Campaign for the Coast:
Sustaining Louisiana Culture for Future Generations
A newly unified coast gives voice to Louisiana’s recovery.
April 2012 marked the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a disaster still fresh in the minds and memories of those along the Gulf Coast. As summer arrives, Louisiana’s neighboring states are packing their sugar-white beaches with vacationers, filling condos, resorts and casino hotels with visitors looking for a familiar adventure. While these neighboring states celebrate a return to normalcy, Louisiana tourism still struggles in the aftermath of the oil disaster, in which Louisiana’s coast served as ground zero.
In an effort to mitigate the negative effects of the spill on tourism, BP announced on May 17, 2010, that tourism recovery grants would be given to affected states with Florida receiving $25 million while Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were each allotted $15 million. One week later, as New Orleans and state officials gathered at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau to discuss plans for the entire $15 million, eight individuals convened across the street to discuss how their parishes, those most damaged by the oil disaster, could assist the mom-and-pop businesses and tourism stakeholders on whom Louisiana’s coast relies. Within days of this meeting, tourism leaders from Louisiana’s 10 coastal parishes joined together, forming the first-ever Louisiana Tourism Coastal Coalition, or LTCC, also known as the Visit Louisiana Coast campaign.
“Initially, most of the $15 million was going to go to New Orleans and a small share to the state,” says Greg Buisson, strategist for the LTCC. “Additionally, BP wanted the money spent immediately, within 90 days.”
As the newly formed LTCC, Buisson and tourism directors from St. Tammany, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, Lafourche, Terrebonne, St. Mary, Iberia, Vermilion, Cameron and Calcasieu parishes quickly lobbied their legislators and the state lieutenant governor for a portion of the grant and a longer spending term. On September 15, 2010, the LTCC was officially funded $5 million, one-third of the state’s allotted grant, to be spent over a two-year period.
Sharon Alford, executive director of the Houma CVB and immediate past chair of the LTCC, knows all too well the story of catastrophe.
“The Louisiana coast, especially since 2005, has been hit with numerous disasters,” Alford says. “Every time that happens, national media is on the scene telling the story of tragedy, but then they move on to another story. The story of recovery never reaches the national audience. We as tourism leaders know that if we are going to get visitors back, we have to tell that story.”
While all of Louisiana’s neighboring states have organizations to promote and market their coasts, Louisiana has never had a comprehensive coastal entity to handle such a task. Each parish has its own CVB, and the state as a whole has the Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism.
“Not only has Louisiana’s coast never had a unified voice, but the coast is also different from that of its neighbors,” says Alford. “Most are beach destinations that are revenue-wealthy and able to tell a national story with budgets for mass media. Our coastal destinations are more rural.”
The nickname Sportsman’s Paradise suggests such a setting for Louisiana, though few residents know the full extent of the coast’s natural offerings, which range from boating, biking and hiking in splendid parks to taking swamp or marsh tours or enjoying unparalleled bird-watching and exceptional charter and inland fishing.
Violet Peters, president and CEO of the Jefferson Parish CVB and chairwoman of the LTCC Board of Directors, emphasizes the magic of Louisiana’s nontraditional vacation destinations and excursions: “We have adventures of all kinds. For those who want thrills, we have high-speed airboat swamp tours and deepwater Gulf fishing, and for those desiring a more calm experience, there’s inland fishing, bird-watching, relaxed swamp tours and more. More than likely, we’ll also have one of thousands of annual festivals going on nearby.”
While tourism slowly rises in some areas, Louisiana’s charter fishing is still undeniably suffering from misconceptions about the oil disaster and its effects on seafood and fishing opportunities. According to Buisson, the industry is down about 30 percent overall but as much as 50 to 60 percent depending on the area of the coast.
“Many of these guides and experts were taking 24 to 30 trips in a week before the spill,” says Buisson. “Now they have maybe 10 to 12.”
Alford echoes Buisson’s observations, remarking that there’s an obvious lack of business in Louisiana’s fishing villages compared to the activity pre-disaster. Despite her positive outlook, Alford can’t erase the unfortunate images broadcast by national media, but she finds reassurance in a fact that many people don’t realize: Louisiana’s seafood goes through stringent testing and has been proved safe.
“It’s as if people would rather eat untested food than tested, safe food,” says Alford. “The safety of our seafood is part of that message we want to get out. Food is essential to Cajun culture, and this message needs to be delivered.”
Peters couldn’t agree more. “Louisiana has the largest catch limit in the nation,” she says. “Right now we have people going out and catching the limit within a few hours daily. We need the state and the nation to know that the fish are out in huge numbers and ready to be caught.”
Those adventuring offshore or cruising inland bayous are reaping the benefits of an abundance of red snapper, lemon fish, grouper, blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, blackfin tuna, cobia, wahoo, amberjack, king mackerel, redfish and speckled trout. Unfortunately, the fish are out in much higher numbers than visiting anglers. Despite cleaned beaches and a tremendous fishing pier, Grand Isle is continuing to lose businesses two years after the disaster.
“We’ve seen restaurants close in Grand Isle in an area that only had three,” Peters says. “That is significant in a town of 1,500 people. We’ve also had marinas and gas stations close.”
Historically, these towns and fishing villages haven’t had a voice. Now, thanks to the Visit Louisiana Coast campaign, rural regions all the way from Calcasieu Parish to St. Tammany have been pushed into the spotlight. In the past two years, the LTCC’s Visit Louisiana Coast campaign has reached audiences across the United States through highly strategized and targeted television commercials, print advertising, Web and social media campaigns, trade show presentations, media tours and direct mail.
“When we did our TV campaign, we decided to focus on the industry hardest hit: charter fishing,” says Peters. “We determined where to broadcast these spots by asking Wildlife & Fisheries where most fishers were coming from, where they were applying for licenses. About 45,000 spots hit those markets, which were mostly Southeastern states.”
Rebecca Buras, executive director of the LTCC, explains how the campaign has reached outdoor enthusiasts from ages 5 to 95 at national trade shows and with some unexpected help from the History Channel.
“We’ve had the opportunity to represent the coast at shows across the country, and it’s amazing the interest we’ve seen,” Buras says. “
Swamp People has given us a platform to showcase our state, swamps and wetlands,” says Buras. “Now that the interest is there, the Visit Louisiana Coast campaign needs to be out there continuing the momentum that the BP grant has afforded us.”
The effectiveness of the campaign can be attributed to two things: the professional, careful cooperation of all 10 tourism directors and the efficiency with which the grant money has been spent. Of the entire $5 million, 97 percent has gone straight into marketing, with only 3 percent going toward administrative costs.
“In the beginning, we were convening almost weekly, making decisions and putting a marketing plan together,” says Alford. Within 60 days of funding, the LTCC launched its comprehensive multi`media campaign. Now the coalition meets quarterly, alternating meeting locations from parish to parish.
On June 30, 2012, the LTCC and Visit Louisiana Coast campaign will come to the end of funding from the BP tourism recovery grant.
The LTCC hopes to secure additional funding to continue its momentum and subsequent success in bringing visitors back to the coast.
“History has shown that this is not a short-term issue,” Peters says. “Five million dollars over two years is not going to be sufficient.”
Buisson agrees: “Across the world, we’ve seen that it generally takes five years for a place to reach pre-disaster tourism levels.
Minimally, we need a five-year campaign to rebound from this spill in Louisiana.”
With proper funding, the Visit Louisiana Coast campaign will continue to reach a national and statewide audience, promoting destinations some of the coalition members didn’t know about prior to the campaign, destinations essentially in their own backyards.
Buisson had never experienced the thrill of an airboat tour prior to his work with the group. Peters and Buras had never seen the lush, colorful grounds of Rip Van Winkle Gardens in Iberia Parish, a destination Buras is recommending to a family member planning a wedding and where Peters and her husband will spend their anniversary. Alford had never been to Abbeville, where she now plans to return for the annual 5,000-egg Giant Omelette Celebration.
“These destinations need a coalition working for them and giving them a voice,” says Buras. “This is part of our culture and who we are.
We need to make sure we sustain this for future generations.”