By: George White

The last manned U.S. space flight was over 2-1/2 years ago. The Washington Nationals will likely be moving their Spring Training out of Brevard County soon. The Indian River lagoon system has environmental concerns resulting in the dying off of sea grass, mammals, fish and wildlife. Beach erosion is an ongoing problem. Tourism, a critical component of the county’s economy, is declining. Yet just 50 miles west of Brevard, the Orlando market is setting records for tourist visits. Why aren’t more of these tourists coming to Brevard? Why can’t we at least maintain our piece of Central Florida’s tourism pie?

Decisions about the direction of tourism in Brevard County need to be made immediately to ensure Brevard County flourishes in the future, while maintaining historic and environmental attributes. Local leaders are realizing what has always worked when it comes to the county’s tourism – pinned almost entirely on space and Cocoa Beach – may not be best for the future.

As Orlando has grown into the No. 1 tourist destination in the world, Brevard tourism has been anemic, begging the question, “Can the Space Coast become Orlando’s beach and an optional destination for their over 55+ million tourists or the preferred beach destination for University of Central Florida’s student population, most of which live in central Florida after graduation?”

There are tourism bright spots, including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex with the Shuttle Atlantis exhibit and the booming cruise industry including a new cruise ship terminal and a marquee welcome center at Port Canaveral. However, that doesn’t mitigate the loss of manned space launches and the fact that only a small percentage of cruise visitors stay in Brevard hotels and spend money.

Experts indicate that what is needed is a new draw or updating and re-packaging what is already at hand. Recent studies have been clear about the need to fix “dated” local attractions to draw a new type of visitor to the Space Coast, something that the Orlando area theme parks and attractions have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to do and have done exceptionally well.

Tourism specialist Duncan Dickson of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at UCF observed, “It’s just a matter of marketing ‘Visit Brevard.’ There’s not a magic answer. I think Brevard has to decide what it wants to be and the big issue now is Brevard doesn’t seem to know.”

Where Should We Begin?
The county Tourism Development Commission (TDC), allocates nearly $5 million annually for marketing Brevard County to regional visitors and beyond. This money is generated by a 5 percent bed tax that is collected on “all overnight lodging rentals.” In addition to promoting tourism, the tax is used to fund a variety of festivals and events, beach re-nourishment projects, the Brevard Zoo and promoting professional baseball in Brevard currently with the Washington Nationals.

However, the recent TDC-commissioned study by travel consultant Judy Randall said, “Beware of diluting marketing outreach by diverting to events, festivals and/or anything that will not bring trackable increased overnights and higher daily non-resident expenditures.’’

While calling many of the hotels and local attractions “dated” and in need of improvement, the survey did say the county’s ecological offerings represented an “embarrassingly rich” amount of activities needing “orientation and facilitation” to become major tourism draws.

“The area has to rebuild itself; there’s no doubt in that,’’ said TDC Vice Chairman Bob Baugher, a Cocoa Beach hotelier. “What we’ve got going for us is Port Canaveral, the cruise ship industry and the growth that we’re experiencing there. We’re trying to upgrade the community along with the port,” he continued. “The more you have to offer the better off you are; no doubt about that, with more marketing opportunities.”

TDC chair and hotel manager Tom Williamson agrees that the time is at hand to take a new approach. “We certainly need to retool our marketing. I think we have a very cohesive tourism industry and we all can work together. People don’t realize the positive impact it has on our county. It’s a huge job generator.

Another longtime TDC member, South Brevard hotelier Jim Ridenour said that instead of changing the bed tax allocations, he supports increasing efforts to go after condo owners’ short-term rentals, which in essence hurts the county by helping visitors dodge millions in bed taxes.

“If we get those additional revenues, think of what we could do with that. Everybody wins: marketing wins, PR wins, baseball wins, culture wins, festivals win. We can always do it better, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it better. We’ve evolved to who we are by good people who have made wise decisions as to how to break up the tax money,” Ridenour said.

Ridenour added, “There’s more here than what goes on in Cocoa Beach. From my perspective, I’m all about fairness to the county as a whole and to all parts of tourism and that includes culture and nature.”

The Changing Tourist
As important as deciding which direction to go with marketing, the other question is understanding the tendencies of the new type of visitor, said TDC member and Palm Bay Mayor William Capote. “We need to decide where we’re going and what we’re going to be. Right now, we’re in the process of identifying ourselves to the Baby Boomers as a tourist attraction, but we have a new crop of young professionals that like something different than what the Baby Boomers want,” he said.

“For example, likely outdoor activities for a Baby Boomer would be going on a picnic or taking the family for a leisurely day at the beach. A younger visitor is far more active and likes a greater variety of choices, choices that can be found in natural recreation areas throughout Brevard County,” Capote explained. “If it’s variety they want nature-wise, Brevard County has got it in spades, highlighted by the ever-present Indian River Lagoon. The special thing about Brevard County is that we’re so eco-friendly. We should be the destination haven not only for people here in the U.S. but abroad,” Capote said.

And there’s an even greater difference than size between Brevard County and Orlando, one perhaps more profound than any catchy slogan or marketing campaign. “We sell an actual live experience; that’s the difference,” said Capote. “Orlando sells Fantasyland. We sell good family fun and that’s the way we should market ourselves. We have reality, no offense to Orlando, but what we have here is an ecosystem – we have beaches, we have surfing, we have the product. We offer authentic experiences. You want to go fishing? You can go fishing, catch a fish and go home and cook it. You can’t do that over there.”

Marketing the Beaches
Even though Cocoa Beach is several miles north of Palm Bay, the county’s largest city with a population of more than 100,000, Capote said he doesn’t mind the marketing emphasis on Cocoa Beach. “Cocoa Beach has a signature name to it and I don’t mind that they feature it because it’s beneficial to me. At least they go to the map and see what’s in Brevard County; we’re working regionally.”

President of one of Cocoa Beach’s most recognizable brands, Ron Jon’s CEO Debbie Harvey weighed in on tourism efforts and the impact of the cruise industry. “Obviously, the increased traffic that the cruise ships have brought in, both in home ported ships and ports-of-call, has helped keep business at a strong level in spite of the lack of manned launches recently,” she said. Adding that Ron Jon will continue marketing regionally and that the Orlando boom could be Brevard’s benefit if the county’s attractions are presented correctly to the right potential visitor.

“We’ll continue to focus our marketing at getting customers who are already in Florida, and also trying to reach customers out of state, so that they visit us when they’re in Florida. We want to be associated with the beach and a visit to Florida; come see Ron Jon when you are traveling to the state. We pepper the state with billboards for the drive audience; we also market in the airports and cruise ship terminals. We try to reach them in many different ways,” she explained.

Finding a New Niche
A separate academic study on the topic, “Tourism Modeling for the Space Coast,” covers the need to be able to track and quantify successful choices related to tourism. Author Catherine Cook, a longtime local resident and Ph.D. professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, said she was interested in studying the direction of local tourism in the wake of the retirement of the Space Shuttle program.

“It is not enough to merely draw tourists with beaches, as this abounds along the entire coastline of the state of Florida. Consequently, what is needed is an emphasis on opportunities that Orlando and neighboring counties may not have to offer. This changes the present vision with the goal of creating the excitement necessary for attracting multiple market segments seeking memorable travel experiences,” her report states.

And really thinking “out of the box,” there is a new type of spaceflight being considered for the Space Coast being touted by Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast. “Space tourism represents the potential of a perfect blending of Space Coast heritage industries from aerospace to high-tech manufacturing. And with the emergence of suborbital vehicles that are reusable, the industry represents a new, diverse revenue stream for the county in the adventure tourism market.”

“Not only are we poised locally to capture the economic benefits from passengers – and cargo – in these new vehicles, but we could also see the impact of vehicle test, production and refurbishment, family tourism spending pre- and post-flight, and the attraction of a new generation of spectators to the Space Coast,” she said. “But, like anything, getting that new system will not be without major effort.”

“There is competition out there, and we need to be well funded and laser focused to succeed. We cannot take for granted that our tourism and space heritage will automatically draw participants to this new market,” she said.

Finding and Focusing on the Target
The bottom line is that Brevard has plenty to market with the correct strategy and basic agreement between all parties on direction, said Dickson. “I think the big issue with Brevard is they haven’t figured out what they want to be,” he said.

“We have to be more razor sharp with our marketing,” agreed TDC Executive Director Rob Varley. “My challenge is to try to get the hotels to pick up the tempo. We can only do that if we try to draw more people in here and develop a synergy with the port, the EDC and the communities,” he said.

So, with the assumption that Brevard residents support tourism as a means to stable economic viability, there must be a new wave of innovation in marketing, and continued funding to make it real. “For Brevard to become viable over the long-run there needs to be new reasons – or better marketing of local natural offerings –
to visit the Space Coast”, said Varley.

Dickson was more pointed, “You’ve got to re-invent yourself. You’ve got to become something new, something different. You take a look at Las Vegas and what they did when Atlantic City started coming in. They (Vegas) used to be the gambling capitol and they had to go and reinvent themselves with a completely new upscale image; today, venues like the Frontier and the Golden Nugget are not there anymore. Orlando did the same thing. Universal did that with Harry Potter; Disney’s doing it with Avatar and Star Wars. You have to come in and refresh, to give people a new reason to come visit.”

This can also be seen in Volusia County where the $100 million Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach will be opening in 2016. Plans call for a 375,000-foot development that will include 250 hotel rooms, 100 condo units, 28,000 sq. ft. of ballroom and banquet space, a spa and a shop filled with Hard Rock merchandise. It will be located on a stretch of A1A that’s long been home to mom and pop motels and small retail shops, where the city has been battling dilapidated hotels, storefront vacancies and blight on the beachside for years. “It’s really changed the game, the whole playing field,” said City Manager Jim Chisholm. “It’s like going from junior high to a major league team.”

“That’s what tourism winners do,” Dickson concluded. “They all said, ‘We’ve got competition. We’ve got to meet it,’ and that’s what Brevard has to do. You can’t live in the past.”  With tourism numbers continuing to grow in Orlando can Brevard’s boat rise with that tide or will it lack a unified strategy and continually leak?