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Mum's the word on Red Tide

Along local beaches, if prospective guests don't ask about Red Tide conditions, some hotels don't tell.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published September 1, 2005


It's a classic business conundrum. Do you disclose a possible flaw in your product and scare away customers, or not mention it and lose repeat business?

Pinellas beach hotels are struggling over what to say about Red Tide when people call to book rooms. The general rule: If they don't ask, reservation agents don't tell.

"If somebody asks, we're more than happy to tell them," said Lynda Waters, vice president of marketing for TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach. "If they don't ask, we don't bring it up."

That was the consensus among more than 30 Pinellas hotel operators and tourism industry officials at a Red Tide seminar Wednesday at the Hilton North Redington Beach. They heard from scientists representing Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who explained how the natural phenomenon works.

This year's episode of toxic algae, which bloomed in the Gulf of Mexico in January and began affecting Pinellas around Memorial Day weekend, has given beach communities and hotels fits.

Besides the foul smell and dead fish washing up on beaches, Red Tide causes respiratory problems ranging from a tickle in the throat to coughing and wheezing. In addition, scientists told tourism managers that Hurricane Katrina whipped up another Red Tide threat: sea foam that has higher concentrations of the toxin and can irritate the skin.

The trouble is that precisely where those conditions strike varies from day to day and place to place, tourism officials say.

The TradeWinds had been untouched by fallout from Red Tide since late July, Waters said, but then the odors returned Wednesday with onshore winds.

"It changes constantly," said Wit Tuttell, spokesman for the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Just because it's there this morning doesn't mean it will be this afternoon. It can be at Fort DeSoto, and Clearwater Beach has no effects."

There are lots of misconceptions, said Barbara Kirkpatrick, a senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory. It's important that customers who call and ask about Red Tide get accurate information about current conditions, she said.

"When people say there's Red Tide from Key West to Tarpon Springs, they envision dead fish all over the coastline," Kirkpatrick said.

The tourism marketing agency for Pinellas has a section about Red Tide on its Web site (www.floridasbeach.com) But to find it, visitors first must click on a link about "summer safety tips," then scroll down through advice on vacation planning and avoiding sunburn and dehydration.

Some customers complained that hotels should have warned them about Red Tide conditions before they booked stays during outbreaks in late July.

The lack of disclosure threatens future business and doesn't pass the ethical smell test, says Marca Marie Bear, an associate professor of management at the University of Tampa.

"The hotels ... need to go beyond that myopic viewpoint," she said. "They have an obligation to protect the health and safety of their guests. It's a disservice to customers, the communities and their employees."

Charter fishing and scuba diving businesses have been devastated by Red Tide, which has killed huge numbers of fish in an oxygen-starved zone off the Pinellas and Pasco coasts.

The economic impact is harder to measure among hotels and restaurants. At the Clearwater Beach Marriott Suites on Sand Key, inquiries about bookings were down 25 percent in July from the same month last year.

Countywide numbers on visitors in July won't come out until next month. Comparative statistics for the rest of the summer could be skewed because Pinellas hotels took a hit last summer from the first of four hurricanes that threatened the area.

Steve Huettel can be reached at 813 226-3384 or huettel@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 1, 2005, 00:57:17]


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