Special Reports

Social media aids clean beach news

Tourism officials in Manatee and Sarasota are finding that the best way to reassure would-be visitors that the beaches are clean and open for business are social media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

“People look for a third party resource for verification that they made the right choice,” said Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. So she has been working with the Sarasota Parks and Recreation Dept. to install two more webcams on Siesta Key and Venice beaches. The live feed from the webcams along with one already in operation at the Surf and Racquet Club on Siesta Key are connected to the bureau’s website and provide a real time accounting of the ocean, sand and surf conditions.

Manatee tourism officials including County Commissioner Carol Whitmore along with Sarasota officials are busy taking videos of beach and fishing activities and other areas where tourists might go. They are putting the videos online on Facebook and YouTube.

“People want to see it for their own eyes, they want a reaffirmation and visual proof that everything is OK,” says Jessica Grace, with the Bradenton Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Haley thinks the webcams “are incredibly effective. People want to see citizen journalism, they want that extra level of insurance that everything is indeed OK,” she said.

Restaurateurs Sean Murphy, owner of the Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach, agrees that businesses should take advantage of social media. Last week he installed a webcam at his restaurant and within hours of announcing it publicly, the webcam connection had so many viewers it crashed.

“A restaurant decision is a social decision and social media is becoming more and more crucial in making that decision,” he said.

The webcam had been in the planning stages for the past 18 months, long before the Louisiana oil spill threatened, he said.

“But when it happened, I said ‘Let’s step this up, it’s a priority,’” Murphy said. “All over the world there is more misinformation than information about the extent of the spill.”

With the real time element, tourists can see for themselves what the situation is, he said. Murphy estimates he’s spent about $3,500 so far on the project.

Haley has purchased four inexpensive video cameras and handed them over to the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce to get film for the bureau’s website. She’s says the tourism office is trying to get as proactive as it can in counteracting any negation conceptions.

Whitmore, a Manatee county commissioner who lives in Holmes Beach, volunteered to take video and is enjoying it.

“They (potential visitors) want to see, not just hear” that the beaches are still pristine, Whitmore said. “I’ve got a Flipcam in my purse.”

Grace and Haley are hoping to keep visitor numbers up throughout the summer although they admit there have been cancellations. In Manatee County, there have been 42 room cancellations related to the spill, Grace said.

In the past week, some local motels and hotels have picked up reservations from people deciding to drive further south and avoid the Panhandle beaches, officials said.

This tourist season, numbers are expected to be down because of “the perfect storm,” Haley said, the lower value of the Euro, volcanic ash and soccer’s World Cup.

But Grace is hoping visits will be up by summer regulars — Florida residents.

“They’re familiar with the conditions, they know what areas are affected and what isn’t,” she said.