A survey of 50 meeting hotels on the Gulf Coast, released June 30 by The Knowland Group, McLean, Va., found that at a quarter of the properties, bookings related to the BP oil spill cleanup accounted for 50 percent to 100 percent of their current business. At another third of the hotels surveyed, cleanup-related business was 25 percent to 49 percent of their total.

The good news for hoteliers is that the cleanup-related bookings are long-term, helping to make up for cancellations that most of the hotels are experiencing. Almost a quarter of these cleanup-related bookings are two to three weeks long, and another quarter are for four weeks or longer.

The U.S Travel Association has stepped up its efforts to highlight the impact of the oil spill on Gulf tourism, hosting a Congressional briefing last week in conjunction with the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the National Restaurant Association. At the June 29 briefing, tourism officials from Florida, New Orleans, and Alaska called for a $500 million marketing campaign over the next 18 months to combat public perceptions about the spill. The funding would come from a $20 billion fund that BP has pledged to help finance cleanup and recovery. The marketing plan is intended to offset the long-term perception problems like those faced by Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

According to Chris Thompson, president of Visit Florida, the problem in Florida is exactly that—one of perception. He reported that tourism was down 20 percent in June, yet no beaches have closed and there have been no swim advisories. (However, many Florida beaches started posting health advisory signs in mid-June.) Visit Florida’s Web site posts live webcam images of its various beaches.

The situation in Alabama is more dire. The Gulf Shores CVB has posted on its Web site that most beach areas are now flying double red flags, (which means that it is illegal to swim) as a result of the strong surf bringing the oil onshore. The Alabama Department of Public Health has issued swim advisories in other locations.

Meeting Professionals International is monitoring the impact of the BP disaster on its members by staying in regular contact with its Gulf Coast and Florida chapters. “It appears that Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana have been hardest hit with spill-related cancellations,” said Kristen Kouk, MPI spokesperson. While no Gulf Coast members have yet applied, Membership Manager Charlie Spiegel is evaluating how MPI will respond to MPI Cares Program requests related to the spill, says Kouk. MPI Cares waives the membership dues for members and communities affected by natural disasters for one full year.

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