By DOTTY NIST
A study of recent and prospective visitors to south Walton County found that prior visitors are strong advocates for the destination—but that those who have not visited, even those who enjoy a vacation similar to what they would experience in south Walton County, have little awareness of what the destination has to offer.
John Leggett of DPA reported on the study, which relied on Atlanta and Mobile focus groups, at the Feb. 19 South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) meeting, which took place at the WaterColor Inn on CR-30A.
This focus group research represents the starting point in a series of studies to identify the next generation of visitors to south Walton County.
According to Leggett’s report, all the travelers interviewed noted the importance of “reducing risk” when planning a vacation, which includes knowing what is available at the destination. It was concluded that, for those lacking an awareness of south Walton County, there would be difficulty in persuading them to give the area a try.
There were varied impressions about prices, with some of those interviewed saying that a vacation in south Walton County would be inexpensive, reasonable, or on par with other areas and others perceiving an expensive stay.
Some of those who had not visited were not sure whether the beaches might be private. Some did not have an impression of south Walton County as a vacation destination but as one serving a particular niche of people at a certain state of life.
In contrast, it was reported that prior visitors tended to feel “almost a sense of ownership” of the area and expressed the intent to return often. For some, their only worry was that, with a rise in awareness of the area, they would lose their “secret” place.
Impressions noted of south Walton County included a friendly, slower lifestyle, the beauty of the beach sand, and that the area is “nothing like Destin.” However, visitors also stated that the area tends to get crowded in the summer.
“If it gets too crowded we would not go,” was a statement coming out of the study.
Despite those criticisms, the study found that negative perceptions about the area were few and that those interviewed did not harbor any harmful misconceptions to be overcome.
“…(T)he challenge for South Walton is really a lack of any perceptions among those unfamiliar,” the report read, “less daunting than having to combat perceptions of an area being backwoods, or dangerous.”
However, Leggett noted the challenge of bringing in new tourists while keeping the “solid core group” of south Walton County tourists “feeling it’s still theirs.”
“How do you grow without turning off your current visitors?” he restated the problem.
Additional information from DPA is to be provided at future TDC meetings.
Also at the Feb. 19 meeting, a renewal of the TDC’s $119,500-per-year contract with the Biophilia Center was renewed, providing for tourists and the general public to visit the environmental education center, which was created primarily to serve students and educators in the region.