Panama City Beach Gets Social to Lure Families, Wild Co-Eds

Looking for Piece of $40B Spring Break Pie, Fla. Town Hopes What Happens on Twitter Doesn't Stay on Twitter

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NEW YORK ( -- Spring break, the alcohol-soaked annual rite of passage, can sometimes be a nightmare for the towns that host it. Just ask Fort Lauderdale or Daytona Beach, two Florida cities once synonymous with the event that have all but put out the "un-welcome" sign to college students looking to party.

Then there's the flip side -- spring break is a $40 billion business, according to a Harris Interactive study, and many communities are willing to trade a couple of weeks of mayhem for their share of that pie.

Panama City Beach, Fla., is one of them them.

The northwest Florida town is rebranding itself as a year-round family destination beyond the two weeks in March when 200,000 college revelers descend on the area, but it's not saying no to spring breakers.

"Oh, no, definitely not," said Susan Estler, VP-marketing for the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Spring break is a part of who we are, but we also want people to know it isn't what defines us as a destination."

Keeping its crown
So while the bulk of Panama City Beach's $2.5 million advertising budget is spent convincing would-be travelers that "PCB" is a family destination, the Panama City Beach CVB is courting the spring-break crowd by becoming involved with a co-op of local business owners that have launched an integrated social-media-marketing campaign to keep the town as the unofficial "Spring Break Capital of the World."

The co-op tried to raise $150,000 to promote spring break in Panama City Beach. It raised half of that, but the CVB stepped in and donated additional money for the effort.

Now, in addition to the city's official website at, there is Both entities have social outreach on Facebook and Twitter; the spring break-centric site also hosts a YouTube channel.

Local Panama City Beach restaurateur Jack Bishop helped put together the co-op of hotels and restaurants when the Tourism Development Council declined to make a $150,000 annual payment to MTVU. The offshoot of MTV has hosted events and concerts in Panama City Beach for the past three years. It is headed to Acapulco for spring break this March.

"We have had public-sector funding for marketing spring break for many years here, and finally political correctness mislabeled spring break with every bad thing that ever happened," said Mr. Bishop, who said a study done several years ago showed that Panama City Beach reaps a "$60 million gross expenditure in the month of March from spring break. So, we put together a private-sector effort, and we did it all with social marketing, no hard advertising. I'm 66 years old, and I have very little knowledge about social media, but even I know this is what reaches kids between 18 and 22. Traditional marketing companies don't understand what spring break is."

Two conversations
New York-based marketing firm Jennifer Barbee is handling the social-media marketing for both the CVB and the co-op. Arizona-based Collegiate Marketing Group is doing promotion, and is negotiating with celebrities from such TV hits as "The Hills" and "Jersey Shore" to make appearances in and around Panama City Beach next month.

"We needed to start a conversation with two different kinds of crowds," said Jennifer Barbee. "We opened multiple Twitter accounts and, for the college-age market, we've heavy in MySpace, mobile and running video on mobile iPhone apps and video on"

Ms. Barbee laughed and added, "[Collegiate Marketing Group] already started their Facebook and Twitter page, so our job was to leverage what they started and kick it up another level. We just have to be careful about conveying the 'Girls Gone Wild' stuff."

Is it working? Well, the CVB says lodging reservations are up from last year, which is a good sign considering the economy and the fact that Panama City Beach generated $27 million of its $215 million in annual lodging costs last year in the month of March.

"And we're not even to the peak time yet," Mr. Bishop said. "Studies show that half the kids who go on spring break make their decision 14 days before they leave."

Panama City Beach isn't the only spring break option, of course. As mentioned, MTV is headed to Acapulco, where tourism officials hope the widespread publicity -- and notoriety -- will show all age groups that tourism is back in Mexico, a year after the swine-flu scare and unrest at the border due to the cocaine wars kept many travelers away.

"These factors forced prices to the destination down," said Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at Travelocity. "Now Mexico is reaping the benefits of cheap travel costs with the return of spring breakers who are looking for deals."

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