The Space Coast has Plenty to Fill the Post Shuttle Void

by Donna Balancia

Cooperation with partners and strategic investments are part of the plan the Space Coast Office of Tourism has launched to promote Brevard County as a top tourism destination, capable of drawing visitors not only from the East Coast of the United States and from within Florida, but from new markets around the world.

Deals made with the commercial launch company SpaceX, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Port Canaveral and the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast will be the focus as Brevard puts into high gear its multi-pronged tourism advertising and public relations campaign in the wake of the post-Space Shuttle era.

“We are the Space Coast and that is our legacy,” said Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism. “And with commercial space enterprises like SpaceX launching from here, and the Shuttle Atlantis going on display, it shows the interest in space is very much alive. Our destination has plenty to offer, including 72 miles of beach, great ecotourism and history. We’re getting the word out.”

An Economic Conduit

Tourism is a vital component of Brevard County’s economy, employing hundreds of people and generating $2.5 billion a year in direct and indirect spending. The tourism tax, known as the “bed tax” – the 5-cents-on-the-dollar collected on the money visitors pay to the hotels when they check out – replenishes our beaches, helps fund the Brevard Zoo, upgrades local event facilities and pays for advertising and marketing expenses needed to promote Brevard County to the rest of the world.

And while tourism numbers are good, the Space Coast Office of Tourism in concert with major organizations in Brevard County have been planning and preparing to present a modern, more sophisticated approach to luring tourists. “We have been working for many years to set up the Space Coast as a destination that folks from overseas want to visit,” Varley explained. “It’s been our top mission to continue to build a base of national and international visitors, while continuing to bring visitors from right here in Florida. And while it’s our great beaches that bring the people, we’re adding to the range of events and attractions that will keep people interested in the gems we have here.”

Racing Against the Countdown

In the last three years, the Office of Tourism has been quietly competing in a race with the countdown clock.

“We knew that with the end of the shuttle program, we had a responsibility to the community to make sure we had Plan B and Plan C ready to go,” Varley said. He and his team called upon the movers and shakers in Brevard County – including managers of beloved attractions; hotel and restaurant owners; and the top advertising and public relations consultants – to brainstorm programs that would carry the county at a time when the 30-year-old shuttle program would wind down. Together, the groups, connected by the common goal of getting more visitors to experience the Space Coast, solicited business from every resource available.

Top Tourism Accomplishments

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will break ground on a $100 million facility to house the Shuttle Atlantis. The acquisition of the shuttle to put on display in Florida was a feat that required politicking and partnership between NASA and KSC Visitor Complex park operator Delaware North Parks and Resorts.

“Atlantis is part of our space heritage,” said John Stine, director of sales and marketing with Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, which operates Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on behalf of NASA. “It’s a source of pride. We have a chance to show an intact vehicle that explored space.”

“The authenticity of Atlantis has special significance for the Space Coast and is instrumental in bringing in tourists who want an educational and historical perspective on our destination,” Stine said. While estimates place attendance at 1.5 million people a year at KSC Visitor Complex, Stine believes the Shuttle will bring 15 percent more people through the doors. “The shuttle program is part of the fabric of Florida,” he said. “People from all over the world want to see this.”

Kalina Subido-Person, director of international sales with the Space Coast Office of Tourism added, “Studies showed that there is strong interest in the education market. So we have been talking to tour groups from China and India, for example, whose young people want to come to Space Camp. The students come with their families and once we get people here, there’s a good chance they will come back. We know that our repeat visitors are over 50 percent.”

Commercial Launch Operator SpaceX and NASA signed a $1.6 billion, 12-launch contract that will see an astronaut go into space as soon as 2014 from KSC. The deal represents the first foray into commercial space exploration and paves the way for other deals with players in the commercial space launch arena.

The deal with SpaceX could potentially lead to other important agreements for Brevard County, and the launches the company provides could offset the estimated 5 percent of the annual hotel overnights generated by the space shuttle launches over the last 30 years. Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Boeing are also working with NASA to develop efficient ways to get astronauts and cargo to the International Space Center and to further space exploration.

“The Space Coast will always be central to the United States manned space program,” said Kirsten Grantham, a spokeswoman for SpaceX. “SpaceX is proud to partner with NASA to carry cargo to the International Space Station and we’re hard at work getting ready to carry astronauts in 2014.”

The Tourist Development Council’s investment in advertising helped to secure the success of new events like Runaway Country Space Coast Music Fest, the Cocoa Beach Air Show, the Art of Sand Festival, and Thunder on the Beach: Space Coast Super Boat Grand Prix. Increased attendance has been the result of advertising and public relations investments put into niche enthusiast events like the popular Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival held in the natural environment surrounding Titusville.

“We worked with the office of tourism on cooperative advertising,” said Gary McCann, executive director of Runaway Country, a new country music event that drew roughly 20,000 fans over two days in its inaugural year. “We advertised that Miranda Lambert was going to be here and we ended up drawing people from all over the world and across the U.S.” The event was such a hit last spring it will be held again in Wickham Park and expanded to three days this year, May 4-6, 2012.

Another major player in cooperative advertising has been the Melbourne International Airport, which has also helped by providing familiarization trips for journalists reporting on the Space Coast.

Economic Development and Hidden Gems

“The quality of life that draws tourists to our community often draws businesses that are looking to relocate as well,” noted Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the EDC. She continued, “Despite the shuttle retirement, tourism will remain a core driver of the Space Coast economy. Not only will unmanned rocket launches continue to generate interest, but also our tourism-related assets, including our pristine beaches, outdoor recreation activities, arts and cultural amenities will continue to attract thousands of visitors each year.”

Keith Winsten, executive director of the Brevard Zoo, along with Laurilee Thompson of the iconic Dixie Crossroads restaurant in Titusville, and Office of Tourism sales manager Tom Bartosek took the lead on a project called “Hidden Gems,” based on a study indicating the county would benefit by promoting some of the lesser-known assets that are loved by the locals.

“The visitors are more sophisticated and we have responded to that,” Winsten explained. “Our work shows that people don’t have a lot of time and there are a lot of choices for tourists. It’s a competitive environment and leisure time is limited. We live in an ‘experience-seeking economy’ and our biggest asset is that we give our visitors an authentic experience. People don’t want to see a movie based on a shrimp boat; they want to see the workings of a real shrimp boat, for example. Visitors want an active alternative.”

Cruising for Dollars

Pre- and post-cruise hotel stays are another major source of revenue for hoteliers. With the addition of the new Disney, Carnival and Norwegian ships to Port Canaveral, the county can expect more visitors.

“If we get cruisers to stay one or two extra nights in a hotel before or after their cruise, it’s a win,” Subido-Person said.

“With its proximity to Disney World, there was no doubt Port Canaveral would be the best choice to place the new Disney ships in the fleet,” said Canaveral Port Authority CEO Stan Payne. The increase in number of cruise tourists directly impacts the number of tourists spending the night in Brevard County, which increases revenue for hoteliers and restaurants that cater to those visitors as well. Cruises bring in weddings and family reunions – the small groups, which are a magic demographic target in today’s tourism marketing.

Culture Connection

“There is a wealth of evidence that supports the facts that arts and culture contribute significantly to the creation of a ‘destination’,” said Neil Levine, executive director of the Brevard Cultural Alliance. “We have some world-class projects in the works in Titusville. There is more to offer here than anyplace in Florida with our tapestry of arts, culture and natural resources.” These include sidewalk art shows in Cocoa Village, Cocoa Beach and Downtown Melbourne and a growing interest in film festivals.

Bonnie King is Film Commissioner for the Space Coast and says there is great value in hosting production companies. “We look for TV production and feature film opportunities, fashion photography shoots and music video shoots,” she said. Production company personnel can range in number and their crews will eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels and use our local services, in addition to hiring locals to assist on their projects.

Titusville’s “Museum Row” has developed over the years with the American Police Hall of Fame Museum, the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. “We leveraged our tourism dollar by partnering with various groups to promote our different regions, attractions and events that are significant to their parts of the county,” Subido-Person said.

Catch Where You Can

The TDC has been collaborating with the Department of Transportation on a Visitors Center on I-95 where those driving into Brevard County can stop and find out more about the destination. “It’s important for us to have a presence where our potential visitors are,” Varley said. “The Visitors Center could boost our business by 15 to 20 percent.”

“If people have information, whether it’s about a destination or a subject of interest of any kind, the likelihood of a visit increases,” he continued. The Visitors Center is a work in progress and would be located along the northern edge of Brevard County. It’s just one more tool the Space Coast Office of Tourism is using to expand its reach across the state and around the world.