Consultant lays out 'rejuvenated' tourism strategy for Walton County, addresses 'monster house' issue
SANTA ROSA BEACH — A tourism marketing consulting firm is beginning its work on a strategic tourism plan for Walton County, members of the Walton County Tourist Development Council learned recently.
The TDC, comprising representatives of the local hospitality industry and local government officials, heard last week from Bill Geist of Zeitgeist Consulting, which has previously worked with the council on tourism planning.
In a half-hour presentation Jan. 28, Geist told TDC members that the initial work on the tourism plan will involve a review of the TDC's budget. The council receives millions of dollars each year from the proceeds of a 5% "bed tax" charged to visitors staying in lodgings in the south end of the county.
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Also at the session last week, Geist told the TDC — at a meeting it requested to look at strategic planning by the county and the TDC staff — that his firm will use the month of February to assess the TDC's existing sales and marketing plans, and how the county weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, which hurt the local tourist industry in 2020 as short-term vacation rentals were closed by the state to limit visitation.
The county did, however, post some significant tourism revenue between December 2020 and February 2021, raking in $1 billion — a 26% increase from the same time period one year before.
"Some destinations, as you know, just cratered" as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Geist told the TDC, "and some posted record-breaking years." Overall, he added, "there is not a single one of our clients that has had progress like you have." A rejuvenated strategic plan will allow the TDC to "attack" tourism issues "with even more verve," he said.
Following Zeitgeist Consulting's review, Geist said it will turn its attention to interviews of residents, business people, and local government representatives. Beyond that, the firm will go live with an online survey in March to seek the views of elected leadership, community leaders, and other stakeholders in the tourism industry.
The firm will then do its own analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities within the local tourism industry, as well as an assessment of any threats to the industry.
Geist also took time during the TDC presentation to address what is being called "overtourism," when people crowd into specific tourist destinations. In recent months, Walton County has seen manifestations of that phenomenon as so-called "monster houses" — large multi-story structures used as short-term vacation rental properties that can sleep as many as a couple dozen people — have created noise, trash, and traffic issues as well as problems with misbehavior.
"Almost every destination of size in the last couple of years has dealt with what's called overtourism," said Geist, who added that he preferred to see the issue as "just badly managed tourism." One strategy for dealing with the issue is to see whether local tourism officials can entice visitors away from perennially popular locales — like beaches, in Walton County's case — to other local attractions, he said.
"Can we inspire them to go to other parts of the destination that maybe aren't as crowded?" Geist asked.
The county may be making some inroads in that direction, as the north end now is collecting a 2% bed tax to boost its profile with attractions like springs and historic communities, and locations that could draw tourists and their dollars.
"At some point, you can't shut the door," Geist told TDC members. "People already know who you are."
But the question is whether the county can inspire visitors "so some of these (outlying) communities can get the benefits of tourism they maybe didn't have," he added.
In other comments, Geist addressed concerns expressed by one man at the session who opined that the county, "as a destination (has) to dictate what's acceptable behavior" from visitors, and to let them know that "if you're not going to be within those parameters, you're going to have to accept some consequences."
The county government has already taken some steps in that regard by dramatically hiking fines for people who enter the Gulf of Mexico when dangerous surf conditions are present. Additionally, the county is now reviewing proposed ordinance changes aimed at stopping the practice of visitors parking along rights of way of scenic roads.
Geist acknowledged the problem and indicated that it is something he is seeing among any number of vacationers, no matter the destination.
Speculating that it might be the result of pent-up demand for travel as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued or the rounds of COVID-related government stimulus checks providing people with disposable income, Geist said there are larger numbers of "rookie" travelers taking trips.
"They don't have the sophistication for travel," he said. "They don't understand that this (a vacation destination) is not a place to come and defile. They don't respect a place that they visit as much as we respect it.
"We have to figure out ways to educate these new visitors who really haven't gotten their 'sea legs' yet that this isn't just a theme park that you can toss your trash anywhere, or act out in a way that you wouldn't at home."
"On the one hand," Geist added, "it's exciting that people who have traditionally never traveled are now traveling, and will be our customers for a long time. We just have to make sure that we mold them and make them understand that there are certain rules when you travel to somebody's home."