Okaloosa County condominiums and hotels could soon see a boost in reservations as the tourism officials roll out their BP-funded program to attract tourists later this month.
Starting Sept. 17, the first 5,000 people who make a minimum two-night reservation between Sept. 17 and Oct. 31 at one of the registered bed-tax collectors in Okaloosa will receive a $200 debit card that can be used for purchases in the county.
“It was an incentive for guests booking new reservations and increasing our occupancy,” said Mark Bellinger, executive director of the Tourist Development Council. “I think it was a win-win situation for all businesses located within Okaloosa County. This is a $1 million program that gets put right back into the community. All businesses benefit, whether it’s the gas stations, the retail, the lodging the restaurants, the fishing, you name it.
“I really like the program. I think it’s going to be a major hit,” he added.
BP has provided a $7 million grant to seven coastal counties in Northwest Florida to help them salvage a tourist season crippled by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Okaloosa received about $1.37 million. In addition to spending $1 million on the debit cards, the TDC will spend about $100,000 to promote the area in drive-to markets.
The remaining funds will be used to market upcoming fall festivals and events, and to continue to spread the message that local beaches are oil-free.
Hotels and condos that collect bed taxes and want to participate in the debit card program must register with the TDC by 4 p.m. Monday by visiting the TDC office or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before settling on the debit card promotion, Bellinger first met with the TDC’s promotional review committee and some stakeholders in the tourism business. The plan then required an initial approval from the full TDC board and a final approval from the County Commission. Bellinger then had to bid on the debit cards before the program could be started.
“(The bed tax collectors) would have loved to start the program a little bit sooner, but we had to put all the procedures and processes in place,” Bellinger said. “We wanted to do it after Labor Day. We want new reservations when our businesses can use them, and our Labor Day was already looking very, very good.”
Walton County received about $1.68 million from the BP grant and Santa Rosa County received $551,511. While Okaloosa’s incentive program is getting ready to start now, the TDCs in Walton and Santa Rosa counties started their promotions in early August.
Kate Wilkes, executive director of the Santa Rosa County TDC, said she was not surprised she was able to get her program started before Okaloosa County.
“We’re a much smaller scale. It’s not fair to compare,” Wilkes said. “We’re on a much, much smaller scale as far as numbers and bed taxes. (Okaloosa County) is a much bigger organization than we are. They just have more layers to go through than we did.”
The Walton County TDC started its Be Rewarded campaign Aug. 2. The program offers a $250 gift card to Silver Sands Factory Stores or with Southwest Airlines to anyone who stays in any Beaches of South Walton lodging by Sept. 30.
Tracy Louthain with the Beaches of South Walton Tourism Development Council said more than half the money allocated for the program has been spent.
The Santa Rosa TDC’s voucher program, which reimbursed people up to 50 percent for staying at a hotel or condominium, was so successful that it ran out of money less than two weeks after starting it.
“Everybody was thrilled,” Wilkes said. “Our goal was to put as much money into the hands of the people who suffered the most as well as to let people know in our market that things are wonderful.
“We had nothing but good comments about how beautiful everything was,” she added. “The owners got their money, the bed tax collectors got their commissions, the sales tax people got their sales tax and we got our bed tax in the full amount. It was a win, win, win, win. It really worked out beautifully.”