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Homing in on tourists

With hurricanes and gas prices worrying out-of-towners, Florida markets vacations to Floridians.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published June 16, 2006


photo
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Increased advertising, such as this billboard in Clearwater, is aimed at persuading Florida residents to keep their trips instate.


[AP photo]
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK: The park, spanning the southern tip of the Florida Peninsula, is the only subtropical preserve in North America. Visitor centers hours and fees vary.
www.nps.gov/ever


[Times photo, 2005: Scott Keeler]

PONCE DE LEON INLET LIGHTHOUSE: Completed in 1887, the lighthouse is the tallest in Florida. The National Historic Landmark is located 12 miles south of Daytona Beach. Hours vary, depending on season; $5 for adults, $1.50 for children 11 and under.
www.ponceinlet.org

[Times photo, 2001: Ken Helle]
BLUE ANGELS: The precision-flying team of six F/A-18 Hornets is stationed at Forrest Sherman Field, Naval Air Station Pensacola, during show season. Visitors can view practices at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola held most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings when the team is home during show season.
www.blueangels.navy.mil
Care to Visit?
Will you be taking a summer vacation in Florida?
No, don't want to risk a hurricane spoiling things
Still figuring out my vacation plans
Yes, gas prices are a factor in my plans

FORT MYERS - Worried that hurricane fears and high gas prices might keep away out-of-state visitors, Florida tourism marketers are focusing on persuading residents to take a summer vacation in the Sunshine State.

Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, has steeply increased spending with partners on radio advertising and purchased 110 billboards around the state.

"We're looking for them to considerably buoy the hurricane season," chief marketing officer Dale Brill said outside the agency's board meeting Thursday. "As the fourth-largest state, people are already here ... and they don't have to go far or do much planning."

A mid-May survey of 1,720 people living east of the Mississippi River showed that 27 percent of non-Floridians are less interested in a summer vacation in the state because of hurricanes. And 32 percent are less likely to consider Florida because of the impact of gas prices on their budget.

Not surprisingly, far fewer Floridians - just 12 percent - said hurricanes or gas prices soured them on taking a summer vacation here.

So far, this has been a ho-hum year for Florida tourism after a record 2005. An estimated 23.2-million visitors came to the state in the first quarter, about the same as last year, according to Visit Florida. The agency predicted growth of 3 percent for the year.

Pinellas reported just over 2-million visitors through April, an increase of 1.4 percent. Hotel occupancy, however, was down 1.6 percent, reflecting a statewide trend.

Tourism officials are scratching their heads over what happened to last year's strong tourism growth. Hurricane fears and gas prices are the obvious suspects. Some experts say visitors are looking for more exotic locations than familiar Florida. Tour operators trying to sell Florida vacations in Europe blame the World Cup for distracting international visitors.

"It's not just one thing," Brill said.

Visit Florida and tourism agencies from Orlando, Kissimmee and Miami commissioned the May survey after hearing "anecdotal" warnings about weak summer bookings, he said.

The results were a mixed bag. Demand for summer vacation travel is high. More than seven in 10 non-Floridians said they would likely take a vacation between Memorial Day and Labor Day that involved traveling at least 100 miles from home and staying at a hotel, motel or inn for at least three nights.

Florida topped the list of states they'd consider with 38 percent, followed by New York 23 percent, North Carolina (22 percent) and Tennessee (20 percent). The share of those saying hurricanes made them less likely to look at the Sunshine State was "relatively low" at 27 percent, said Brill. The survey was conducted before media reports on the June 1 start of hurricane season and Tropical Storm Alberto.

But officials fretted over the response to this statement: "There are so many good value places now at which to take a summer vacation that I do not have to go to the same place each year." Sixty-five percent agreed.

While 35 percent of non-Floridians said Orlando was an appealing place for a summer vacation, nearly as many picked Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Results showed Florida hotels, attractions and restaurants have a deep pool of potential summer visitors in their own back yard. Nearly half, for example, said the value of vacationing in Florida would cancel out their worries about rising gas prices or hurricanes.

In addition to the $5.3-million its traditional summer campaign of print advertising and direct mail targeted at the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest states, Visit Florida is spending more than $2-million for summer advertising in Florida. Typically, the agency spends no more than $300,000 to sell Floridians on summer vacations in Florida, Brill said.

In addition, Visit Florida can tap as much as $4-million more if it needs to respond quickly to a hurricane tearing through the state. Officials unveiled new print ads Thursday that they will place in an emergency during what they like to call "the windy season."

For a minor blow, there's one with a couple hand-in-hand on the beach with the headline: "Florida/Good to Go." Florida's a big state with "nearly all" its attractions undamaged, the ad states. For a serious storm, a couple in beach chairs sit under the headline "Still Standing ... or Lounging if You Prefer."

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

[Last modified June 16, 2006, 07:39:49]


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