CALIFORNIA FLOODS AREN'T SWAMPING TOURISM AD PLANS

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First there was fire. Then earthquakes. Now floods.

But California is bracing for what might be the biggest disaster of all: publicity that could leave its $54 billion tourist industry high and dry.

The state and travel industry are trying to bail out of the heavy media coverage of the winter storms that have turned creeks into rivers; submerged crop lands; and isolated, at least for a time, some prime beach resorts.

"We are working to be sure this is not the image attached to Malibu," said Richard Page, co-owner of the Casa Malibu hotel.

And the message from Barbara Heston, administrative assistant at the Malibu Chamber of Commerce is, "We are selling sun and sand and surf."

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has seen attendance sink 50% to 70% since the floods, which for a time cut the Monterey peninsula off from highways.

The aquarium pulled a TV, radio and print campaign backing a special exhibit, as well as a joint promotion for a vacation package with the Monterey Chamber of Commerce. Both efforts were produced through free-lance creative and in-house.

The California Department of Tourism plans to continue its $2.5 million effort promoting spring and summer vacations through a broadcast campaign, including spot TV in 11 national markets and cable's Weather Channel.

"Last year, our campaign broke one week after the earthquake," said Betsy Shannon, VP-management supervisor at J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco. She said that campaign garnered $314 million in incremental travel spending.

"We generally want to be out there with the positive advantages of the state," Ms. Shannon said. "We're expecting a beautiful spring."

Other tourism executives see little reason for concern.

"This is our rainy season. Back East, when they have a snowstorm, they don't take out full-page ads saying we're going to be fine by summer," said Lovester Law, VP-marketing, San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Consumers nationwide, nevertheless, will be reminded of California's floods during every grocery store visit. Crop damage, so far put at more than $450 million, is expected to restrict supply and significantly hike prices of lettuce, spinach, broccoli and strawberries, and tree fruits.

The California Tree Fruit Agreement, one of the state's biggest agricultural ad spenders, plans to continue its $3.5 million international marketing campaign, created in-house. First U.S. TV spots break in May for peaches and nectarines.

The California Strawberry Commission also plans to go ahead with its $500,000 ad effort because media plans are already in place. But the commission's ad agency isn't so sure, especially in light of reports that strawberries were washing up in the surf at Oxnard, one of the state's premier growing areas.

"Things can be changed," said Sue Andrews, chief financial officer at Evans, Hardy & Young, Santa Barbara.

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