Local economist Rick Harper says the best way to boost the economy, while efficiently utilizing BP’s money, is to “subsidize tourism” by offering hotel vouchers to visitors.
“If you think about the loss to a hotel, they get clobbered,” said Harper, director of the Hass Center for Business Research and Economic Development at The University of West Florida. “Their occupancy rate is down because people are not booking as early due to the oil spill.”
While Harper has spent quite some time since the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded in April “scratching his head,” he wanted to figure out “how we are going to survive the tough times ahead of us.”
Harper suggests that instead of BP handing out money to area Tourist Development Councils and local business to fund traditional marketing and advertising campaigns, BP should issue tourists vouchers for $100- $150. Tourists could put that toward their lodging, which is typically the big ticket item in any vacation.
He told The Log that according to Visit Florida, the average visitor is going to spend around $375 per party, per day. Of that amount, people are going to spend anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of that daily amount on lodging.
Using the money BP is already paying out, Harper suggests they take those funds and replace a visitors lost summer night with an October or September visit.
“You cannot overcome the fear of oil by saying our coast is clear,” Harper said. “People need a financial incentive — when tourists are attracted, they come and eat in our restaurants, they shop and they use all of the other services in the area.”
“This is a way to minimize the costs to BP, and to help the area businesses,” he added. “We need to ask the responsible party to pay for this.”
Jeanne Dailey, president of Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, says the concept of “subsidizing tourism” is something that is being discussed by the Okaloosa County TDC, and already being implemented by the Florida Lodging and Restaurant Association and the Walton County TDC.
The program in Walton County has already paid dividends for Dailey, as she received two, five-night bookings Wednesday for one of her properties. The program, which is called “Be Rewarded” started Tuesday.
For visitors who book and stay three or more nights in the Beaches of South Walton by Sept. 30, will be rewarded with the choice of a $250 gift card that can be used at Silver Sands Outlet Mall or for future travel on Southwest Airlines.
“It’s really a great program,” Dailey said. “It’s going to drive immediate traffic for August and September.”
Dailey told The Log the gift cards are good for a year, so visitors don’t feel rushed to use it right away. The campaign is also being complemented with television commercials.
Okaloosa County TDC Director Mark Bellinger recently told The Log he would be meeting with his staff to develop a plan, and to “work on some ideas” for the second round of funding they received from BP.
“We don’t want to spend the money on traditional marketing and advertising,” Bellinger said. “We need to know how we can make a big impact. We have to continue to be visual and immediate — give them something they can look at, grab and to be passionate about.”
While Harper believes this concept will work, he said there are also drawbacks. He said retailers might get upset that the money is going only to hotel and condo operators.
“The retailers I have spoken to so far have told me if the visitors come, then they will be OK,” he said. “This ideas makes sense to me, and it makes sense for BP.”