We learned this lesson with swine flu in Mexico, with AIG at a resort, and now with oil in the Gulf: Meetings and travel are always in danger of death by a thousand sound bites.

The U.S. Travel Association, the powerful voice of the industry, has lately strengthened its resolve to counteract those sound bites with marketing, research, statistics—and connections in the most powerful of places.

In a report prepared for U.S. Travel in July, Oxford Economics analyzed 25 previous natural and manmade disasters, quantifying their impact on tourism economies. Based on that analysis, the impact of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oilrig’s explosion and subsequent leak on tourism along the Gulf Coast could last three years and represent nearly $23 billion in lost spending. The Oxford Economics report adds that a “substantial and significant marketing and education program of $500 million” could mitigate the damage by one-third.

U.S. Travel released a letter in conjunction with the Oxford Economics report calling for such a marketing campaign to be funded by BP. After working overtime to send the message that Meetings Mean Business, U.S. Travel now is making the case that perception is reality when it comes to lost tourism business. That is, your beach may be miles from a tar ball, but if tourists’ perception is that it’s oil slicked, it might as well be (from a revenue standpoint).

To balance the focus on the spill’s damage to some—but not all—of the area’s beaches, Roger Dow, U.S. Travel President and CEO, told MeetingsNet in an interview during the ASAE annual meeting in Los Angeles in August that he pushed for President Barack Obama and his family to vacation on the Gulf Coast through presidential senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. The Obamas did visit, spending 27 hours in Panama City, Fla., over the weekend of August 15. “We said, ‘He has to get in the water,’” Dow reports. He did, as this photo of him swimming with daughter Sasha shows.

Dow also has been working to convince Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, that damage claims based on perceptions about travel to the Gulf are legitimate and should be reimbursed through the $20 billion escrow fund established by BP.

The hardships endured by the tourist areas along the Gulf Coast in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida’s Panhandle were evident in comments made by Herbert Malone, president and CEO of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau at the annual meeting of Destinations Marketing Association International in late July. “This has turned our industry upside down. We are primarily a leisure-based beach resort. Our occupancy at this time last year was 90 percent. Now we’re doing well if it’s 30 percent,” he said, fighting back tears. “What can you do to help us? You can come see us. You can bring a sales meeting or a Sunday school class. You can eat the seafood. We’re not looking for a handout.”

Florida received some good news in early September about travelers’ intentions for the rest of the year: In a poll conducted by travel company Travel Leaders, 80 percent of travel company owners in Florida reported no impact in autumn tourism from the oil spill. In fact, Florida might be a case in point for the power of marketing campaigns in countering misperceptions, as overseas inbound tourism to the state rose 12 percent in the second quarter and domestic tourism rose by 2.4 percent in the same period.

In particular, the launch of FloridaLive, which began as a collection of live images from webcams around the state and date-stamped photos from fans in Florida, seems to have succeeded in letting potential visitors see with their own eyes the condition of beaches and hotels. The site has grown to include daily videos, blog posts, travel and fishing updates, and other information. VisitFlorida logged 720,000 visitors in June, up an impressive 46 percent from June 2009.

Roadmap to Recovery
To help the entire Gulf Coast boost its visitor numbers and to provide a guide for handling future crises, U.S. Travel drafted a 10-point “Roadmap to Recovery,” outlining steps the government should take to prevent “billions of dollars in harm to the travel community.”

Among the steps are:

  • Develop a one-stop shop online, where consumers can obtain up-to-the-minute information about which areas are safe and open for travel and business. The government recently launched its “Restore the Gulf Web site with updated travel information from the five states along the Gulf— Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas—plus daily news updates, and other resources.
  • Provide increased access to capital, low-interest loans, and tax incentives to allow businesses to remain open and retain employees. On that score, the Small Business Administration has approved 285 economic injury assistance loans to date, totaling more than $24.8 million for small businesses in the Gulf Coast. Additionally, the agency has granted deferments on 895 existing SBA disaster loans in the region, totaling more than $5 million per month in payments.

State of the Spill
Meanwhile, at a September 4 press conference, National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen made the announcement everyone has been waiting for since the April 20 disaster: “I'm very pleased to announce that with the new Blow Out Preventer on this well, and the cement that was previously put in through the static kill, that this well does not constitute a threat to the Gulf of Mexico at this point.”

Work continues on drilling a relief well, which is expected to be complete by the end of September. On September 10, Admiral Allen gave updates on the work in Gulf Coast states: “We continue to remove boom where it's no longer needed,” he said. “In Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi have no boom at this point. We continue to work with the parish presidents in the state of Louisiana on our transition plans, and we're also looking at how to best transition the extensive field infrastructure we have put in place in Mobile and Houma, Louisiana, as we look to finish up the recovery and move to long-term restoration, making sure that we have enough response capability to deal with any residual oil that may be found out there and deal with the oil that's continuing to be recovered in the marsh areas of Louisiana.”