By Will Seccombe, Chief Marketing Officer at VISIT FLORIDA
On April 20, 2010, the BP/Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, resulting in a massive offshore oil spill. The spill became the top news story of the summer, and the live video feed of oil gushing from the failed “blowout preventer” was a real-time, persistent reminder of the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. In fact, 99 percent of Americans were following the story of the spill, 54 percent were following it closely, and virtually everyone was talking about it.
The stakes were high for the Florida tourism industry. Every year, 80 million people visit the Sunshine State, and more than 25 percent of those visitors choose Florida because of the 825 miles of beautiful beaches. Those visitors spend more than $60 billion and support nearly one million Florida jobs, making tourism the largest industry in the state.
As the official tourism marketing organization for the State of Florida, VISIT FLORIDA had managed hurricanes and “red tides” before, but the uncertainty surrounding this situation was unprecedented. How and where would the state’s coastline be affected? How do you balance the interests of directly impacted areas with unaffected areas fighting misperceptions? How do you keep visitors informed and continue to encourage travelers to visit the state? How can a marketing company be a trusted source of information in a time of crisis?
VISIT FLORIDA’s response to the oil spill focused on open, transparent, and proactive communication to provide consumers and stakeholders with easy access to credible local information to help them make informed decisions based on facts—not misinformation or confusion. An aggressive integrated communication program was launched on April 30 in coordination with the activation of the state Emergency Operations Center (EOC). (A complete timeline of VISIT FLORIDA’s response to the crisis depicts exactly what occured and when.)
The first step in addressing the spill was the activation of a Florida Travel Update on VISITFLORIDA.com, with daily updates on the status of Florida’s coastline from the EOC, as well as links to official information and FAQs from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Health, and the Department of Agriculture.
As the centerpiece and call to action for all crisis communications, VISIT FLORIDA developed and launched a new digital platform, Florida Live. Florida Live is a unique combination of content from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and live Web cams that allowed travelers to see with their own eyes that, despite the massive media coverage, Florida was in fact open for business.
VISIT FLORIDA also activated Floridians from around the state to counter the negative images spewing from the oil spill. Residents were encouraged to upload real-time photos of their favorite beaches to Facebook, and more than 2,000 time-stamped photos were then featured in real time on Florida Live.
To communicate the scale of the state’s tourism product and address the hyper-local nature of the crisis, VISIT FLORIDA added Twitter feeds to the Florida Live site from local convention and visitor bureaus with up-to-the minute information on the status of their beach communities. The site also linked to live Web cams from around the state, daily fishing reports, daily videos, daily photos, blogs, and live weather reports.
Additionally, VISIT FLORIDA’s official corporate blog, Sunshine Matters, served as a hub of stakeholder communications to coordinate, inform, and align the tourism industry and to share industry resources.
The marketing response was both visible and credible:
- 44 percent of Americans were aware of VISIT FLORIDA’s marketing efforts.
- 49 percent attributed the marketing efforts to VISIT FLORIDA by name.
- 73 percent said they trust VISIT FLORIDA.
- Traffic to VISITFLORIDA.com increased 46 percent in June and 16 percent in July versus the same periods in 2009.
- People who visited the Web site were 31 percent more likely to visit Florida before Labor Day.
- Most importantly, total visits to the state increased by 3.4 percent in the second quarter (in the heat of the oil spill crisis) versus the same quarter in 2009.
Florida Live has since been recognized as a best practice in crisis communications, primarily because the Florida tourism industry embraced it, the media endorsed it, and consumers trusted it.