Seven months after Hurricane Irma tore across parts of the Florida Keys, the local tourism industry needs more advertising dollars to help make up for storm-related losses, officials said.
So the Monroe County Tourist Development Council asked the Monroe County Commission to shift $1.65 million of unused capital funds from the prior fiscal year over to the fiscal year 2019 advertising budget. A unanimous commission agreed at its Thursday meeting.
“A leisure-based economy is in name only, the competition is fierce,” said Stacey Mitchell, director of the TDC. “This request is not to increase advertising. It is only being requested to help mitigate the losses we have already incurred.”
While Irma devastated parts of the Lower and Middle Keys, particularly Big Pine Key, which is still trying to recover from damage, and Marathon, the city of Key West dodged the worst of the storm and has remained completely intact since Irma hit Sept. 10, 2017.
But some tourists have lumped all the Keys together as being storm-ravaged.
An owner of a bed and breakfast told County Commissioner Danny Kolhage that he is still getting calls asking whether it’s OK to come to the Keys.
“He said you’re still having people this far after the storm who still don’t know that we’re open for business.” Kolhage said. “Get the experts to figure out how to get that point across in a better way.”
The Keys are facing some fierce competition from other tourist destinations, said Mitchell.
Seven months after Irma, 16 percent of the Keys' lodging inventory remains offline because businesses are unable to open, Mitchell said.
In addition, 500 brand new hotel rooms are expected to open in fiscal year 2019, she said.
“We are losing market share to other counties in the state of Florida,” Mitchell said. “There are perceptions out there that continue to this day."
The goal of the request was to avoid a reduction in advertising.
"We cannot adequately recover without those 'replaced' advertising dollars," wrote Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, in an email to members. "It is not just hotels that are suffering, many small businesses will likely not survive off season."
County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said she was disappointed that after the hurricane the TDC rolled out existing ads that didn’t mention Irma.
“I got calls from around the county, people who were like, you’re running the same ads like nothing happened,” she said.
The TDC needs to give its advertising company direction to address the storm in a creative way, Carruthers said.
“Give them the ability to create those tugs on the heart strings that are new and acknowledge the resiliency of our community,” Carruthers said. “I don’t want this only to go for just buying more spots and sending the same message out over and over again.”