Florida works to tell visitors after Hurricane Irma: 'We're open for business'
For most of September, Florida hoteliers and businesses catering to tourists battled Hurricane Irma and the havoc it wrought.
Now that October is here, they’re battling the perceptions it left behind.
“The early national media certainly painted a picture we were going to get hit very hard. People listen to that,” said Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau.
From one end of Florida to the other, tourism professionals are using traditional and social media to get the word out: “We’re open for business.”
As bad as Irma was — displacing tens of thousands of residents, knocking out power to millions and being blamed for 72 deaths in the state — physical damage to the tourism infrastructure was not as bad as it might have been.
Even the hardest-hit of the destinations, the Florida Keys, officially reopened for tourism Oct. 1.
Traditions such as Key West’s Fantasy Fest at the end of this month, Halloween Horror nights at Universal Orlando and Everglades City’s Seafood Festival in February will take place as scheduled, organizers say.
It’s not that there isn’t damage. Some of Southwest Florida's environmental attractions, such as parts of Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, are still closed.
In the Keys, tourism officials are cautioning people to call ahead to make sure their intended lodgings are up and running. They also are urging businesses to be honest about the extent of damage when talking to prospective visitors.
The island chain suffered varying degrees of damage, said Jodie Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West. In some cases, the difference between being on the bay side and the Atlantic side of an island could mean the difference between being open and still being shut down.
“By and large, the reconstruction is happening faster than we had hoped for," she said. "They’re doing a great job.”
There are hard costs to the economy associated with the storm. Businesses and hotels were closed for days or weeks, costing employees wages and denying sales and tourist tax dollars to state and local governments.
Those figures, while yet to be tallied, will be in the millions.
For example, Disney World shut down Sept. 10 and 11 for the storm. Hurricane Matthew in September 2016 reportedly cost Disney about $40 million because of missed attendance at its parks.
On Marco Island, the J.W. Marriott hotel was closed to the public from just prior to Irma until Oct. 1. Most of its 850 employees were able to work, since the hotel housed first responders and restoration crews. Amanda Cox, director of sales and marketing for the hotel, said it was important to get employees back to their normal hours and jobs since many faced financial hardships of their own due to the storm.
The closure meant the loss of several group events and five weddings.
Cox said a renewed marketing push called “Return to Paradise” is underway, and bookings are picking up for the coming season, including rebooking of some events that were postponed.
“Four of the couples rescheduled their weddings. That was one of my most pleasant surprises,” Cox said.
Concern about the lingering perception of widespread damage and its detrimental effects on the state’s economic lifeblood of tourism extends northward as far as St. Augustine.
Barbara Golden, communications manager for the St. Augustine Visitor and Convention Bureau, said lessons learned from Matthew last year are being put to use now.
Social media — a Facebook page with 400,000 followers, for instance — is an effective vehicle for getting the word out.
“We’re trying to derail the notion that we’re in dire straits, and we’ve been doing it on social media,” she said.
Live Facebook broadcasts featuring open businesses and happy customers are a good way to show the world St. Augustine is ready to welcome them, Golden said.
At the same time, Golden said, it is important the tourism industry not present too rosy a picture.
“There’s a sensitivity to our friends and neighbors who did suffer,” she said.
Some of the worst of that suffering occurred in the Middle and Lower Keys, the string of Islands north of Key West. That’s where the eye of Irma first hit the U.S.
Most businesses there are still shut down as residents try to piece their lives back together.
“Everyone wants to take care of their family and their home first. That’s understandable,” said Bill Kinsey, president of the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce and owner of Lower Keys Tackle on Pine Key.
Tourism won’t rebound there until businesses can reopen and roads are cleared to establish a sense of normalcy, he said.
“If you drive where we live, we still have 40-, 50-foot stacks of garbage in the street. It’s like a war zone.”
Businesses being closed means tourists aren’t coming and employees aren’t getting paid. That disrupts the normal economic model.
“No one’s fishing right now. That’s the reality,” Kinsey said.
But he said an alternative economy is springing up in the Lower Keys, as people find temporary jobs with the companies clearing debris or doing other cleanup work.
"There is work here,” Kinsey said. "There are jobs available. The money is being spent but not in the normal ways. The economic machine will always work, one way or the other."
He worries that the Lower Keys will be overlooked as attention is focused on Key West, where damage wasn’t nearly as extensive.
It’s frustrating but understandable, he said. “If Key West dies, we all die.”
At the quaint White Sands Inn on Marathon's Grassy Key, manager Rachel Price surveyed the extensive damage and saw an uncertain future.
"We're going to try to rebuild it if we can," she said, "mainly for our guests who love it here."
She acknowledged that her mother, resort owner Janice Stephens, might have to sell the place if repairs prove too costly.
Gidget Jackson of Realty Executives in the Middle Keys said White Sands might become an example of what she called a “changing of the guard,” in which older, uniquely Keys properties that can’t afford to come back are replaced by others that can rebuild.
In Collier County, Wert, the tourism director, said Irma represents the biggest challenge to the tourism industry here since the BP oil spill in 2010.
Like Irma, that disaster didn’t negatively affect Collier County as much as first feared. But it is important to get that word out early, he said.
“We are really following our crisis communication plan,” he said.
Elements of the crisis communication plan include a slogan, “The Paradise Coast is Clear,” and a series of talking points that those in the industry can use to explain the status of lodging and attractions that still are recovering.
Wert has been able to measure some of the hurricane’s early effects on tourism.
When the storm hit, only 19 of Collier’s roughly 80 hotels and motels were open, he said. Now, the county lists just a dozen that still are closed. Most of those have opening dates planned in the next few weeks.
The fact that the hurricane occurred in September, when tourism is at its lowest ebb, helped minimize the damage to the industry, Wert said.
The short-term dip in numbers was unavoidable. Now the goal is to prevent the storm from keeping numbers down during the coming tourist season.
The visitors bureau is asking county commissioners to free up $250,000 in tourist tax reserves to correct any impression that there is lasting damage to Southwest Florida beaches and other attractions.
Coupled with the regular budget, “we’ve probably got $1 million we can spend between now and the end of the year to try to change that perception,” Wert said.
USA TODAY NETWORK - FLORIDA reporters Wayne T. Price and Patricia Borns contributed to this article.