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 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 first appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday, July 9, 2017.
Last week we started looking at different kinds of airlines and their effect on tourism. There’s always a danger of assuming, just because they fly planes and transport people, they’re all the same. That’s no more true than saying that staying at the Hyatt Regency is the same as a night in a budget motel.
Here along Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, we’re served by a number of airlines with different business models aimed at various markets and needs. We each have our favorites and I don’t intend to criticize any of them, just to point out some differences.
Each of our local airports is served by what are termed legacy carriers — American, Delta and United. These three companies are the result of years of consolidation, takeovers and mergers. Each has a huge network of international, domestic trunk and local routes. In many cases, they operate on a hub-and-spoke principal (it’s said, with a smile, that all routes go via Atlanta, Dallas or Houston!). In fact, you may find that your local legacy carrier flight is operated by a contracted “partner” airline. For example, American Eagle, Delta Connection or United Express are all operated by other airlines, but under their partner’s colors; they are different aircraft types and crews than “main line” services. It’s the reason you can expect a whole different experience flying say Destin to Dallas, than you would Dallas to San Francisco, or Dallas to Sydney, Australia.
We also have Southwest Airlines, a popular low-cost airline. They don’t need to support a worldwide network (yet) by funneling business into hubs, and although they do chase business traffic, it’s not their prime market. We’re not served by Jet Blue or Spirit, which also are both low-cost carriers, but all these airlines have different policies for what they provide within the fare, and for what they charge (baggage, food, etc). Of course, the legacy carriers also compete for the budget market, so on their aircraft you may find frills and space, few frills and little space, or no frills and no space depending on how much you paid.
Also flying into the Gulf Coast is Allegiant Airlines. They may be termed a low-cost airline, but it would be more appropriate to call them a leisure carrier. They aim to attract vacationers from predominantly urban and cooler areas and take them to sunny vacation places. Allegiant is more in the model of the European leisure airlines. They’re really a full travel company, selling not just flights, but tours and accommodations, too.
Finally, we have the airlines like GLO, Silver and Contour, which operate smaller aircraft on less-traveled routes, like New Orleans and Bowling Green. They provide a great service for local business travelers and vacationers.
So, we have to manage our expectations and match them to our needs and pocket book, just as we do with our other tourism choices. We should also look at how air travel has transformed tourism, but that’s for another day.
Martin Owen is an independent consultant to the tourism industry and owner of Owen Organization in Shalimar. Readers can email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m not one for making resolutions, mostly because I change my mind so much! If you want to change something, better to just to get on with it than wait for some arbitrary date to start. That’s my excuse anyway. Similarly, looking backwards doesn’t help because we can’t change what has past – although as numerous people (apparently) are quoted as saying – if you don’t remember past mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them!
So, in the interests of progress, let’s look forward.
I’ve read two articles over the end of the year break that I felt were right on point. I’ve attached links to these so you can read them yourself.
The first was by anti-aging & sports medicine pioneer, and futurist, Dr Robert Goldman (http://ow.ly/Akd9307C9Bt). Dr Goldman pointed out some of the changes that society will be subjected to over the next few years. What is most striking is the speed at which these changes will take place. I remember talking to a scientist with British Telcom back in the early ‘90s who said that they knew absolutely what developments would arrive within 5 years; they had a pretty good idea what would happen in the next 10 years but beyond that they were ‘wishing and hoping’! as Dr Goldman suggests we are now in the exponential age, where changes occur at an ever increasing rate. In many cases these changes happen faster than most businesses can adapt. If you read the article you’ll see that many developments will directly affect the Travel and Tourism Industry.
The second piece was by Christopher Elliott in the Washington Post (http://ow.ly/Hrvl307C9Ob). Chris is suggesting that 2017 is the year many people, especially Americans, won’t be traveling on vacation. He cites many reasons and offers suggestions of how as a tourist you can benefit (please go and read it!) but for those of us in the industry there are three main takeaways. That tourist will be looking for alternative accommodations, authenticity and satisfying their needs for instant gratification.
I’ve talked to many travel and tourism professionals over the past year and we’ve discussed the inevitable changes that are happening and I can’t think of anyone who has disagreed. After all, the signs are really clear – very ‘in your face’ as it were. However, many are not willing to accept the speed of changes.
Take ‘alternative accommodation’ – Airbnb in particular. Home sharing has expanded incredibly rapidly. Airbnb are now the largest accommodation provider in the world with over 2.5million homes (incidentally, they own no hotel rooms!) yet most of the vacation rental companies here in Northwest Florida’s Northern Gulf Coast seem to think think they are not a serious threat to their business model.
The past year the 1.5 million guest arrivals to Florida via Airbnb represent 114 percent year-over-year growth. This comes as Floridians increasingly embrace the home sharing platform as an opportunity to earn supplemental income and make ends meet. The Airbnb Florida host community grew 74 percent in 2016 to a total of 32,000 hosts.
Yes, the local industry says, but it’s in cities, not here.
This is the total supplemental income earned by Airbnb hosts in our local counties:
Bay County $4.9 million
Walton County $3.3 million
Okaloosa County $2.9 million
Escambia County $1.8 million
Santa Rosa County $683,000
That’s a total of nearly $13.6 million. True, it’s only 10% of the income from Miami-Dade alone, but its still remarkably significant.
People love the idea of either staying with a local host, or staying in the home of a host which they perceive differently than the relatively anonymous experience of a cookie cutter condo or a ‘standard’ hotel room.
This contributes to the ‘authenticity experience’ that comes from home sharing, boutique hotels and the like.
Chis Elliott also refers to ‘Instant Gratification’. I know I’m always talking about the attitudes of Millennials and younger Boomers but they do have have a seemingly out of proportion effect on our industry. Their behavior appears to affect the other sectors of our audience too. The ubiquity of smartphones and the ability to access information from wherever you are, makes the almost impulse decision to book a vacation all too easy.
You’ve bought things on Amazon. How many times have you been tempted by the ‘people who bought this also bought this’ suggestion?
Think what will happen when someone suggest “How about we go to The Gulf of Mexico next weekend?”. You look at your phone and up pops the local CVB websites – you see what events are happening, and guess what? You can book the Airbnb accommodation right there, and the concert tickets, and the Uber from the airport. Of course there was link to book flights too but you’ll probably want to do that with the airline because you get your miles there – and suddenly Delta Air Lines are offering 1 mile for every $1 you spend with Airbnb if booked through them – oh, and Uber credits too.
We have a change to the whole vacation booking experience, which is not taking 5 or 10 years to develop but is happening as we speak.
Put a note in your calendar to contact me at the end of 2017 and tell me if there have been no changes to your tourism business during the year. To be frank, I don’t think you’d be able to do that by June!
Whatever happens is going to be exciting. The evolution of the world’s biggest industry has always been fascinating and the near future won’t disappoint I’m sure.
Please follow the Owen Organization blog on www.owenorganization.com, sign up for the newsletter and follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OwenOrganization. Lastly, check out the weekly ‘Talking Tourism’ column in the Northwest Florida Daily News every Sunday.