Mar 20, 2007

Marketing a Travel Destination

There is a big debate in Bay County, Florida, home of Panama City Beach. Some might say it's an economic debate, some may say it's a moral debate.

It's really a marketing debate, in which morals and the economy are just part of it all.

The deciders -- politicians and an old local businessman who really runs the joint -- want to keep marketing to the Spring Breakers. These marketers believe that Panama City Beach is a town of seasons, and that they can effectively let the place be Sin City during the Spring and FamilyLand during the other times of year.

There are other marketers in the county who want to get rid of the party image and the college kids who go with it. They believe that you cannot appeal to vacationing families when your destination is known as Party Beach, and I agree with this.

I do not believe your product -- even if it's miles of sand beaches and gulf water -- can be everything to everyone. You have to find your target, serve that customer and stick to it.

Las Vegas doesn't have a "season" where it becomes like Opryland, Destin doesn't have a season that it becomes "Hedonism," and Dollywood doesn't try to be the French Quarter during certain times of the year. It just doesn't work.

When you see images like these below on the Travel Channel, the Wall Street Journal and even our hometown newspaper, it's hard to say "Hey Honey, let's take the kids to PCB!" Or even, "Honey, now that the kids are gone and we've got lots of money, let's go buy our second home where we're sure to have college kids puke over our balcony!"

As for the current leaders, they have a good point too... PCB has always been the party place, it's always appealed to the free-spirit and good ol' boys. Some locals say it'll never be a snobby place like "The Beaches of South Walton," and will forever be a party town. If this is the case, then embrace the image and market yourself 100% as a party town.

Start bringing in more big music acts and festivals, hand out liquor licenses like they're newspapers, make some really nice public transportation to dissuede drunk driving and start putting plugs in the floors for the one-armed bandits. Think "Las Vegas meets New Orleans with a heck of a lot prettier beaches and women than Biloxi."

Unfortunately for the local economy, that will probably never happen. We probably won't go one way or the other, and will continue trying to appeal to both Sinners and Saints, which means our economy suffers because we don't take advantage of either.

If our local leaders pull it off -- filling up with partiers part of the year and families/couples/Baby Boomers the rest of the year, it will be an amazing feat.

It's a marketing debate that might take years to play out, but I look forward to seeing the outcome.

When you think of Panama City Beach, FL, what do you think of? Most people in the Southeast would say, "PCB! Whoo hoo! Par-tay!"

It's generally known as the Redneck Riviera or Spring Break Central. But in Atlanta, it's known amongst the upper-middle to upper class residents as "Trash Central," amongst other derogatory names.

Panama City Beach takes 21% of its annual visitors from Atlanta, but being only 5 hours away, this number should be much higher. And while certainly many wealthy and successful Atlantans call PCB their vacation home, most of Atlanta's money goes west to other beaches in Walton and Okaloosa counties.

By the way, congrats to Ben Bollinger for getting in the WSJ. He and partner Lisa Anderson are tapping a fat market that's right in front of them. Smart!

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