Special Reports

Manatee tourism officials craft careful message for visitors

They’re worried about headlines in the London Times and the Frankfurt News Press.

And the image Europeans may be conjuring up of tar-stained Florida white-sand beaches — not a pretty sight. They worry it could translate into hotel cancellations and fewer tourism dollars.

Tourism officials in Manatee and Sarasota counties, along with others across the state, are carefully monitoring international media and preparing for the worst if the Gulf of Mexico oil spill hits Florida’s coastline.

“Coverage (involving Florida) is minimal so far,” said Jessica Grace, marketing and public relations director for the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’ve scoured several of the papers, and they really haven’t mentioned Florida yet so that’s a positive.”

But Europeans expecting to visit the Sunshine State still might get the wrong impression if they read between the lines.

A story in Tuesday’s London Times about the spill said, “President Obama has warned of a “potentially unprecedented environmental disaster” along the coast of four U.S. states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.”

That’s what worries hotel owner Ashok Sawe of Palm Tree Villas on Anna Maria Island. The thought that would-be tourists thousands of miles away might not understand that the island’s pristine beaches haven’t been touched by oily residue keeps him up at night.

“This could go on until August. I’m thinking of the worst case scenario. I’m not worried about the Floridians because they can distinguish between different parts of Florida. I’m worried about those who don’t know Florida and just say, ‘It’s easier to avoid it.’”

Sawe would like to see tourism officials be more proactive. “I don’t think monitoring is enough, we need to try to get in front of it.”

But Grace says the tourism bureau doesn’t want to call attention to a potential problem until there is a reason to.

“We want to report facts and until there is something to address, we don’t want to put anything out there in a hypothetical situation,” she said.

The Gulf Coast is in the shoulder season now, getting ready to transition into summer when a majority of visitors are Floridians, but its largest population of international tourists visit from April through October.

The Bradenton agency has a $5 million yearly budget with about 10 to 15 percent spent on marketing overseas, particularly to the United Kingdom and Germany. Sarasota spends about 9 percent of its $3.4 million budget on trying to attract international visitors.

Liz Mann, property manager at Dawg Daze Villa on Anna Maria, has had calls this week from British visitors planning on visiting in the next few days but anxious about the beach conditions.

“They are concerned because they see it in the international media and I’ve told them we don’t expect any impact but nobody knows,” she said. Mann tries to reassure them by referring them to the Mote Marine’s website and its beach conditions report.

Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, said one of their biggest concerns is international media’s generalized reporting on the Gulf of Mexico in relationship to the oil spill.

“The Gulf is so big that something happening in one part of it is not necessarily happening in another part of it,” she said.

One thing that has really helped restore consumer confidence is hotels that have updated their cancellations policies and are treating oil slicks and their impact the same as hurricanes.

“If it is determined oil is in our waters onshore, the same rules apply,” Haley said.

There have been suggestions of posting real-time photography on websites to assure potential visitors that the beaches are clean and open for business, Haley said.

The Sarasota Surf and Racquet Club in Siesta Beach has a webcam on the beach where visitors to its website can view live video.

“We just say look at the cam, you can see the people on the beach,” Haley said.

Grace and Haley both say their agencies are prepared no matter what happens.

“We absolutely run through the ‘what ifs’ scenarios, we hope for the best and prepare the worst,” Grace said.

Haley said she has prepared a whole series of messages, tactics to deal with every scenario.

Sawe and David Teitelbaum, manager of the Tortuga Inn and on Manatee’s Tourist Development Council, said their hotels’ occupancy rate is about 80 percent right now and they are praying the spill doesn’t head this way.

“I haven’t had any cancellations so far, we’re holding our breath,” Teitelbaum said.

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