BP officials are reporting some progress in funneling oil from the broken oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, but the environmental disaster is far from over. While an increasing number of meeting groups booked into Gulf Coast hotels are canceling because of the spill, destinations along the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast are working hard to promote the fact that their beaches—and their meeting rooms—are open for business.
Some coastal areas on the northern shores of the Gulf are starting to see signs of the slick. In Pensacola, Fla., on the western edge of the Panhandle, small tar balls started washing up over the weekend, says Laura Lee, director of communications at the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, clean-up crews have been on the scene and activity continues on the beach, including a sand-sculpting contest over the weekend, she said. The CVB’s Web site includes links to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other information sources.
Lee said Pensacola has not had any meetings canceled as a result of the oil spill, and Tom Rasinen, director of sales at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front, confirmed that from his property’s perspective. “People want to have their meetings,” says Rasinen. “There is a reason for the meetings and once you get a date on your calendar, you really want it to happen. So far, everyone has just stayed on track.” The hotel has seen some individual attendee cancellations as a result of the spill, and, in order to help out groups, it is not enforcing itspolicies, he said.
The Emerald Coast Conference Center in nearby Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is another property that hasn’t had any cancellations as a result of the spill, according to Bill Leaman, general manager.
Survey Says: Oil-Related Cancellations
While those properties have had no meetings drop off the books because of the spill, many have not been so fortunate, according to The Knowland Group, a McLean, Va.–based meetings and hospitality industry research company, which began a series of surveys in early May to assess the effect of the oil spill on the meetings and events business. Knowland surveyed 50 hotels across the Gulf Coast on May 6, May 18, and June 2–3, and the results reveal a steady increase in spill-related group cancellations and an increasingly gloomy outlook for future bookings.
In the most recent survey, 60 percent of the hotels responding have had group cancellations attributable to the oil spill, up from 42 percent on May 18 and 7 percent on May 6.
An even greater percentage of the most recent respondents—62 percent—report a negative impact on their efforts to book future events. Twenty-eight percent characterize that impact as “significant,” 28 percent consider it “moderate,” and 44 percent call it “minimal.” Just two weeks prior, 64 percent characterized the impact on future events “minimal.”
When asked what time frame for future events was “most adversely affected,” the majority of respondents point to the next six months, but an increasing number of hoteliers are seeing repercussions extending into long-term group business. Two weeks ago, when asked what time frame was “most adversely affected,” just 8 percent said business six months to 12 months out and nobody said group business that was over a year out would be affected. But in the most recent survey, 13 percent said the time frame “most adversely affected” was six months to 12 months out, and 8 percent said that business more than a year out would be most adversely affected.
Getting the Word Out
To offset the negative press and travelers’ fears of oil-ravaged shores, destinations are getting creative. The Panama City Beach CVB is running a promotion through June 10 where visitors are offered a $200 travel credit at participating hotels if their stay is disrupted by the oil spill. And to show that the beaches are open, both Pensacola and Panama City Beach CVBs have footage from live Web cams of their beaches on their Web sites. “It seems to really help visitors when they can see for themselves what the beaches look like,” says Lee.
Pensacola is also using Facebook page that asks visitors to post photos and offer testimonials. And with its share of money that BP has given to the state to promote tourism, Visit Pensacola is planning to launch a traditional ad campaign with the tagline, “Curious About the Coast.” Since the situation changes daily, it’s difficult to put out a definitive message, says Lee. But with the “Curious” campaign, the bureau hopes to drive people to its Web site, where they’ll find links to the latest official information—not just what the media is reporting, says Lee.to get the word out that the beaches are open. The city has a
Just up the coast, Mobile, Ala., is also open, although there are swimming advisories. The Mobile CVB has a Web site for daily oil spill news at MobileBayTravelUpdates.com.