Florida tourism saved by social media. Really.

August 27, 2010: 11:12 AM ET

The state mounted a PR blitz to show beachgoers that Florida's surf had been spared an oily disaster. Presidential visits aside, it seems social media helped save summer tourism on the Gulf of Mexico

By Shelley DuBois, reporter

The BP (BP) Deepwater Horizon spill happened in the middle of nowhere in the Gulf of Mexico, but it also took place, as every event of global import now does, in the realm of social media. The company and the government learned -- again -- the hard lesson that controlling the information and imagery from the spill is nearly impossible in today's climate. That meant the tourism industry around the gulf faced a big problem -- the images, without context, had linked the entire region to the unprecedented number of images of slicks, oil-soaked wildlife and constant footage of the Macondo well gushing millions of gallons of crude, even though parts of the gulf were spotlessly clean.

"When you think gulf tourism, you typically think Florida," says Will Seccombe, chief marketing officer
for Visit Florida, the state's tourism division. Tourism is crucial to the state -- Florida pulls in about $20 billion in visitor spending annually out of the $34 billion gulf tourism industry. To survive, Florida had to separate itself from the rest of the gulf in the minds of travelers.

On May 11, about three weeks after the spill, Visit Florida launched a marketing campaign that BP would have killed for, taking advantage of the same social media tools that the media used to spread information about the spill. Visit Florida created a website called Florida Live to provide real time information about how the spill was -- or rather, wasn't -- affecting the coast.

Tourism in Florida's gulf-side panhandle still suffered from the spill, but tourism actually increased statewide last quarter, up 3.4% from the same time last year. The number can mask part of the hit to the tourism industry, says Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel. For example, several hotels in the gulf were occupied with BP cleanup workers and media, which skewed the actual tourism statistics. Also, strong numbers in West Palm Beach and Miami this past quarter carried the weight of weak tourism on the coast.

But in these coastal areas, there's evidence that Visit Florida's social media blitz helped.

"I think Florida Live is a great model, a great best practice for responding to tourism crisis," says Lori Pennington-Gray, a tourism crisis management expert at University of Florida's Center for Tourism Research and Development.

Over the course of the spill, the site added features including live video of beaches, Google (GOOG) maps and links to resident's Twitter feeds and Flickr pages. It increased Visit Florida's website traffic by 46% compared to the same time last year, and bumped up its Facebook page traffic about tenfold -- now the site has over 8,000 fans.

The social media aspect is key for modern tourism, because it connects local Floridians to potential tourists, says Pennington-Gray. Floridians were already shooting video, taking pictures, and making useful comments online. So Visit Florida turned Florida Live into a platform that linked residents' tweets and photos to a Google map. And that simple step -- aggregating the positive content that real Floridians and tourists were already creating -- helped reinforce to the public and traditional media that Florida's beaches were safe from the oil, at least for sand-castle building purposes.

Many parts to Florida's social media cocktail

The marketing strategy could probably translate to many uses, but there are several reasons why it made sense for Florida, post spill. First of all, Florida's beaches were clean, for the most part. So instead of telling people to come despite of polluted coastal areas, Visit Florida had to figure out how to show people what the beaches actually looked like. Florida was primed to do this because the state government understands the economic importance of tourism. Tourism is top priority in a crisis, says Pennington-Gray. Governor Charlie Crist secured $25 million from BP in mid may to launch Visit Florida's marketing campaign.

The real-time aspect of the marketing campaign was key for this crisis, she adds. Unlike a hurricane, which is a finite event, the oil spill stretched over a long period of time. Visit Florida had to adjust to looming uncertainty about the effects of the spill every day. "By having video cams of the different beaches, it could stay dynamic and be able to respond to those changes on a daily, even hourly basis."

Florida will still have to clear up perception about the spill, says Dow, and the travel industry needs to be active in that effort. "No one in their right mind would have said, 'let's let the oil spew until this runs out.' This is the same thing. We've got to cap this perception."

The spill will cost gulf coast economies $22.7 billion* over three years, according to a study commissioned by Oxford Economics. The same study estimates that getting $500 million in funds for effective marketing campaigns could cut that cost by about $7.5 billion. "It makes good business sense," Dow says. "BP has said they're going to cover losses. Our point of view is that it's a heck of a lot better for to do preventative work."

Part of that preventative work is for state tourism divisions to have a good social media platform. Florida's is going to stay, says Seccombe. "Florida Live was born out of the oil spill, but the information and the concepts and the tools that were built will live on well beyond. It's shown so much engagement with our visitors to the website, and reinforces the trust message that we try to communicate."

*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story omitted the decimal point in this figure. The sentence has been corrected.

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Paul Smalera
Paul Smalera

Paul Smalera is a senior editor for Fortune.com, guiding the website's coverage of tech, finance, investing and the economy. He has written about a wide variety of topics -- from the inner workings of the Google search engine, to the biodiversity protecting Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to the economics behind online dating websites and the impact of the Fed's policies on the national and global economy. A true generalist, Smalera believes every story is a business story if you follow the money.

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