through. But if this continues on indefinitely, we’ll just have to change the way we do the business.”
Bed tax collections in Santa Rosa and Walton counties, which have been marketing their regions as normal, saw strong year over year growth in May.
Santa Rosa County collected $133,867 in May, up 13.5 percent from May 2012’s collection of $117,912. Walton County was up 9.82 percent, from $1.55 million in May 2012 to $1.7 million this past May.
“I was real glad about it,” said Kate Wilkes, executive director of Santa Rosa’s TDC. “We’ve been doing the advertising and doing what it takes. We knew we did great over Memorial Day weekend. Our advertising and everything is working. The word is out. We have a lot of social media going on and good PR as far as travel writers coming in. Things are just coming together.
“We couldn’t be happier, and the summer looks great,” she added.
Harbor Docks owner Charles Morgan blamed Okaloosa County’s bed tax shortfall on the TDC’s mentality of getting heads in beds at any cost, which he said has changed in the demographics of people who visit the area.
In years past, he said 75 percent of the people who visited Destin would be potential customers at his restaurant, while the remaining 25 percent thought it was too expensive because of his fresh seafood. He said that statistic has flipped, with only about 25 percent of the tourists being possible customers.
“I want everybody to have wonderful vacations, and for many years in Destin we were able to accommodate that,” Morgan said. “We had all walks of life coming to Destin. There were resorts in Destin geared towards very wealthy people and resorts that were geared towards middle income people, and restaurants across the board. There needs to be a balance and we have gotten out of balance, and I think the TDC has been largely responsible for that lack of balance.
“We’ll get over hurricanes. We’ll get over oil spills. But digging your way out of bad demographics is damn near impossible,” he added. “If you don’t believe it, go check on Panama City. They’ve been trying to do it for 40 years.”