South Walton: Driving Tourism Recovery from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Challenge: 

Influenced heavily by media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, summer 2010 visitation dropped by 13 percent and bed-tax collections dropped 20 to 30 percent over the previous year in South Walton, an upscale destination of 15 beach neighborhoods along Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast.  Visit South Walton (the South Walton Tourist Development Council or TDC) secured a grant from BP to market the destination post-oil spill and speed recovery in 2011.  Curley & Pynn was charged with developing and implementing a campaign that would provide “lapsed” visitors—those who had visited during summer 2009, but did not return in 2010—and new visitors alike with an incentive to visit South Walton during the fall 2011 and subsequent seasons.

The Solution: 

Curley & Pynn relied on a mix of formal and informal research methods to provide the background for a non-traditional integrated campaign.  An online, lapsed visitor study confirmed that the best ways to convince visitors it was safe to return were independent data, objective news reports and “seeing it for myself.”  This told the team that credible, third-party visual evidence of the return to normalcy was critical.  As well, a statistically valid visitor tracking study confirmed that more than one-third of South Walton’s visitors used social media for planning travel, preferring Facebook over Twitter.  Through additional anecdotal and secondary research conducted by Curley & Pynn, it was clear that family beach photos were highly popular with the destination’s target demographic.

Using this research, the firm developed an integrated 60-day program that relied on visitors to share visuals of pristine beaches, providing third-party evidence of recovery.  The goal of the campaign was to recapture and show gratitude to loyal travelers (including “lapsed” visitors) and attract new visitors from top drive markets.

The premier element of the campaign was the “Find Your Perfect Beach” Contest.  The Facebook contest told the story of South Walton’s 15 beach neighborhoods by soliciting previous visitors’ family beach photos taken in South Walton and asking them to “Tell us why South Walton is your perfect beach destination.”  Curley & Pynn also worked with the TDC’s advertising agency to implement a secondary sweepstakes, which attracted new visitors by showcasing each neighborhood and asking potential travelers who had yet to experience South Walton to select “their perfect beach.” 

The contest was promoted through publicity and marketing efforts such as e-blasts to loyalists, pitching to national and regional media and cross-promotion on the South Walton website and Twitter.  The “Find Your Perfect Beach” Contest grand prize consisted of an amazing return trip to the destination for one South Walton loyalist and their friends and family.  Curley & Pynn was responsible for coordinating logistics of the grand prize winner’s trip, including travel arrangements, accommodations, dining and fun activities to further showcase the destination.  The grand prize winner’s trip the following summer provided an opportunity to remind loyalists about the program, just before the start of the busy summer travel season.

Curley & Pynn also recruited a team of brand ambassadors to recognize and thank loyal travelers who were visiting the destination during the program in the summer and early fall 2011.  The agency hired and trained the brand ambassadors, who walked the beaches each day, shared branded promotional items such as fliers, T-shirts and beach balls, took photos of visitors for the destination’s Facebook page, spread word of the “Find Your Perfect Beach” Contest and gave away complimentary professional beach portrait sessions.

To increase exposure for the contest, media missions were scheduled in South Walton’s top two feeder markets, Atlanta and Birmingham, at the beginning of the contest submission period.  A TDC representative and a beach portrait expert attended media meetings (including several TV news tapings) to spread word of the contest, share images of South Walton and provide tips for capturing a perfect family beach photo.  Fall travel messages were also shared during these meetings to drive additional visitation in the fall shoulder season.

Obtaining the support of bed-tax collectors and other local partners was critical to the success of the program.  Curley & Pynn worked with the TDC to educate key stakeholders throughout the destination on the various elements of the program.  The firm developed and hosted a webinar presentation to share details of the contest.  The team also developed various collateral items, including display materials for check-in desks, informative fliers and e-blasts for partners to share with their subscribers, providing guests additional information about the campaign.

The Results: 

Curley & Pynn’s goal of supporting an increase in fall visitation was far exceeded.  Visit South Walton’s fall 2011 bed-tax collections increased 42 percent over 2010 for the months of October and November.  This represented an increase of nearly $140,000 and, following this period, bed-tax revenues continued to increase month after month. 

The “Find Your Perfect Beach” Contest received hundreds of memorable entries from loyalists, whose images showcased clean, oil-free beaches.  As well, the beach appreciation teams met with more than 1,600 in-market visitors, thanking them for returning to South Walton in the summer and early fall 2011. 

The overall program was supported by aggressive media outreach, which resulted in news coverage that communicated campaign messaging and painted a picture of South Walton’s clean beaches with target publics, with the potential to reach millions of travelers.