Disaster Diverted

Known for its 32 miles of sugar-white sand and sports facilities, the coastal communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., were thrust into the national spotlight due to the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Facing an almost insurmountable battle of public perception, the Alabama Gulf Coast Sports Commission, along with its parent organization, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism (CVB), worked diligently on numerous fronts to face this unprecedented challenge head-on.

The following narrative explains the battle, the efforts and the results, which included record-breaking sports numbers.

The Opponent

“As ironic as this sounds, our biggest battle was not the oil products but the public’s perception of our beaches,” says Beth Gendler, who serves as the director of sales for both the sports commission and the CVB. “We knew that we had a long battle on our hands.”

The battle began just days after the rig exploded, as media reports speculated about the damaging effects the spill could possibly have on the tourism industry along the Gulf Coast.

“We were very aware of what was being communicated in the media,” says Mike Foster, vice-president of marketing of the CVB, who served as one of the spokespersons for the destination during the spill.

“People saw the images of oil-soaked birds and heavy crude, and naturally assumed that those pictures could be found on every beach destination along the Gulf.”

Approximately one week after the explosion, the national and regional media descended upon the Alabama beach destination, and began reporting about the effects the oil spill could possibly have on the local tourism industry--effects that had not even come ashore yet.

The Game Plan

“Our team made a conscious and deliberate decision at the beginning of this crisis; we were going to be honest, no matter the outcome for us,” Foster says.

That honesty began with the activation of the CVB’s crisis page about a week after the explosion. This Web page on GulfShores.com and OrangeBeach.com contains a pre-set template to normally communicate information about hurricanes and other tropical systems. However, once the page was activated, staff members utilized this medium to relay verified spill information from the official response team.

“There was a lot of noise--for lack of a better word--out there,” Foster says. “We wanted to streamline the flow of information for our current and future guests, including sports teams, so that everyone could have the facts without speculation.”

Throughout the coming days and months, CVB staff members updated the Web page daily and sometimes hourly, seven days a week, so that it was the most current source of oil-spill information specific to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach communities. When the oil impact--ranging from sporadic tar balls to a more significant impact coming ashore--occurred, those details were included on the page.

“It was important for our sports commission to use this page,” Gendler says. “We wanted to and needed to stay on the same message as our CVB. At some level, our traditional leisure guests and sports guests needed the same information.”

Future sports guests were also shown another CVB product--the daily beach update video. Debuting on May 22, the two-minute YouTube video was shot each morning to show the actual beach conditions, in addition to highlighting a few upcoming events and attractions.

“We felt that it was important for the families of our athletes coming into town to see what the other families were doing in our area and vice-versa. It was crucial for our leisure guests to see the activity surrounding all of the sporting events,” Foster says.

While these videos continued to be produced and posted daily, the sports commission also used the same concept to create a three- to four-minute video welcoming several United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) events--including four World Series.

“We were extremely excited when we expanded our partnership with the USSSA, and this summer was going to be the first time that we would host some of the events,” Gendler says.

“It was very important to take a proactive measure and show the condition of the beaches, in addition to featuring the sports fields where athletes would be playing, and highlighting other things to do in the area. We wanted to reassure these future guests before they had time to question coming to the area because of the spill.”

In addition to these progressive ideas, the sports commission used what some may consider an old-school tool--good customer service.

“I cannot even begin to count the number of e-mails and phone calls that our sports commission staff received from concerned parents, coaches and event organizers,” says Gendler.

“We took the time to answer all, and I mean all, of their questions. These people trusted us with the safety of their children, but we had to earn that trust first by taking the time to build relationships and answer people on a one-on-one basis. Generic automated responses would not work.”

That hands-on approach was also evident in the sports commission’s social-media presence.

“Because we are a smaller organization, we outsourced our Facebook, Twitter and other social-media accounts to a local tourism-marketing company,” Gendler added.

“Since the same company also handles the CVB’s social-media efforts, both of our groups spoke with the same voice, relied on the same information, and, most importantly, had the same personable touch with guests.”

The Victory

By the end of July, the sports commission had overcome multiple hurdles to do the unthinkable--break a record for 2010 in the midst of an oil spill. The commission surpassed its 2009 year-end room-night total (23,193) seven months into 2010 by generating 30,000 room nights. Also, in 2009, the sports commission generated over $7.6 million in total spending, and seven months into 2010, that number increased to $10.4 million.

“While we did add some new events for 2010, our staff members had extra work on their hands as they had to continue to sell the destination to already booked events,” Gendler says.

“To keep attendance numbers up as much as possible for all events, we didn’t take any event- or oil-spill question for granted. In the end, these numbers prove the Gulf Coast is still a great place to play sports. Between our community support, generous annual sponsors and helpful city leadership, we offer an unbeatable athletic experience.”

While these increased room nights and revenue are a new high for the sports commission, there is still room to grow.

“We are very excited about the economic impact our organization has had so far, and are even more excited to watch it grow with the addition of events such as the NAIA Soccer Championships for 2010 and 2011 and NAIA Softball Championships in 2011 and 2012,” says Gendler.

“Quite a few of our local industry partners have mentioned to us that they were very grateful to have our sports teams filling their rooms, restaurants and attractions during a summer when there were not as many guests as normal. That realization may be one of the silver linings from this oil spill.”

Despite this success, the commission has a firm grasp on the challenges that still lay ahead.

“We have an uphill battle to change the public’s perception,” she says. “As we continue to host more sporting events, we will expose new guests to our area, and they too will become goodwill ambassadors for our still-beautiful beach destination.”

Kim Chapman is the public relations manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. She can be reached at 800-745-SAND, or via e-mail at kchapman@gulfshores.com