Opportunity tourism: Hurricanes, oil spills present a tourism tightrope for officials

Matt Algarin
Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the East Coast of the United States Monday night and caused millions of people to be without power. Flooding streets and more than 30 deaths are also being attributed to the Category 1 Hurricane.

Area lodging partners and tourism officials say the Emerald Coast’s arms, and rooms, are wide open, if needed, to those affected by Hurricane Sandy’s impacts in the Northeastern United States.

With widespread power outages expected, due to tropical storm force winds that extend up to 485 miles from the center of the storm, and heavy snowfall already falling in parts of the Northeast, the white sands and warmer temperatures of Florida’s beaches might be a welcome sign to some.

“While we are not wishing to take advantage of the misfortunes of people affected by the storm, we are making people aware that our beaches are beautiful right now for those who might want to get away from the snow,” said Martin Owen, regional marketing director, Gulf Region at Wyndham Vacation Rentals.

During the BP oil spill in 2010, some along the Emerald Coast raised their eyebrows when competing tourist markets advertised their clean beaches and attempted to poach vacationers that were leery about coming to the Gulf Coast. As a tourist destination itself, Myrtle Beach was just one of the Gulf Coast’s competing markets that expected to reap the benefits of potential cancellations.

According to a May 2010 report from WCBD-TV in Charleston, S.C., tourism officials and hospitality partners received an influx of calls from vacationers looking for a “back-up” plan if the spill affected the beaches along the Gulf.

“The Gulf Coast is a competitor particularly in Atlanta where a lot of the residents go to the Gulf Coast of Florida,” Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying. “So though a lot of our visitors come from the Eastern Seaboard, we do compete with the Gulf Coast in some markets and the advertising that we have certainly would draw a lot of interest, especially now that people are considering changing their plans.“

For those in the tourism and hospitality industries, marketing to potential visitors in areas affected by storms or other events isn’t something outside of the norm, but it can be tricky, Dan O’Byrne, executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, told The Log.

“It’s absolutely something we as tourism people do,” he said. “You always want to be sensitive to the place and the businesses that are being affected though. It’s something you would look at before the event, if there was a way to help, or after the event is over, not during.”

O’Byrne said the TDC is actively looking for ways to expand its marketing into the Northeast, but they had no plans at the present time to directly market to those in Sandy’s path. Depending on what happens in the Northeast, O’Byrne said, the TDC would keep its options open and act accordingly if there was any way they could help.

Reaching out to those in need is familiar territory to the team at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, which over the years has welcomed evacuees from states such as Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana during hurricanes.

Laurie Hobbs, Sandestin’s director of public relations and marketing communications, told The Log that the resort is offering some discounted rates for those who might want to come down to Florida in Sandy’s aftermath. The resort will also be extending group rates for people already at the resort who want to stay longer.

“We didn’t put out a notice yesterday because of the storm’s uncertainty,” she said. “You have to be sensitive to people’s basic needs and if they want to come to Sandestin, we are here to help and be accommodating.”

With it’s corporate headquarters based in New Jersey, Owen told The Log that teams in Northwest Florida would be answering calls and communications for properties in the Wyndham Worldwide family that are affected by Sandy.

“Because we are a multi-national company, we have the ability to keep going and help backup the other locations if they need it,” he said.

While Owen said the Wyndham family is ready to help those in need, the area probably wouldn’t see an influx of evacuees due to the fact that the Panhandle is primarily a drive-to market, which is something they are working to change.

“I don’t think we are going to get people rushing to pack up their cars and come down here,” he said.