There has been much talk about the Walton County Tourist Development Council in recent weeks.
In a surprise move on Jan. 8, TDC Director Dawn Moliterno tendered her resignation with a 90-day notice. Since then, the role of the TDC has been under the microscope from the Board of County Commissioners and the general public. The general consensus is that the TDC’s scope has grown beyond its original intent and that its role needs to be narrowed and explicitly defined.
I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment.
The TDC remains an important organization in Walton County. The vitality of our economy — yes, even that of the rural north part of the county — depends heavily on tourism. But managing that tourism demands a group of talented individuals dedicated exclusively to the task. The TDC fits that role when it operates efficiently and focused.
I spoke with a tourism professional last week about the Walton County TDC. This individual lives in Florida, is involved in the tourism industry and has held multiple, highly-visible tourism executive positions around the state – including in the Panhandle.
“There was a time not too long ago when South Walton was known as a luxury tourist destination,” the professional, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “That’s not the case anymore. It is being marketed broadly instead of to a specific, upscale clientele. That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing.”
What we’re seeing is a less-sophisticated visitor, particularly during spring break. That was never clearer than this year when some beaches in South Walton looked more like Panama City than South Walton with kids elbow-to-elbow, music blaring — and heaven knows what was going on inside the throng. When the beach cleared it was littered with tons of trash.
Such scenarios simply didn’t happen just a few years ago. Most Walton Countians don’t want to see them happen again.
But what is to be done? How do we turn the tide back to the luxury destination days?
My contact said it should start with the hiring of a new TDC director. My source knows all of the 10 finalists in some capacity. They all come with some baggage, but that there is some talent in the pool.
“What the TDC needs is a destination manager with management savvy and some marketing background. That individual’s first priority should be re-building South Walton’s brand into a luxury destination. They should place the marketing focus on highly-desirable income brackets and demographics instead of saying, ‘We’re got great beaches! Y’all come on down!’ ”
The clientele change happened over a relatively short time frame. It can be turned around almost as fast.
The marketing professional I spoke with wouldn’t use this term, but I will. We’ve got go get a bit more snobby with our branding and marketing if we want to raise the demographics of our visitors. We must start with the re-branding process, then make our marketing efforts specifically targeted.
I know. That sounds, well, snobby. But the fact is that a richer (in all aspects) visitor boosts our economy in ways a van full of 20 year olds simply can’t.
The BCC would do well to take a deeply critical look at the 10 finalists for the TDC position. Then it should consider hiring a qualified headhunter to get a couple of prime candidates.
Do this right, BCC, and your TDC worries can be set aside for a long time. Do this wrong and your nightmare continues
Rick Thomason, former publisher of The Walton Sun and The Destin Log, is owner of OnPointMessage (onpointmessage.com), a Santa Rosa Beach-based professional editing and writing business. His personal blog, Third Cup of Coffee (thirdcupofcoffee.wordpress.com) is where this piece originally appeared.