Thursday, May 27, 2010

As Oil in the Gulf Flows so do Hotel Discounts

Tourists are making fewer reservations at some hotels on Florida's west coast and in the Keys, as travelers wait to see whether oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico will make its way to Sunshine State shores.

The state's tourism marketing agency is spreading the word that Florida beaches are clean, using a $2.5 million campaign that is to run through June 22. New TV ads introduced Thursday show families enjoying the shore and direct viewers to a Visit Florida Live site with real-time video of the coasts.

The new ads target travelers in cities from Dallas to Raleigh, where many residents start their drives to northwest Florida. Panhandle beach towns rely on summer for the bulk of their tourism.

Since BP's oil leak began April 20, some hotels on the Gulf Coast and in the Keys have had scattered cancellations by vacationers worried that beaches might be sullied. News reports now track oil flows more closely, but some hotels see reservations weakening for July and August.

"People are waiting until the last minute to see what is going to happen with the spill," said Bob Pfeffer, director of sales and marketing for the 727-room Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort.

He estimated the volume of calls at the hotel reservation center is down 16 percent this month from last year.

In Broward and Palm Beach counties, hoteliers report no effect on business so far, except for a few travelers who have shifted trips away from Gulf towns.

The travel fallout is greater along Florida's Gulf Coast and the Keys, because their shores lie in the path of the loop current that could carry BP oil to the state.

Key West had a scare last week when tar balls were found on a local beach, but the tar balls were unrelated to the BP spill. The volume of reservations made fell by half compared to the same week last year at the island's Waldorf Astoria Collection resorts, the 311-room Casa Marina and 150-room Reach, said general manager Kevin Speidel.

The two luxury resorts are sold out for Memorial Day weekend, with their beaches free of oil, but they're taking no chances for the future. Like many Florida hotels, both have relaxed their cancellation policies, should BP oil wash up on shore. The duo offer guests who cancel up to a week before their stay a full refund if the government needs to clean beaches or close them for safety reasons.

"We've seen no cancellations but a tremendous amount of inquiries," Speidel said. "People are monitoring the situation and, hopefully, will be booking. Right now, there are a lot of good deals to be had for the summer."

Farther up Florida's east coast, travel executives remain vigilant. Concerns are especially high about visitors from afar, who might not distinguish between Florida coasts and stay clear of the whole state. Summer is a favorite time for Europeans to vacation.

AAT Travel of Hollywood, which mainly offers U.S. vacation packages for Europeans, said some of its groups already have canceled their plans to extend their Florida trips after taking cruises. Others are waiting to see where the spill goes, while expressing resentment and concern over damage to the environment in the Gulf of Mexico area, said owner Suely Auerbach.

BP delivered $25 million to Florida late Tuesday to fund a more extensive tourism marketing campaign set to start soon. It will include TV ads in New York, Toronto and other cities where significant air travel originates to the Sunshine State, said Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for Visit Florida.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is running for governor, criticized BP for delays in delivering the money and called on Visit Florida to produce more ads specific to the Panhandle.

Florida had asked BP for almost $35 million for tourism-related marketing, including almost $10 million for counties hit hardest by a tourism slowdown. The agency continues to seek additional money from the oil company. But a key concern now, Torian said, is "the phones not ringing."

Andy Newman, a spokesman for Monroe County's Tourism Development Council, summarized the challenge for Florida summer tourism this way: "People really want to see BP put a cork in that hole."

While the potential clean up & preservation of wildlife in the area of containment is of concern to the tourism industry, stay tuned to WhataHotel ! and return to the site frequently to see hotel specials .

This aritcle was copied from the Sun Sentinel & written by Doreen Hemlock. Greg Guityeras of contributed in relation to mentions.

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