By LEAH STRATMANN
The meeting of the South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) began routinely with the approval of minutes and a financial report from Mary Brown indicating that by comparing bed tax revenue from March 2007 to that collected in March 2008 there was an increase of 15 percent. The total collected in March 2008 was $1.2 million.
The TDC board then announced that after a nationwide search for a new executive director, conducted by Performance Management, Inc. with input from the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), TDC board members, Walton County Human Resources and administrative departments, the ideal candidate was already temporarily in the driver’s seat.
“It was a great exercise to see the caliber of professionals interested in this position and to learn that the perfect candidate was already at the helm,” noted John Gillis, TDC board chairman. Sonny Mares comes to the position with more than 30 years of experience with convention and visitor boards from Milwaukee, Jacksonville, Mobile and Omaha. For the past three years he has served as the director of administration for the TDC.
“I’m delighted and thank you very very much for your confidence,” Mares said. A motion was made to accept the recommendation of the committee and take that recommendation to the BCC.
Following Mares’ appointment, a presentation was made by Leah Woolford of U.S. Destination Marketing (USDM), which conducted a study of visitors to the Beaches of South Walton Web site. The research reveals that 37 percent of registered Web-users who looked at the Web site were Walton County visitors in the past 12 months spending $83 million.
Woolford said, “We found that 23 percent of visitors decided to actually vacation at the Beaches of South Walton after visiting the Web site. What we are doing is starting to shape the brand in the minds of (Web) visitors,” Woolford noted. She said every dollar invested in the creation and maintenance of the Web site yields $538 being spent in Walton County.
In March, a map on the site was launched, and Woolford said more than 48,000 people visited in the first 55 days of the map launch. “Maps are one of the top things people look for,” she said.
One of the goals of revamping the Web site is the creation of a new virtual community, with user-generated content on sites like TripAdvisor.com, YouTube and MySpace, where consumers post reviews for Web site browsers to read.
“Online travelers are influenced by traveler-generated reviews. People trust them because they know it is not paid advertising. Over 80 million Americans will read user generated comments in 2008,” Woolford said, “even though only about 20 percent of people actually post anything. The posters are very vocal, spreading opinions and have a high rate of converting a friend or family member.”
Woolford pointed out the marketing advantages of the Web site as engaging the audience naturally, providing interactive settings for discussion, feedback, and great research data. Further, the site seeks to strengthen the connection between the destination brand and the consumer while building brand loyalty.
“The Beaches of South Walton (BOSW) virtual community is set to launch in June 2008,” Woolford said. The site will be free to area businesses where they can monitor customer opinions and be connected to BOSW brand advocates. It will provide a new marketing channel for photos and information appropriate to the community. It will prompt word-of-mouth consumer referrals,” she said.
The new virtual community will feature a culinary experience featuring 12 chefs, complete with bios, recipes, and mapping indicating the dining options in BOSW. “We know people are looking for this information,” Woolford said, “and the 12 chefs will be selected on a ratings system.”
At the conclusion of Woolford’s presentation, board member Mike Stange asked what strategy would be used to get this information beyond the TDC conference room.
Mares indicated he has a list of the top 25 bed tax collectors in the county and he will visit with them in the next month. “These 25 represent 90 percent of the bed tax revenue,” Mares noted. “We are trying to communicate the value of the Web’s ability to reach more people,” he said.
“As local people see the community part of this, they will go look and they will realize this is a viable place to put business information.” Woolford interjected.
Board member Don McQuade said two strategies were needed to get the word out. “We need one for the big tax collectors and another to get the smaller entities to participate. The smaller entities might want to band together to join in on the Web site,” he said.
“We are a billion-dollar industry and half of that money comes through the Web site. We need to be out in front of this explaining the economic impact of this organization. I think we need to be beating this drum over and over and over. This gets people’s attention,” McQuade asserted.
“I see all of our strategies starting to come together and work together. I couldn’t agree more with the value of getting in front of all the organizations in the area,” Mares said.
Part of this huge revenue is being directed to Brad Pickel, former TDC director of beach management who lives in North Carolina, and who is enjoying a three-year consultant contract with a retainer of $8,500 per month ($102,000 per year). The contract expires in 2010.
Board member Mary Jo Tommas asked about the status of signs. Mares told her the Timpoochee Trails signs would be going up soon and they are all safety signs. Plans for the other signage is going forward and for the time being the directional signs are still in place.
Under the heading of old business, Tommas asked about people who are not paying bed tax on vacation rentals. Treasurer Brown said the TDC is in the process of working with the tax office to identify the thousands of people who are not paying these taxes on vacation rentals by owner (VRBO).
Stange noted that people renting without charging the tax can undercut others by at least 11 percent. “There are lots of developer units being priced so low you have to wonder if they are paying the taxes. If you can rent beachfront for $124 per night with a $100 gift card thrown in, it is hard for others to compete,” he said. “The amount of money uncollected could be staggering. People are getting caught in the crunch. They were listening to the music when things were good, then the music stopped and they had no chair,” he said.