Tourism in Manatee, ‘focusing on the positive’
The beginning of April marked about three months since red tide lined the beaches of Anna Maria Island. It also marked the start of the county’s months-long marketing campaign to make sure prospective tourists know that all is back to normal.
Each year, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau makes a big push to promote the getaway adventures of Robinson Preserve, the exquisite cuisine of local restaurants, and, of course, the white sands of our Gulf beaches.
Unlike recent years, the stakes are much higher this time.
Hundreds of tons of dead fish met their demise at the hands of toxic algae, ruining vacations for many and sending many more businesses into the red. Many months later, the waters are clear and the business is welcome, especially from those dealing with certain “ailments.”
“Americans probably take the least vacation of anyone on the globe,” said Kelly Clark, the CVB’s communications director. “So we created something a little more fun, a little more speaking to the population of Americans who aren’t taking vacations. We came up with ‘diagnoses’ that a few families and couples that haven’t had a vacation in a while will feel.”
Potential visitors can find their own vacation diagnosis by completing the “symptom-checker” at VacationRemedy.com. The short questionnaire shoots out one of six vacation deficiencies, ranging from “need-a-vacation-itis” to “can’t-relaxia.”
“’Pale-a-tosis’ is probably my favorite one, if you’ve noticed pale skin, a lack of sunshine and Vitamin D, then the message is that you should come to the Bradenton area for a kayak tour of the Riverwalk downtown,” Clark said.
The goal is to get tourists in the area starting in May. According to CVB research, vacationers book their plans up to six months in advance. To make those goals a reality, the CVB is shelling out approximately $250,000 to market the destination online in “top theater areas” such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh.
And the overseas marketing efforts continue as well, according to Manatee County Commissioner and Tourist Development Council Chairwoman Carol Whitmore.
“The campaign is certainly targeting a U.S. crowd between the ages of 20 and 50,” Whitmore said. “But it’s also going to our German market with a company we’ve partnered with for years with a lot of success. So much so, that we thought we would be hurt more out of that market and we really weren’t during red tide.”
Whitmore said the county has always been consistent with one thing when it comes to marketing tourism.
“One thing we will always stay consistent with is we are not looking for spring breakers,” she said. “We are looking for young families and we are seeing a lot of that this year.”
Tourism numbers for the beginning of the year are strong, officials say. In February alone, more than 77,000 visitors came to the area. Collections from the tourism tax are up, as well. Those numbers are bolstered by aggressive marketing in feeder markets such as New York and the United Kingdom — two populations that don’t have a poor perception of Florida after months of red tide.
What tourism officials are — and aren’t — doing to plan ahead for red tide
Whitmore said red tide is like any other natural disaster, so it’s just as difficult to plan ahead for red tide as for a hurricane.
“We always try to have a backup,” Whitmore said. “I don’t know what you can do about a natural disaster, but the response to it is important. We funded and promoted the effort to support local restaurants and we did the concert series, which brought in a lot of people. I met some young guys from England who were in the area, but came to the island specifically for the concerts.”
Ultimately, no news is good news.
“Right now we are focusing on the positive,” Whitmore said. “The hotels are full, the beaches are packed and people have jobs.”
Most businesses are seeing signs of recovery. Aaron Lewis, with The Ugly Grouper bar and grill in Holmes Beach, said they are having a “decent” recovery since red tide dissipated in early February. He’s seeing a good mix of customers who are both from the states and out of country. As far as what he thinks tourism officials can do to plan ahead, Lewis asks the pertinent question.
“What can you do? I’m not sure you can do anything. Everybody gets hurt,” he said.
Chris Dale, co-owner of The Feast restaurant in Holmes Beach, said there is more that officials can do, while reporting he’s having one of his best years since red tide went away.
Should another red tide outbreak occur, “stress the fact that there are more things to do in the area than just sitting on the beach,” Dale said. “I mean obviously that’s what most people who come here for, but there is more to Manatee County than just the island.”
The importance of education
During a Wednesday afternoon presentation with Manatee Chamber of Commerce members, Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area CVB, urged businesses to put together a crisis plan for “adverse events” like red tide.
“Adversity is coming again. We don’t know, but it will, so it’s our job to continue to educate.”
While some tourism officials were critical of the media coverage during the prolonged red tide outbreak, Dale said officials should communicate more with the media and not try to pretend it’s not a problem.
Dale said not everyday was a horrible day to be on the beach and officials could do better to communicate those better days to the public, especially when there were offshore winds keeping the odors associated with red tide at bay. Daily communication is better than no communication, he said, noting, “It’s really important that when it’s over, the word gets out quickly that it’s safe to come back.”
Dale and Whitmore were on the same page when it comes to the very real possibility that the island may experience the more common smaller outbreaks of red tide.
“We just hope that everybody pays attention,” Whitmore said. “We are all looking at water quality issues now, which we should have been doing for a long time, but this was a wake up call for everybody.”
Dale agrees that red tide is a reality of living in Florida and believes each business owner bears a certain personal responsibility in planning ahead. Falcione’s crisis plan recommends a healthy dose of pessimism that could get business owners through a rough patch, as long they set some money aside.
“It’s very difficult to get industry people to industry meetings,” Falcione admitted. “We usually have between 40 and 60 people at these meetings, and we’re talking about 26,000 hospitality jobs in Manatee County.”
Interviews and outreach show that many of the businesses hit hardest by red tide didn’t have a contingency plan in place for such an event. Michael Gallen, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of public policy, said lobbying Florida lawmakers for business red tide recovery funds is one of their top priorities in 2019.
“We got through the hurricanes, we got through the BP spill and we made it through this red tide event,” Dale said. “As a business owner, it’s something you have to understand is going to come back off and on and save the money during the good times to get you through it.”
The Feast isn’t right on the beach, and Dale said in this one instance, it worked out to be an advantage for him.
“We have our locals who aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “They are great in keeping us in business when there is no tourism.”
Did red tide leave a poor reputation for Manatee County?
Red tide might be a dirty word — or a household name — for Floridians, but outside of the state, most potential visitors aren’t aware of it, the CVB says. About two-thirds of Florida residents know about red tide, but those statistics are much lower elsewhere.
Throughout the rest of the United States, only 36 percent of people are familiar with the toxic algae phenomenon. That number drops even lower outside of the country — Less than 30 percent of Canadians knew it about, according to CVB data.
Even with the area’s recent bout of red tide, the latest tourism tax revenue numbers show improvements over 2018, Falcione said. The month of February was about 10 percent stronger than last year, and the CVB is projecting a strong March, as well.
“The only reason why we’ve recovered quickly is that our brand has penetrated the market well enough that when people start to vacation they see the waters are pristine, they’re turquoise blue and it’s time to go back to the Bradenton area, Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key,” Falcione said.