There have been changes in tourism here along the Northern Gulf Coast. They are subtle, but you may have noticed them all the same. Those changes are going to continue, too.
First of all, remember Snow Birds? They come from the northern states of the USA and Canada, where it gets cold in winter. Traditionally they come to our part of the world for at least part of the winter. It used to be that they would arrive just before, or just after, Christmas and the New Year—and stay between a month to three months. The birds are great for the area because they bring us tourist dollars during what has always been a slow season. They keep many of the restaurants open, and by extension, keep jobs going throughout the year. Many of the snowbirds consider this as much ‘home’ as they do their summer bases up in the north. I once spoke to a couple of winter visitors who said they felt the birds actually lived here, but just spent summer ‘up there’ to get away from the heat!
Here’s the Conexión Florida article for September.
One of the great things about being in the Tourism Industry is that you work with people who like to travel. So much so, that they often move to take up new jobs, frequently in other parts of the world. As a result—providing you keep in touch—you’ll find that you have friends in many far-flung places. I bring this up because I recently received a newsletter from a lady I had worked with about 18 years ago. We were both working in the United Kingdom at the time, but she is now based in Ireland, and as you know, I’m here in the USA. Anyway, Katherine had written an article called “8 Reasons to Choose a Career in Tourism” and it got me thinking…
I received a comment recently from a visitor who was asking if there was a ‘coalition of local Hotel/Motels that controlled prices during the summer season’.The gentleman thought that as rates were as low as $120 in the winter season and as high as $600 in the summer it must be a plot to rip off tourists.His suggestion was that such summer prices were beyond the resources of less affluent travelers and that such rates would discourage visitors from out of state.
Naturally I told him that such collusion was illegal and was very much discouraged within the industry. The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association actually read out an anti-collusion statement before each meeting just to make sure that everyone is aware.
Not only that but to actively jointly raise prices would take away the element of competition that drives the tourism industry. I’m not saying such practices haven’t happened, but it doesn’t seem logical.
In fact I think there is a case here in Northwest Florida, and in other very seasonal destinations, where the low rates of winter are actually subsidized by the higher summer rates.Accommodation providers suffer from a difficulty in employing enough staff for the summer peaks. They don’t want to loose good year round employees by laying them off during the winter so in many cases use the profits generated in the summer to keep everything running during the winter. I think that applies to many restaurants too.
Basic economics would indicate that the law of supply and demand is working well.Winter rates are low to encourage whatever business can be attracted.Summer rates are high because there is a finite amount of stock and a limited amount of time when the majority of tourists can be here – essentially Memorial Day to Labor Day, although with schools breaking later and returning earlier that window is getting shorter.
Ideally our tourist season would be spread out allowing for a greater spread of rates. That would also encourage year round employment and less of a scramble for high season staffing.
All of us in the industry know this.If there is any collusion it’s to try and encourage tourists during the periods outside of the peak summer months. Various attempts have been made to rename this as ‘the best season’. That’s fine as a customer facing branding exercise but within the industry we must call the seasons what they are: low, shoulder, peak and (July 4th week) Super Peak.
Of course by attracting tourists in April, May, September and October we’re in danger of alienating our locals who consider these periods of perfect weather and low traffic as ‘their own’ and reward for putting up with gridlock traffic and no restaurant space in June, July and August. Not to mention Spring Break – so I won’t mention it.
A similar situation exists in Europe where school holidays (vacations) govern package holiday and flight prices.Another case of supply and demand.Airlines and tour companies have been accused of artificially raising prices during the vacations making travel for families beyond affordable.Some parents in the UK have been taking their kids out of school in term time to get lower prices.They are fined by the schools, but just factor the cost of the fines into their vacation costs.
The solution? Many little things I fear, each of which would have a small result but the culmination would be sizable.
Encourage the school systems to stagger their break periods.Some do this, but not enough.
Work with school systems to stop shortening summer breaks.
Go after markets that have different school vacation periods – Canada and Europe for example.UK Schools don’t break until July and don’t go back until September. They also have longer ‘half-term’ breaks in October and November and around Easter.Our weather in those times is perfect for the Northern Europeans.
Expand our marketing to those sectors that aren’t governed by school timetables.Millennials, younger boomers, empty nesters, the list is almost endless.
Actively promote lower rates outside summer. Many do this already.
Strengthen weekend break and short break marketing, out of high season, to places like Atlanta, Birmingham, Tallahassee and new markets thrown up by the likes of Allegiant Air and Southwest.
We also need to have some regional agreement on marketing.Continuing to market as just South Alabama, Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, etc., etc., and ignoring the fact that for some marketing a regional approach is more effective can be counter productive.Some work is being done in this direction and should be applauded and encouraged.
Of course we also have to get the message out to our visitors, like the gentleman who contacted me, that the reason the prices are high in the summer is exactly because we attract so many tourists at those times. Far from being put off they come anyway, and that lets us put up prices, subsidizing the less busy seasons.
As I say, basic economics. …..or perhaps there is a conspiracy that I haven’t been told about!
I was flicking though a newspaper the other day, the UK’s Daily Telegraph, and article caught my eye – ‘Why it’s cool to be a tourist, not a pretentious traveler’ (Read it HERE). It got me thinking….
Firstly I have to confess I wasn’t physically flipping through a newspaper made out of crushed up trees, I was reading the on-line version. I suppose therefore I was simply bothering a bunch of electrons, but that added to pondering as to how our perceptions have changed.
For example, does reading an on-line newspaper make me less of a reader? When we were actually reading a ‘paper’ paper, our eyes would fall on stories that wouldn’t immediately be our target interest. That expanded our reading list and maybe we found opinions that we didn’t agree with, or subjects that weren’t initially in our wheelhouse. It did give us a wider knowledge and leave us open to new thoughts and opinions. It broadened our view. These days we tend to select our interests and have the electrons present us with just what we expect and with which we are comfortable. Maybe we sit in a little bubble of our own making? Only exposed to our own interests and views.
How does this relate to the traveler versus tourist issue? The article pointed out that some folks consider themselves to be more sophisticated than the average and therefore their wanderings were in some way superior to your run of the mill tourist. The ‘travelers’ (actually it was a British article, so they were ‘travellers’ with two Ls!) considered that their experience was somewhat superior to a tourist. Along with the author, I initially thought this attitude was pretentious in the extreme.
As an aside, a number of areas around Florida have names like The Forgotten Coast, The Space Coast, The Emerald Coast etc. There’s one area I’ve always called The Pretentious Coast. Any ideas where that may be?
While it’s true that someone who travels, is a traveler, and a tourist is by definition “A person who is visiting a place for pleasure and interest, especially when they are on vacation”, there do appear to be a whole bunch of different types of tourists.
There are those who visit an area to gain extra knowledge, cultural tourists, eco-tourists, adventure tourists, even health tourists traveling to seek medical attention they can’t get at home. One assumes these all gain something from their experience and hope that they also contribute to the local economy or culture. Certainly the hope is that they do not purposefully detract from the place they are visiting.
There is a type of tourist that actually does little or nothing for either the area that they visit or for themselves it would appear. I’d suggest that these are folks that travel to a destination but then behave just as they would at home or possibly even behave in a way that wouldn’t be accepted at home. These would be the ones that bring everything with them. They experience nothing of the local culture, and contribute little to the local economy. They may be the ones that just come to party uncontrollably, ending up in jail, hospital or worse.
Now, each to his own and I wouldn’t dare to suggest that what one person finds fun is the only way, but it does strike me that there are various levels of tourism. Some are more desirable to a destination than others. I’m sure The Machu Pichu Tourist Board wouldn’t target bachelor or bachelorette parties, but on the other hand would Panama City Beach expect to receive too many groups studying the works of da Vinci?
Without a doubt some travelers get more out of their experience than others but would we term them Travelers as opposed to Tourists? What’s wrong with being a tourist?
Here on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, the peak of the summer tourist season is drawing to a close as the schools begin to return for the new academic year. The majority of the summer tourists to the area that stretches from Apalachicola on the Forgotten Coast through to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores in Alabama (actually also further through Mississippi to Louisiana) relies heavily on the family market and draws from the whole of the South East and now up into the mid west. So, now comes the time to reflect on what we did well and what we can improve for 2018.
Of course, the best part of the year is yet to come, as the weather cools slightly and humidity drops, we start to attract both local tourists and the visitors who are not tied to school vacations. A time for festivals and events that draw in an audience that tend to spend more and have an emotional attachment to the Gulf Coast.
How do you reach out to these guests to your business? What’s the secret to getting under their skin? I recently wrote a blog post about the impact that the iPhone and other smart devices have had on the travel, tourism and hospitality industries. In many cases we don’t recognize how things have developed over the past ten years or the major impact changes have had. We’ve seen how the music industry moved through cassettes, CDs and into downloads (possibly back to vinyl too!) over a relatively short period of time but the changes brought about by smart devices have been more rapid and continue to evolve. Fingerprint recognition on phones is now commonplace for unlocking and payment systems but now it’s rumored that Apple will introduce facial recognition on their next iPhone. At the same time Delta Air Lines who have been using electronic boarding passes on flyers phones are now experimenting with identifying passengers with fingerprints and iris scanners.
Does this have an impact on you? If you’re involved in the accommodation industry, how long before the move to door locks that react to smartphones is common place. Major hotel groups are rolling those out and even cruise companies are fitting out their ships with them. This is at a time when many condo owners resist even installing free wi-if for their guests.
How about payment systems take Apple Pay and the Android equivalent? Is that becoming pervasive and does your restaurant/attraction/hotel (insert the appropriate business!) accept it? I was surprised at a fairly high end restaurant recently to be told they didn’t accept American Express cards for payment, let alone any phone based payment systems. That seems to me to be alienating a whole sector of high spending guests.
We are seeing grocery delivery to condos an beach homes taking off with companies like Destin Grocery Girls and now Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Publix offering similar services. This could well have an effect on how many times tourists visit restaurants during their stay. The delivery of very high quality food to your own vacation kitchen, means you don’t have to go out to fight traffic, find parking or restrict alcohol consumption. The tourist may then just go to restaurants for their ‘amazing’ experience.
These are all changes that are happening faster than we care to admit, and need fast reactions from those of us in the industry.
Traffic, tourists and tourism employees.
One of the things that agitates us locals about the summer season is traffic. Believe me it affects the tourists too. The great danger is that the visitors, particularly those coming for the first time may be put off returning if they spend a lot of time stuck in traffic jams. It’s a phenomenon that affects the whole of the Gulf Coast to a lesser or greater extent, although the actual manifestations vary from area to area.
For some destinations traffic issues are pure access. The Saturday snarl-ups at the mid-bay bridge for example, or the lines along 98 around the Navarre bridge. On 30A there are certainly some bottle-necks but the issue there appears to be where to find a parking space. Okaloosa Island and Fort Walton Beach suffer from the bridge with junctions at both ends, while Destin is in grid lock for various reasons from Destin Bridge all through to the county line in the east. The ‘season’ for this is of course from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The rest of the year there is not such an issue. This all stems from our infrastructure which was not planned to cope with the volume of traffic during the peak season. No person or entity could have foreseen such growth when the road system was planned (or happened!) years ago.
The apparently obvious solution is to build more roads, elevated highways or even ban traffic, but none of this makes sense in the short term. Roads take years to plan and authorize, and highways cost upwards of $1 million a mile to build. I’ve been looking at what tourists destinations worldwide are doing to solve such issues in the short term, making best use of the resources they have available, plus how they are planning for 5, 10 and 20 years ahead – giving the time it takes to plan and build infrastructure changes. It’s vital to factor the demographic and attitude changes we can foresee or guess. For example, fewer people are learning to drive and many are not considering car ownership. Ride sharing and acceptance of efficient and pleasant public transport is growing. Autonomous vehicles are coming faster than many are recognizing. Building infrastructure based on current attitudes and technology may be inefficient and frankly redundant. Added to that we need answers now, not in five or ten years time.
Walton County have a parking issue. Those visitors who visit 30A need somewhere to park, so the county has used bed tax to purchase a total of 12.66 acres of land to provide for beach access, parking and a future trolley hub. This seems, to this tourism guy, an eminently sensible move.
I mentioned that Walton County have recognized that parking is their major problem and they have taken steps to address this immediately. The County has spent $24.1 million of bed tax on 12.66 acres of land including 697-feet of beachfront. This will primarily be used for parking but critically also for a future trolley hub.
Visitors, who we should recognize are increasingly familiar with ride sharing (Uber and Lyft), and public transport in their urban home environments, are happy to use trolleys on vacation if those are comfortable, efficient an either free or cheap. They will give up their cars for a more stress free experience. Indeed with the drop in people learning to drive, and in car ownership particularly in urban environments (where most of our visitors originate) they may be attracted by the availability of trolleys. Subsidizing these services may prove cheaper than building roads (at a cost of upwards $1 million per mile) or maintaining them. It’s also something that can be done now, for next season, rather than in 5 or 10 years.
How about 98 through Destin? Well, much of this traffic is visitors driving through the area, and we need to encourage a lot of this to transit through and around the area on I-10. However, a great deal of the volume is getting from accommodations to the beach, the stores, events and restaurants. Not only does this traffic clog the roads but needs parking at either end. Many destinations are solving this issue by providing park-and-ride services. Acquiring parking areas is invariably cheaper than building roads and certainly more immediate. Subsidizing trolley services is again cheaper than building and maintaining roads. Importantly, the trolley service must be attractive, so it must be efficient, pleasant and crucially be a better experience than using your own vehicle.
This means the trolley must have priority over other road users, either by creating bus lanes (possibly only during peak traffic periods) and by making the ride cheaper. Free trolley travel, and charging for parking, except at the park-and-ride stop is a good start and is being used in many destinations across the country and around the world. Providing trolley transport and park-and-ride would also help workers in the tourism and hospitality industries get to their jobs too. They need all the help they can get!
Remember that these concepts can be implemented quickly not over many years. They’re also in use in many other places. They are measures that can be switched on only at peak times, either during particularly heavy traffic hours, days or certain months. They can be flexible in that we can adapt to changing demographics and fashions and we won’t end up covering the whole coast in tarmac!
Our solutions to these challenges need to be radical and inventive. We don’t need to reinvent solutions. Many others have already proved they work.
A further traffic issue we have in the area from Fort Walton Beach through to 30A is how the people who work in the tourism and hospitality industry get to and from work. Comparatively few industry folk actually live in Destin or on 30A. They travel in from Fort Walton Beach, Crestview, Niceville and further out. The cost of gas alone makes a dent in their income and their presence on the road increases congestion. Many travel across the Mid Bay Bridge and get no break in the tolls. It makes no sense if these workers have to work for an hour just to pay their Bridge tolls. Surely the Bridge Authority could engineer a 5 day pass for these vital workers as a starting point. Again, cheap or free park and ride using public transport to could not only make our strategic tourism worker’s lives better and more cost effective, but could reduce traffic congestion particularly during high traffic months.
These aren’t socialist ideas or anti-capitalist suggestions. These are sensible ways of maximizing our infrastructure, making the area both better to visit and to live in, and remarkably cost effective. Roads cost $1 million a mile to build and years to plan and implement. Bridges cost even more and take even longer. Public transport, even subsidized, costs less and can be put into place right away or at least by next summer.
We have to take into account as I’ve said before, the changing demographics. Just because people drive here now and have dome for years, doesn’t mean they will continue to do so in the future.
In case you were wondering…..
….what happened to my weekly column in the Northwest Florida Daily News, here’s the scoop. Actually, I hear mutterings of “what column” and “what’s the Daily News?”, but I’ll ignore those for the moment!
Despite being asked to write the Talking Tourism column and being assured that both the newspaper and the readers enjoyed the piece and it was everything that had been asked for, it appears that I mentioned travel and tourism suppliers like Uber, Lyft, Trip Advisor, TripShock, Airbnb etc., but failed to give sufficient coverage to destin.com. destin.com is a website owned by the Daily News and is apparently the source of all tourism information in the area. Mea Culpa. I was referring to sites and companies who actually sold travel and tourism products, as opposed to just collecting tourism related stories.
No matter. The content of Talking Tourism will still be published on owenorganization.com/news, and there will also be a monthly Tourism Topics column in Coastlines, the publication brought to you by The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Keep your ears and eyes open for some other developments around the Talking Tourism subject over the next few months.
Until next month……
Please follow Owen Organization on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and 500px and on owenorganization.com.
This article appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday, June 19, 2017
By this time of the year, we are usually in a good position to know what sort of success the tourism industry is having not only locally, but nationally and internationally, as well. At the midpoint of 2017, the state of the tourism market is throwing up all sorts of conflicting results.
Here in Northwest Florida, where only 1 percent of our tourism is currently of international origin, we think that our domestic, drive-in visitors make us immune from trends in other sectors. Strangely what happens in one market does have an effect on the other areas.
First, the good news. Our local hospitality professionals are reporting excellent advance bookings for the summer season and bed tax collections have been up for the first quarter of the year. Important also is that bookings for attractions and experiences have been very strong in the first quarter and advance bookings are ahead of last year.
Visitors to Florida were up by 2.5 percent for the first quarter of the year over 2016 with 3.1 million visitors arriving. Visitors from Canada and UK were down but an increase in domestic visitors more than filled the gap.
Statistics from credit card companies for Northwest Florida show an increase in spending from cards with Canadian, UK and German addresses. Okaloosa County’s DMO (Destination Marketing Organization) feels this can be put down to Canadians preferring our area to central and south Florida, and that new flights into New Orleans from London and Germany may be bringing visitors here.
On the other side of the coin, the strength of the dollar against overseas currencies and other factors may discourage Europeans from heading to U.S. destinations. Some areas of Florida are seeing drops in online inquiries from the UK by as much as 60 percent. Foursquare, a location technology company, says that America’s market share of international leisure tourism declined an average of 11 percent between October 2016 and March 2017. However, the financial attractiveness of traveling to Europe has seen a huge increase in Americans heading east across the Pond with an 80 percent jump in U.S. to UK bookings reported by Expedia, an on-line travel agent.
So, nothing really conclusive, but the trend is currently good for Northwest Florida, which relies on domestic tourists. But with fewer internationals coming to the U.S. and more Americans traveling to Europe, the U.S. destinations that usually welcome overseas guests may start looking at attracting “our” domestic visitors. That’s not a good portent for 2018.
If the proposal to close Brand USA and the cut to Visit Florida’s budget from $100 million to $25 million goes ahead, then the Sunshine State will loose out to California and other domestic and foreign places. Areas like Orlando and south Florida may use their budgets and publicity to try to steal “our” visitors. It’s a distinct possibility.
It’s essential that the Gulf Coast destinations redouble their efforts to keep our exiting visitors and develop new markets as soon as possible. Nothing is definite, and we look set to have a really good 2017, but 2018 … who knows?
Martin Owen is an independent consultant to the tourism industry and owner of Owen Organization in Shalimar. Readers can email questions to email@example.com.
It should be noted that since this piece was written, the Florida Legislature have authorized a $75million budget for Visit Florida, albeit with severe restrictions on their ability to operate effectively.
This article was published in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday May 20. 2017.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the need to train our tourism and hospitality employees, and mentioned the new courses being set up by Northwest Florida State College in addition to those being offered by the University of West Florida. At a recent meeting I sat with folks from our accommodation providers, restaurants and attractions who were discussing the challenges they face. All agreed that the advanced training being provided is absolutely vital to our future as not only a growing tourist destination, but one that was constantly increasing its professionalism, and as a consequence the quality of its tourists. Higher quality equals higher spending.
One of the biggest problems they face, if not the biggest problem, is actually finding those employees. Every spring sees a rash of “Now Hiring” signs along the Emerald Coast. Companies look far and wide to fill the positions that will cater to our tourists throughout the season to come.
This article appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday May 13, 2017
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson said “Beer, if drunk in moderation, softens the temper, cheers the spirit and promotes health.” He could have course said the same thing about tourism, particularly if combined with beer!
I recently visited Asheville, North Carolina, on a research mission – OK, it was vacation but I’ll stick with my story. We took in tours of a couple of breweries – New Belgium and Sierra Nevada both have large establishments there. These are craft brewers, albeit big ones who needed to have presence on the East Coast. Both companies started up out west and have found the combination of location, water supply and culture in Asheville matched their needs. There are also smaller brewers located in the area along with hard cider makers. The interesting thing is that these companies have become an integral part of the local tourist industry.
This article appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday May 6, 2017
By Martin Owen | Special to the Daily News
A couple of years ago I got into a conversation with the general manager of a very large hotel that is known for its attention to detail and 5-star accommodations. It’s also a large conference hotel, so it’s not a small “boutique-style” location.
We got talking about niche markets; those parts of the customer base that have particular needs and wishes. It appeared that the hotel was given the chance to become the host hotel for the largest dog show in the U.S. and her conference department could not pass up the chance for the amount of business the show would bring. Naturally, she was more than concerned at the thought of literally hundreds of dogs staying at a 5-star establishment.
This article appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.
Like other parts of Northwest Florida, Okaloosa County could attract a lot more economy-boosting visitors by opening a portion of its beaches to dogs.
That’s according to Martin Owen, a Shalimar-based tourism industry consultant who regularly attends Tourist Development Council meetings.
“It’s niche tourism we can attract, particularly out of season,” he said Thursday. “A lot of dog owners tend to like traveling with their dogs. Our neighboring counties are addressing this, and so is Okaloosa.”
County Marine Economic and Tourist Development Resource Coordinator Erika Zambello shared information with the TDC on Thursday about dog-friendly beaches in Walton County and Pensacola Beach in Escambia County. But she said she has not had any discussions with other Okaloosa County officials about establishing a dog-friendly section of beach.
With the exception of service animals and police dogs, dogs are prohibited on the publicly owned beaches of Okaloosa County, Destin and Santa Rosa County. In Walton County, property owners and permanent residents can bring their leashed dogs on the beach during certain hours and with a permit.
People who violate Okaloosa County’s law pertaining to dogs on the beach could be cited with a fine of at least $100. But such citations are rarely given, county officials said.
Usually, sheriff’s deputies will ask violators to remove their dogs from the beach and the dog owners do so without a problem, county spokesman Rob Brown said.