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The CMO Interview

How Florida Bounced Back From the Oil Spill

Tourism Industry Relied on Staying Transparent With Its 80 Million Visitors to Weather Crisis

By Published on . 1

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Will Seccombe arguably has had one of the more challenging marketing jobs in the past year: He's had to promote his state as a vacation destination in the wake of last spring's massive BP oil spill. But the prolific tweeter has taken that challenge in stride, applying to Florida tourism marketing a philosophy inherent in his personal embrace of social media: transparency.

Will Seccombe
Will Seccombe
"No one was going to believe the marketing guy standing up telling everyone on CNN the beaches were clean and open for business," he said. "We needed to show them."

Amid news-outlet images of spewing oil and maimed birds, Mr. Seccombe -- who is responsible for promoting the state's tourism marketing and leading sales, advertising, promotions and PR -- orchestrated an initiative called Florida Live whereby individuals snapped and uploaded photos and videos of Florida beaches to show would-be vacationers that the actual impact wasn't as grave as media reports would have them believe. It was a risky move -- pictures might have revealed oil-tarnished shores -- but he said it was the only move to make.

"Our charge is to be the trusted source of travel, and if we want to be the trusted source two years from now, we need to be open and honest through a crisis," said Mr. Seccombe, who works with an annual marketing budget of about $60 million.

Ad Age: When did you start on your social-media initiatives?

We started the corporate blog about a year ago to keep our industry informed and engaged with our business. Visit Florida is a public/private partnership with a significant investment from the state. Visit Florida is charged with bringing exposure to the other companies in the industry. That blog is a way for us to communicate and create ongoing engagement with the industry.

Mr. Seccombe: Consumer-facing content started about two-and-a-half years ago. On VisitFlorida.com we engaged a group of "insiders" who are talking about content related to people's passions: family travel, golf travel, hidden Florida, luxury. We started doing blog posts, videos -- that program has really expanded. VisitFlorida.com is the most visited destination-marketing website in the country, according to Quantcast. They've all got their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, so those insiders have become, literally, the faces of the state of Florida to our visitors.

Ad Age: What was your rationale for Florida Live from a marketing and branding standpoint?

Mr. Seccombe: April 30 we activated our internal crisis-management team. We made an initial commitment to transparency and being open and honest with our visitors because Florida will get 80 million visitors this year. ... Obviously, the internet became the best route for us. So we launched 10 days after we activated our crisis-management group.

The BP oil spill was the largest story of the summer. Nearly 100% of the story was being followed on broadcast and cable news. It was a visual story. And that's why we needed to counteract it with visual images.

Florida is a huge state. Even at the beginning there were no direct impacts at all environmentally, but it was clear there were economic impacts all around the state. Travelers are pretty geographically challenged, so we had to show people with their own eyes what was happening.

So Florida Live tried to address all those scenarios. First visually, we wanted to show people real-time photos. So we have a pretty cool grass-roots program called Share a Little Sunshine. On Facebook we have [more than 24,000] fans of Share a Little Sunshine. Those are people who are passionate about Florida. So we asked them to share a picture of a favorite beach, to show people around the world that the beaches are clean.

They uploaded those on Facebook and we fed that live into the Florida Live platform. It was the first thing you'd see when you came to VisitFlorida.com. And then we also used Google map technology, and we brought in Twitter feeds from all around the state -- recognizing that it was a hyper-local situation. And then we brought in live webcams around the state, again, so people could see with their own eyes.

Ad Age: What kind of response did you get from local businesses and hotels?

Mr. Seccombe: It was embraced by our industry, it was endorsed by the media, and that was a big part of our PR campaign -- come to us; we're going to tell you the truth. It's all about transparency, and ultimately it was trusted by consumers.

Ad Age: How much business was lost?

Mr. Seccombe: Clearly there was massive media coverage that created significant consumer misperceptions and that did decrease people's likelihood to visit the state. That said, we actually had an increase of visitors in the second quarter, year over year. We attribute that to a great product. Pricing helped. But the downside was we saw a drop in market share [in domestic travel overall].

Ad Age: What are you seeing now as far as those numbers?

Mr. Seccombe: Florida share had grown over the last two-and-a-half years. Our charge is to regain that share that was lost. There are a couple things we're going to do to address that. Our first, most important, challenge: The fact that there remain some consumer misperceptions in the marketplace as a direct result of the spill. And so we've got to correct that. We executed the Great Visit Florida Beach Walk on Nov. 6 -- a very successful promotion with 3,700 volunteers who uploaded over 5,200 photos of 825 miles of Florida beaches in one day.

Ad Age: When will you get back to traditional brand messaging?

Mr. Seccombe: While consumer misinformation about the impacts of the oil spill on Florida's tourism product remains in the marketplace, we will continue with the very powerful features of Florida Live -- live webcams, real-time photos and up-to-the-minute updates from local destinations to re-enforce the fact that our beaches are clean, clear and open for business. That said, all proactive marketing efforts -- broadcast, print, digital, PR, promotions -- will return to the pre-spill branding, which continues to test very well with travelers. There will be some subtle additions -- some added emphasis on dining and Florida's seafood, to reinforce that Florida's world-class seafood is as tasty and ready to enjoy as ever.

Ad Age: You are one of the most active CMOs on Twitter, using the handle TroutLine. How does it help define you as CMO, and what does it do for your brand?

Mr. Seccombe: I believe that you have to practice what you preach. Visit Florida has made a commitment to social media and social marketing because we believe that effective use of the channel can have a very positive impact on our brand and the Florida tourism industry.

Visit Florida has made a commitment to innovation and we are always striving to be the best destination-marketing organization in the world. The only way that we can do that is to push ourselves -- share our successes, look for new ideas and learn from other experts with big ideas in travel and tourism, advertising, PR, social and digital marketing.

We have also been able to leverage a sound understanding of Twitter as a marketing tool -- it is an amazing tool.

5 TIPS

1. Be transparent. Show, don't tell, the reality of your product.

2. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. Don't sacrifice quality to save money.

3. Size matters, but impact matters more. What's important isn't how many people a promotion reaches, but what the promotion's impact is on consumer behavior.

4. Create and add value in everything that you do. Add value to partners and customers before you try to extract value.

5. Practice what you preach as a CMO. If you espouse Twitter as a good brand tool, tweet yourself.

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