PANAMA CITY BEACH - After seeing a plunge in business last March, several business owners on the Beach have decided to once again try a cooperative marketing effort to convince spring breakers to visit here this year.
But it's a tough sell convincing some local businesses to contribute to the campaign after their marketing efforts did not pay off last year. March 2016 brought a major decline in Spring Break business to the region after laws kicked in to "tone down" the party, including a ban on drinking on the sandy beach.
The Panama City Beach City Council, aiming for a more family-friendly reputation, in September announced three new events to be held at Aaron Bessant Park in March to help make up for lost Spring Break visitation: a new boat show, a second annual Emerald Coast Cruizin' car show, and the wine and gourmet show "UNwineD." But long-time Beach restaurant owner Jack Bishop said he does not believe those events will be enough to fill the rooms.
In response, Bishop is pushing to continue the cooperative's work, this year asking businesses to pool between $85,000 and $100,000 for the advertising campaign on social media, which includes analysis and feedback from Google Analytics.
The cooperative, targeting 18- to 24-year-old college students in the Midwest and Northeast, was formed five years ago when the Tourist Development Council pulled its advertising for Spring Break. So far, 18 businesses have signed on for Spring Break 2017.
"Normally, we get about 28 to 30," Bishop said of the number of businesses that sign on. "It's been a little tough. Even the Holiday Inn has declined, although they do have their website up and do have their Spring Break" marketing.
Bishop said the cooperative advertising worked well in years past.
"It had a tremendous amount of tracking to room rentals," Bishop said. "We're not giving up. I think we have some partners that definitely can't give up. We have empty rooms in March."
He said the coop's website is getting good hits.
"We're going to try and target the best kids with the most money," he said. "Our message is we're very affordable."
Among the clubs that have signed on to the advertising effort are Sharky's, Spinnaker, La Vela, Harpoon Harry's and Hammerhead Fred's.
"Some of the smaller clubs are hesitant" to join the effort, Bishop said. "They used to put in $2,500. But they are hesitant, [clubs like] Coyote Ugly and the Tiki Bar, so it's a lot different. Nobody is expecting 25,000 kids in a given week."
Shannon Posavad, president of campaign operator Collegiate Marketing Group, said the Beach still has many appealing qualities for spring breakers.
"In terms of the marketing, we are targeting students with a simple message that Panama City Beach is a great place to spend their Spring Break," he wrote in an email. "We don't really believe in the long term that the new laws change any of the real positives that make Panama City Beach a desirable destination for students."
Julie Hilton, whose family owns the Holiday Inn and Days Inn on the Beach, said last year they invested in significant advertising to spring breakers and even upgraded their properties with no success. She said no amount of advertising will work at bringing spring breakers back here when the city makes them feel unwelcome. "It didn't pay off last year," she said.
She said reservations at her family's Veach properties for this coming March are down 40 percent compared to last March, when they were down 50 percent from March 2015.
Sparky Sparkman, the owner of Spinnaker Beach Club, one of the Spring Break superclubs that is part of the campaign, said he also questions whether the advertising campaign will work this year.
"As far as reviving Spring Break, I'm not optimistic," Sparkman said. "The problem is most of the people who are in charge don't want it back."
Rebecca Edwards, the front desk manager at the Chateau Motel that is part of the campaign, said it's been tough getting spring breakers to make reservations for the coming March, but they continue to try on Internet sites like booking.com and also are trying to market the area to families.
"The phone is not ringing much for spring breakers at this moment," she said.