Response to red tide: Collier plans tourism marketing for when coast is clear

People swim and lounge at Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples on Sept. 20, 2018. Collier County employees had to clean up dead fish from the beach because of red tide for the first time in at least three weeks.

In 2017 it was Hurricane Irma.

This year it's red tide.

Once again Collier County is facing a natural disaster that's hurting tourism. So, like last year, the county's tourism bureau plans to tap into an emergency advertising fund to combat the negative publicity.

In October, the bureau will ask county commissioners for approval to use up to $250,000 from its emergency fund. The bureau plans to combine that money with grant dollars from Visit Florida to run a special marketing campaign after red tide is gone and the coast is clear.

"We're toying with the possibility of a 'Return to Paradise' theme," said Jack Wert, the county's tourism director.

The algae bloom isn't expected to ease until the water in the Gulf of Mexico cools later this fall or in the winter and the winds shift more east to west.

The tourism bureau plans to apply for a $70,000 tourism recovery grant from Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing organization, to help repair its image. The bureau will seek the County Commission's approval in October to pursue the grant.

Visit Florida recently started two programs to assist local tourism development boards in counties affected by red tide.

More:Dead manatees pose big challenge for red tide-choked shorelines, as wildlife agency tries to keep pace

More:Red tide, dead fish, respiratory irritation return to northern Collier beaches

The bureau would spend the grant from Visit Florida on digital advertising, social media and public relations. Those plans would include hosting out-of-town journalists for four days and three nights so they could see the beaches and islands are clean.

The goals of the advertising campaign would include:

  • Providing potential visitors with the tools they need to quickly determine and verify beach conditions
  • Encouraging potential visitors to book rooms and plan activities such as fishing and boating excursions, boat rentals and other water-related activities, as well as dining in local restaurants

The campaign would run for about two months. It will be targeted at the Northeastern and Midwestern markets in the United States, as well as at the Canadian market for fall and winter travel.

The bureau's paid advertising channels would include Adara, the Weather Channel and social media websites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

More:Gov. Scott cancels Naples campaign event after red tide protesters confront him in Venice

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As a result of red tide, Collier County has seen fewer tourists, which means less visitor spending in the local economy at restaurants, shops and other attractions. Charter fishing captains and other water-based businesses have been hit the hardest by the latest outbreak of red tide.

Many restaurants have also lost business since red tide drifted back into the area in June, causing fish kills and respiratory problems that generated national press coverage, which has kept some visitors away and led to some hotel cancellations.

"Our brand is specifically built around outdoor offerings," the bureau wrote in its grant application to Visit Florida. "Our destination's tagline is 'Florida's Paradise Coast'. Recent press coverage stands in stark contrast to the destination's brand promise and is greatly affecting the area's visitation."

More:City of Naples weakened a seasonal ban on fertilizer as red tide bloom was forming

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The hope is to run the campaign Oct. 15-31, as long as red tide appears to have subsided.

Special messaging will be done in October and November around such events as the Stone Crab Festival, Naples Restaurant Week and the QBE Shootout golf tournament to help with red tide recovery as part of the bureau's 2018-19 marketing plan.

Additionally, Collier, Lee, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties have applied for $500,000 from Visit Florida for a regional marketing effort that would be used to influence search results for Southwest Florida tourism on Google. That money wouldn't be spent until "everyone is in the clear," Wert said.

"That will be a regional decision," he said.

Last month Lee County’s Tourist Development Council endorsed spending $1 million in tourist tax reserves for a marketing campaign that will kick off once “we feel the water quality has improved, and will remain improved,” said Brian Ososky, the marketing director for the county's visitor and convention bureau.

“The final call (on water quality) will have to be from the scientific community,” he said.

Lee’s tourism bureau also has been awarded a $77,500 Visit Florida grant, which it will use on New York Times social and digital media after the red tide subsides.

Separately from the marketing efforts, Lee’s tourism council endorsed an "open-ended" amount from tourist tax reserves to help with the clean-up from red tide.

News-Press reporter Laura Ruane contributed to this story.