The last weekend of summer vacation in Lee County—the time when families might have been enjoying one last hurrah—Fort Myers Beach was empty.
It had been that way for nearly two weeks: empty beach chairs, empty barstools, empty shop floors, but still-lingering odors from decaying fish despite the county’s massive cleanup.
Six months ago, Southwest Florida suffered a dual assault on our waters—a red tide bloom that killed thousands of tons of sea life, and in Lee County, an outbreak of freshwater algae in rivers and canals, sparking public health concerns and the attention of storied activist Erin Brockovich.
The disaster made international news. Revenue plummeted—Fort Myers Beach businesses alone lost $34.6 million in a two-month span (and that figure excludes the big resorts). September’s bed tax dollars—a primary measure of tourism—fell 12.3 percent year over year in Lee. Sanibel and Captiva lost 16,791 scheduled bed nights during July and August. Collier’s blow was somewhat softer; still, that county found itself “guilty by association.” Would-be tourists assumed images of Sanibel’s fish-littered shore and the Caloosahatchee River’s algal slime applied equally to Marco Island and the Gordon River, neither of which was contaminated.
It’s high season now, the time of year when year-rounders get cranky over clogged roads, crowded restaurants and long lines. But after last summer’s abandonment, there’s a new longing to have guests—and their $5 billion a year in economic contributions—back.
Fighting for better water and restoring faith in our coastline has become something of a communitywide affair. But the primary responsibility for recapturing tourism falls on two entities: our convention and visitor bureaus, also known as The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel and, in Collier, Paradise Coast.
They went silent ever so briefly at the crisis’ start. Then they quickly changed strategies to focus on public education (for which Collier’s CVB won a major social media award) and on promoting non-coastal attractions and activities.
When the red tide dissipated in late fall, the bureaus began pushing full throttle.
“Our beaches are clear, the water is clear, and it’s time to return to paradise,” said Jack Wert, the Collier Convention & Visitors Bureau executive director.
We started watching in order to learn how these organizations would counteract the viral images of tainted water and dying marine life. In the process, we discovered much, much more—finding ourselves in the midst of two nonstop marketing machines with multimillion-dollar budgets, ever-on-the-road staff and a global network dedicated to luring vacationers, meeting planners, brides, businesspeople and travel writers to our shores.
Peek behind the curtain with us to discover how our tourism bureaus keep Southwest Florida’s visitor-dependent economy in motion—and whether their efforts to get us back on track might work.
Two chartered boats anchor off Cayo Costa, and journalist Dagmar Kluthe eases herself into crystal-clear water—the stuff of postcards (or, more pertinent to Kluthe, of high-end magazine photos).
Several of Kluthe’s companions—four fellow German journalists, two boat captains, two visitor bureau guides and a German PR representative—follow, splashing lightly to the beach. Kluthe meanders along the sand and then spies something at the waterline. “Look what I found!” she exclaims. It’s a live mollusk, a lightning whelk. Jackie Parker, the trip’s organizer and the Lee bureau communications manager, admires her find, and Kluthe returns it gently to the sea.
Dagmar Kluthe, above, of Germany relaxes on the return boat ride through Pine Island Sound after a daylong tour of local waters.
The Germans are the first travel writers invited back to the region after the water cleared in late October, and Parker could not have asked for a better day: a light breeze, a break in the humidity, a bright blue sky.
“The No. 1 thing is to get people out on the water,” Parker says. The Lee County portion of the tour would focus primarily on coastal activities, including today’s boat trip to Cayo Costa and Cabbage Key. The journalists would also visit Naples with Collier tourism officials; the two counties collaborate as much as they compete as far as visitation is concerned.
Wooing (and wowing) journalists is among the leading strategies county tourism officials employ. This particular group has been carefully screened; Lee County contracts with Global Communications Experts (GCE), a German public relations firm, to manage marketing efforts in that country and to invite well-established writers to our shores. Lee works with additional agencies in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Canada; Collier engages firms in London, Germany and Brazil to do the same, along with the state’s Visit Florida organization.
Unbeknownst to Southwest Floridians, such excursions, known as “familiarization” or FAM tours, roll through all the time for journalists, meeting planners and travel agents. In November, Collier hosted a group of British travel agents, followed shortly thereafter by a group of national travel writers. In December, Lee organized a FAM known as “Gift from the Sea,” modeled after Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s famed, Captiva-inspired book. (Incidentally, funding for our visitor bureaus and their many activities comes from bed taxes.)
There’s no controlling what the journalists write, of course (one of the German reporters quipped that he’s not a “relaxing guy” and may come back when he’s 80), but the FAM tours are worth the gamble. In the past few months, through a combination of county marketing to reporters and reporters initiating their own proposals, Southwest Florida has been featured in numerous traditional and online media outlets, including an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about Sanibel that generated 35 million impressions, and another reference to Sanibel on the TODAY show in early November. Collier gleaned
1 million media impressions from enRoute, the Air Canada inflight magazine, after the visitors bureau hosted a photojournalist, and a whopping 58 million unique viewers to The Telegraph’s (Great Britain) online travel section featuring reviews of the JW Marriot Marco Island Beach Resort and the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa.
Back to Kluthe, strolling the Cayo Costa beach.
“It’s a perfect destination,” the writer says. “For most people, it’s paradise.”
Kluthe intended to write a piece on the region for the German edition of Vogue.
Score for Southwest Florida.
“The vibe here is so relaxed. It’s great for families. These are white beaches that have seashells all over the place, and it’s very soft. … This is just like paradise to me!”
A camera pans Marco Island’s sugar-sand beaches and then settles on the narrator, Catherine Lowe, and her husband, Sean. You might remember them from The Bachelor. The couple has spun their TV-derived familiarity into business enterprises, including working as paid “influencers” for destinations such as Collier County.
The result? The “Five Days in Paradise” tour generated 592,682 YouTube views and 534,918 social media impressions, as the couple shared video clips and photos with their Instagram and Twitter followings. The reach went even further. The advertising agency that produced the campaign, St. Petersburg-based Paradise Advertising & Marketing, created television and radio spots based on the Lowes’ vacation, yielding 8 million on-air impressions.
Jackie Parker, left, communications manager for the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, points out North Captiva Island and Cayo Costa to visiting freelance journalist Christina Litzein of Germany. Captain Matt Hetrick, right, helped the VCB guide a group of German journalists around the area after the summer’s red tide crisis.
“It has to be authentic. It has to be believable,” Barbara Karasek, Paradise’s CEO, says of using influencers. And the Lowes were: The trip to Marco and Naples marked their young son’s first-ever time on the beach, and the family conveyed their enthusiasm about the experience.
Social media has changed the game for our two visitor bureaus, which are more often using figures like the Lowes to win the attention of the traveling public.
As the water cleared, the county visitor bureaus and the big PR firms that represent them—the New York City-based Lou Hammond Group (Collier) and Kansas City-headquartered MMGY Global (Lee)—sought out and vetted writers with big followings to show the world that Southwest Florida was back in business. Emily Kaufman, the Travel Mom, and Charles McCool, the Travel Happiness expert, created content for Collier County. Lee works with nine to 10 influencers a year, including the Traveling Newlyweds, Alli and Bobby Talley. A few months ago, that county scored major exposure to the Asian market when Chinese pop star Tia Ray gave a performance at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva. The trip was a prize giveaway by QQ Music, the Chinese equivalent of Spotify, with 700 million users.
“We’re just sticking our toes into the water of sponsored-influencer projects,” says JoNell Modys, the PR and communications manager for Collier’s CVB. But the practice seems promising: After 2017’s Hurricane Irma, Kaufman was hired to document recovery efforts and create content about Collier’s comeback. During her stay, she happened to mention her experience on Naples’ Dolphin Explorer Cruise to a producer at Harry Connick Jr.’s Harry show who had phoned her. During her next Harry appearance (Kaufman is frequently featured on television and in print for her travel expertise), producers asked Kaufman to talk about the tour, which allows participants to assist with a long-term dolphin research project. They also worked with Collier officials to put together a prize including a hotel stay and, of course, the Dolphin Explorer Cruise.
The Harry feature was more in line with traditional journalism—the kind of publicity earned and not bought, and that’s what Francesca Donlan, the communications director at Lee’s tourism bureau, was hitting hard in red tide’s wake. In early October, she’d gone to New York to meet with reporters; she planned a return trip in January to the International Media Marketplace, a major affair for travel writers, run in tandem with The New York Times Travel Show. Modys does similar networking on Collier’s behalf.
“I’m all about building relationships with these journalists so I can call them [after a crisis] and say, ‘We’re looking good!’ We try to generate as much positive press as we can,” Donlan says.
It used to be that local tourism officials would study the places of origin of its visitors and hit those markets hard—print ads, TV commercials, radio spots.
That still happens to a certain extent, of course, but these days, area tourism experts rely on Big Data to pinpoint the people who are most likely to book a Southwest Florida vacation.
“We used to say, ‘We get a lot of people from Columbus; let’s run ads in Columbus,’” explains Tamara Pigott, the executive director of Lee County’s visitor and convention bureau. “Now, instead of marketing in Columbus, I’m marketing to a very specific household in Columbus that likes a beach vacation in Florida and likes to paddle.”
“Your life is a digital fingerprint,” she adds. “Your digital fingerprint tells me if you’re a potential candidate for our area.”
Her marketing director, Brian Ososky, seems to delight in identifying his audiences.
“We have people who like to take pictures. That’s our ‘Snap Happy’ segment,” he says. “There are those who have done the theme park thing and who are over it and want a more authentic experience, and those are our ‘Theme Park Survivors.’ We have people who love to travel with pets; we call them ‘Fido in Tow.’”
His team finds ways to break through the digital noise. “If your family is like so many others, you’re gonna sit on your couch, you’re gonna watch your TV, you may have your laptop open, and your phone is gonna be right there. This gives me an opportunity for multiple touch points. … We know when you’re looking. We know how far out you’re booking. We know all these things about you.”
A little creepy? Yes. Effective? Also yes. Visitation in Lee County has increased for the last eight years consecutively. Targeted marketing is one of those drivers.
Both counties have also gone high-tech in their efforts to counter negative news and steer eyeballs to the recovery. Using grant money from the state, Lee and Collier have entered into a partnership with Google that will, among other things: identify the negative information still posted online about water quality; find ways to change those negative perceptions; create new visual content including candid stills, aerial photos and visual clips; and create new content in Google Street View to show what the counties look like after the red tide crisis.
And there’s a whole other side of the business, too: sales teams pursuing meeting and convention traffic, weddings, reunions and the like. In October alone, Lee County dispatched staff to 11 trade shows in cities ranging from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas. Collier’s team is chasing huge new potential business lines with the addition 100,000 square feet of new meeting space at the JW Marriott on Marco and the construction of the new, $70 million sports complex in East Naples. In October, the county hired a firm to begin marketing efforts.
Modys loves promoting her county, but she knows where she stands on the credibility spectrum: No matter how straight she is, anything with a tourism bureau stamp will be met with certain skepticism.
Christos Kambouris, a freelance travel and adventure writer from Germany, photographs the coastline of Cayo Costa during a tour of local waters.
“We can say this (photo) was taken today, but we’re the tourism bureau, are people going to believe that?” Modys says.
Instead, her organization is using a new program, CrowdRiff, that grabs social media images from actual people’s social media accounts and arranges them in a photo gallery posted on the CVB’s homepage. Lee County taking similar action, dubbing its recovery campaign “Sea for Yourself.”
“We could see people searching for information and finding it and then that they were engaging with the gallery,” Modys says. “That’s highly effective.”
Beach cams, set up across both counties, and livestreams add to the credibility. In Collier, Modys yanked a paid Facebook ad for stone crab season after a deluge of messages accusing her bureau of trying to “poison” people with seafood from tainted water. “It was such a fever pitch, you really couldn’t address the comments one by one,” Modys said. In its place, she arranged a live Q&A with the Everglades City mayor, a crabber by trade, at his shop. In the background were customers queuing up to buy just-off-the-boat crabs.
“It really had a major effect on getting people back here,” she says. “It got so many positive comments, including people thanking us for answering their questions.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Across Southwest Florida, business owners suffered tremendous losses last summer, which is considered the region’s second peak season.
“We witnessed a mass exodus of our guests on the island,” Richard Johnson, whose family owns the historic Bailey’s General Store on Sanibel, said last fall. “The guests were disappearing right and left as conditions worsened and the national news picked up the story and shared the plight of our beaches.”
He saw a 35 percent drop in retail sales during the height of the crisis.
“We know there’s red tide every year, but I’ve never seen it like this and I’ve never been affected like this,” Kelly Gianello, owner of Windstalker’s, a kiteboarding and paddleboarding lessons and rental business in Naples, said in early October. Her voice wavered on the other end of the phone. “I just don’t know what to do anymore.”
It’s hard to know whether our tourism officials—along with the chambers of commerce, business owners, private PR firms and residents who are all working to counteract last summer’s news—are succeeding. The latest data available at press time (September for Lee, October for Collier) reveal some reasons for optimism: Even with this summer’s losses, visitation for the calendar year to date in Lee and Collier was up over 2017. Lee’s bed taxes had topped a record $42 million. In the first eight months of 2018, Collier had enjoyed a 4.3 percent increase in tourist-related economic impact.
But in Lee, two-thirds of property managers surveyed in early October indicated their reservations were down through December. Collier’s occupancy rates, which had exceeded the 2107 summer figures even with the red tide, abruptly fell 19 percent in October, attributed primarily to red tide and fears of Hurricane Michael’s potential track. About half of Collier lodging managers, however, reported their reservations for the next three months were “up.” That’s slightly higher than last year’s rates, and some are taking it as a good sign heading into season.
In spite of it all, Mother Nature remains in control. Around Thanksgiving, red tide was detected, blue-green algae moved down the Caloosahatchee River, and dead dolphins washed up on shore.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Pigott, the Lee VCB executive director, said to a crowd of a few hundred county officials and hospitality industry executives at her organization’s annual sales and marketing meeting. “As a team, during our goal-setting for the year ahead, we struggled with the possibility of a year without a projected increase. But we couldn’t land there because we’re committed to growth, just like you. I promise you we are laser-focused on that goal, and with your help and engagement, we know we will be successful.”