CARIBBEAN ISLES, FLA. TELL TOURISTS TO COME BACK: AFTER HURRICANE, MEDIA AD BLITZES WOO TRAVELERS WARY OF CHAOS

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Less than two weeks after Hurricane Georges cut a watery, destructive swath through the tourist havens of the Caribbean, marketers there are scrambling to dry out their welcome mats and reassure potential visitors.

From Puerto Rico to Florida, tourism groups are beckoning visitors back, trying to counter images of devastation that appeared for days on TV news.

At stake are billions of dollars the region relies on from tourism. Puerto Rico alone attracts 1.5 million visitors annually, pumping $2 billion into the island's economy.

The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. today begins airing the first of six new 30-second spots featuring and produced by travel guide writer Arthur Frommer. Styled like news broadcasts and themed "Puerto Rico now," the TV campaign is slated for markets in the Northeast, as well as CNN and the Travel Channel.

GETTING MESSAGE OUT

"This was a message we had to get out," said Juan Carlos Molina, public relations director for the tourism company.

Funding for the new $1.7 million campaign was drawn from the island's $9.4 million annual tourism marketing budget. The tourism company also is spending $150,000 for an eight-page insert in the November issue of Frommer's Budget Travel.

The campaign replaces "Sounds of Puerto Rico," which debuted in September from Marti Flores Prieto & Wachtel, San Juan, and was shelved soon after the storm, Mr. Molina said. That campaign will return Nov. 9 to TV and consumer travel print.

The Florida Keys moved even faster to advertise. In the days following the storm, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council debuted a $160,000 print effort to convince Floridians that the Keys were open for business.

One print ad, running in Miami, Orlando and Tampa, promised: "Starting Oct. 9, everything will be back to abnormal" in Key West. Another read, "We pride ourselves on our ability to recover from a blowout."

RESERVE FUNDS EMPLOYED

Last week, the tourist council voted to tap $2 million from its reserve disaster-marketing budget to tell tourists and travel agents in important U.S. and overseas markets the Keys are welcoming tourists.

Some $1.5 million of the money will be spent on "hard advertising," with another $100,000 for media relations, a spokesman for the council said.

That effort will add punch to the tourist council's existing seasonal campaign, whose "Come as you are" theme is being adjusted by Tinsley Advertising, Miami, to include a post-hurricane message, said Harold Wheeler, marketing director with the council.

Already slated to break in October travel trade books, Northeast newspapers and cable TV to drive traffic for the winter and spring travel seasons, the campaign will get additional outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and the Weather Channel.

ADS ON STANDBY

On the mainland, south Florida tourism officials had marketing communications efforts on standby as the storm approached. Turkel Schwartz & Partners, the Coconut Grove-based agency for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, shelved post-hurricane creative executions it had prepared once the storm veered west and away from the destination, said President Phil Schwartz.

The U.S. Virgin Islands on Oct. 1 launched a 10-day, $500,000 newspaper, radio and Internet ad blitz in the Northeast and Chicago, said David Kessler, exec VP-group account director at Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, agency for the account.

The short-term campaign is designed to target consumers while the storm is top of mind, he said.

The print work features two identical images of a woman relaxing in a beachside hammock. The first image is captioned, "The U.S. Virgin Islands before Hurricane Georges." The second, "The U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Georges."

The Virgin Islands' standard campaign, themed "They're your islands" and funded by a $10 million annual marketing budget, is still slated to break on schedule in November.

"Things like this pass anyway," Mr. Kessler said. "Last week it was top of mind. This week it's less."

DEJA VU

For tourism marketers in Florida and the Caribbean, it's an eerily familiar scenario. In the days and weeks following a spate of storms, including hurricanes Marilyn and Luis in 1995 and Andrew in '92, tourism dropped off in unaffected areas as news reports featured images of battered destinations.

After Andrew leveled parts of Miami, tourism executives in Orlando some 250 miles to the north reported fielding inquiries from tourists worried that theme parks had been affected.

Following Georges, one south Florida newspaper referred to the Florida Keys as a "125-mile junkyard," complained Mark Izard, president of Izard & Leone, Miami.

HONDA DEALER IN KEYS

Mr. Izard's agency broke new radio and print ads for Largo Honda in Key Largo after realizing car shoppers were avoiding the unaffected northern Keys altogether.

It wasn't much different in the news coverage he saw on TV while vacationing in Wyoming, Mr. Izard said.

"That's just not healthy for anybody," he said. "I can imagine someone in Indiana considering a vacation in the Keys seeing the report. They're going to think, `I'm not going to go there.' "

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