Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director 

“Naturally different” may be the best way to describe how Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism works to position the area that boasts some 70 miles of coastline and has more waterfront property than any county in the U.S. Being bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by the St. John’s River and split in the middle by the Indian River Lagoon, it is an unparalleled natural location. To Eric Garvey, the new director of the county’s tourism agency, the keyword in marketing the coast is “authentic.” That includes being home to America’s space program and the finest venue in the world to showcase our exploratory achievements and the place where some two missiles a month can be seen rocketing into space.

The Area’s Differentiation

The theme parks in Central Florida have to continually reinvent themselves to attract new visitors and make former visitors want to come again. But we don’t have to reinvent ourselves, because we weren’t invented in the first place. What people come here to see wasn’t created in a design studio; it is the natural beauty and authentic experiences, not virtual. All of that virtual creativity is good. In fact it is great, but we want to focus on the incredible amenities that we have here. We are playing to our unique strengths.

Another differentiator about our area, versus Central Florida, is people actually live at our attraction. That creates another dimension of the visitor/resident experience. Many times, when people live in a tourist destination, they see some of the benefits that come from being in a place people dream of visiting, but object to others. They may complain about the traffic or lines at the restaurants, but those restaurants might not be there were it not for tourists. Also, the revenue that tourists bring in actually keeps their taxes lower. Most importantly, when a place is created that is beautiful or compelling enough to attract visitors, it also becomes a place that local residents will like just as much, which we see at the Cove in Port Canaveral, Cocoa Village or the Cocoa Beach Pier.

Residents also should know that a significant part of the tourism tax, nearly 25 percent, goes to beach improvements. Studies show that healthy beaches offer better protection from storms, not to mention the recreational benefit to tourists and locals alike. Keeping the beach protects the whole environment.

Marketing Beach Communities

My entry into marketing came through graphic design. I had a professor at Oglethorpe University who inspired me to start my own business. After graduation, I started a desktop publishing service business which at the time was revolutionizing the pre-press and printing industry. From there we branched out into a full-service marketing agency working with large consumer product manufacturers like Crystal Springs Water and Coca-Cola.

My wife and I decided we didn’t want to raise our family in the suburbs of Atlanta, so we moved to St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast. Initially, I lived in Atlanta for four days and three on St. Simons. Eventually I went to work for the Jekyll Island Authority as a marketing director. Jekyll Island is a state-owned, public beach resort just south of St. Simons. When I arrived in 2000, visitation had been declining for years due to aging hotels and infrastructure. We began an effort to revitalize the tourism product and created a master plan that was both environmentally and financially sustainable. My role transitioned from destination marketing to leading all aspects of communications and public affairs. This was a critical role because of the public’s fear of over development.

After 15 years, I came across this opportunity and there were so many similarities, just bigger ones. The structure is similar – I work with hoteliers, a board and the stakeholders; it is a dynamic I am very comfortable with.

Like Jekyll Island, we have to take a hard look at how we are positioned under this “Space Coast” umbrella. We need to find ways to elevate the profiles of the various destinations within the county, including, but beyond the spaceport identity. Our roots are in space, but we want people to know the full gamut of things they can do here and connect places like Cocoa Beach, Downtown Melbourne and Sebastian Inlet.

Being a Choice Destination

There are different things that make a place a destination; our area is all about authenticity and it is telling people who we are and why they should care. We need gateways, not physical marquees, but also give visitors the clues to discover what the area has to offer. They have to get past the main streets, because the best that the area has to offer is often hidden. Where else can you go kayaking and in the process watch a missile launch? But you have to know about it. We have to connect the dots – physically and inspirationally linking people to these opportunities.

A part of that is ecotourism. That term used to mean using vacation time to do something that gave back to a wilderness area, like building a hiking trail in a national park. Now it also refers to the experience of being immersed in a natural environment. There is a tremendous opportunity to attract guests that are looking for that experience. For instance, the Stick Marsh in South Brevard. That is an area that needs a physical product or gateway to engage visitors. Tourists need orientation places to enjoy any amenity, like a clubhouse at a golf course.

Of course, our most important physical asset is 70 miles of beaches that are very accessible. The lagoon system is another amazing asset offering every water sport imaginable. Also, we capture almost 100 miles of I-95 that is a tremendous opportunity that we should capitalize on. It isn’t glamorous, but it is an economic engine that we can and should leverage.

Also there is a “cool factor” that comes from the space program, which we have to highlight and exploit. Let’s face it: watching a missile launch is like nothing else in the world. 

Capturing Cruise & More

The Port is another huge asset and has the potential to generate overnight room stays, which we are studying. We can do a better job of exposing cruise passengers to what this community has to offer, for an extended vacation or another vacation experience. As the Port becomes a place you go to, not just embark from, we can capture more of that market and enhance the visitor experience.

We are a ‘drive to’ destination. Though we want to attract residents that live in Florida, tourism is overnight visitation. Our objective is to get people to make multiple night stays. In the future, I envision elevating our hotel inventory and with that will come tourists who will stay longer, while appreciating and engaging in all that we have to offer.

One project that shows tremendous potential is the conversion of Space Coast Stadium into being an amateur sports facility. USSSA is planning to sign a 20-year lease agreement for Space Coast Stadium and the adjacent Carl Barger Training Complex. They plan to host youth sports tournaments at least 175 days a year, which will generate close to one hundred thousand hotel room nights. This is all very exciting.

This article appears in the August 2015 issue of SpaceCoast Business.
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