The Oil Spill: One Year Later

Dawn Moliterno and Mark Bellinger. Photo by Jacqueline Ward
Back to the BeachThe tourism leaders who market the Emerald Coast have different backgrounds, different leadership styles and different perspectives. But they have two things in common. Both were on the job only days before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster last spring. And both now share a top priority: bringing visitors back to our beaches, fast.By Zandra Wolfgram + Photos by Jacqueline Ward

On April 20, 2010, there were many unknowns for the Emerald Coast area. Community leaders wondered: What will the impact of the oil spill be? What should we do about it? How will we pay for it? BP answered one question by providing a series of grants to each of the coast’s tourism organizations: the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau based in Okaloosa County received $2.1 million and the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council based in Walton County received $7.82 million. Here is a look at how the two leaders countered what, to date, has been the biggest crisis of their careers.


The BP grants provided the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council with $7.82 million. Here’s where it went:

1.4 million viewers nationwide reached by a satellite media tour broadcast on 22 network television stations.

Television commercials on CNN, Food Network, Fox News, TLC and Weather Channel.

5,483 radio commercials in Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Dallas, Houston and Nashville.

Celebrity endorsements by Amy Grant, Bubba Watson, Sean Payton and Bobby Bowden.

$250 gift card to guests who booked three nights or more, as part of a voucher program.

Dawn Moliterno. Photo by Jacqueline WardDawn MoliternoExecutive Director, Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC)

Moliterno began her career in retail marketing and eventually formed her own company working as a business strategist for 16 years. Before being selected to lead the Beaches of South Walton in April 2010, Moliterno served as president and CEO of the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce for five years.

Why She Took the Job “It presented a challenge and an opportunity. And that’s how I’m wired, I love a good challenge. I particularly have a passion for leadership development and team cultivation and that’s one of the things the county was interested in.”

Her Self Assessment Moliterno recently shed 26 pounds in two months. Whether related to business or her personal life, her focus is the same. “When I set my mind to something, that’s it,” she said.

The First Days “We didn’t just want to get through it, we wanted to beat it and I think we did, given the circumstances.”

The First Line of Defense: Research  “I do think this organization has had an advantage in that we are research driven. That has afforded us a faster, more strategic approach to everything.”

What the Crisis Uncovered “A crisis will reveal your weaknesses and strengths and we were able to work on both tracks at the same time. We were able to cement our relationship faster. When you are dealing with a crisis of this magnitude you look at every dollar and you become very strategic in every decision.”

A New Normal “None of the TDCs normally have the funds to do the kind of electronic media we did. But what we learned is not to be afraid as we move forward. We’re going to be more aggressive, because the analytics showed us what worked and what didn’t. So we can apply that to our normal budget. Like anything, it is adaptability and a learning experience.
“This experience gave us a white board. No matter how we’ve done things in the past, everything has changed. The crisis allowed me to see strengths and weaknesses quickly and gaps in the organization come to light. We did a complete reorganization and put people in the right seats. It was a really healthy thing.”

The Future  “Our priority is to have a strong season. We will go back to research and deploy our strategies based on it.”
Some of the TDC’s efforts will include promoting experiences “beyond the beach” and launching a partnership with the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, an environmental facility focused on the conservation of Florida’s land, wildlife and plant life, to open it for public tourism marketed to families as an eco-friendly day trip.

What She Learned “It was like being on a crash course of a final exam. I knew the community, the players, but I didn’t know all the aspects of the beach maintenance. Normally you start a job you’re just trying to figure out where the bathroom is the first week; I was trying to find 66-plus beach access points and what our risk was.”

The Outlook “I don’t want to minimize that there were severe impacts to real people, real businesses that will have devastating effects. Those are really real and raw emotions that we have in this community. We can’t change that. That said, Northwest Florida is by nature an optimistic community. There is a sense of resilience that comes out in this area. Our visitors went other places, but they didn’t have the same experiences. They found they missed the experience and the quality of Beaches of South Walton, so they will come back.”


Mark Bellinger. Photo by Jacqueline WardMark Bellinger President and CEO, Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB)

During 28 years in the hospitality industry, Bellinger has worked for hotels, park systems, destinations and convention and visitor bureaus across the country. He also worked in administration for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies.

Why He Took the Job “I wanted to get back to the Southeast, call it home and settle down.”

His Self Assessment “To work in a tourism agency, you should be a Type A personality; you’ve got to be outgoing, cordial; you’ve got to be a sales and marketing person; you’ve got to be flexible. I’ve been fortunate to move around the United States often, and I’ve lived in locations in which you do share ideas and best practices. You’ve got to.”

The First Days Though he was new to the area, he says he “kicked it into fifth gear” and convened a marketing committee representing a cross section of the city’s businesses and stakeholders to assist him in developing the marketing plan required to get the BP funds. “We got the community involved. They had buy-in and felt good about it. We ranked our programs and chose the top two or three and rocked and rolled with it.”

Where to begin?  “The media caused the national perception that the entire Gulf Coast was covered in oil. I don’t care how much money we thought we had, no one had enough money to even counteract that.”

The First Line of Defense: High Impact Visuals The Tourist Development Council launched a television campaign called “The Coast is Clear” with current photos of people enjoying the beach placed daily in key drive markets. Once the oil made impact, the campaign was immediately changed to “Beyond the Beaches” and the commercials showed attractions, activities and experiences off the beach.

What the Crisis Uncovered “This agency had 95 percent of its budget spent on traditional advertising. When you’ve got to kick it in gear you’ve got to use current technology. We needed new tools to do marketing, public relations and advertising. And a lot of local folks helped us do that. It was a team and community effort.”

A New Normal “I think having everyone work together for a common cause, having all different industry types in the same room with the same goals and objectives — I think that was a home run.
“We had increased communication with the other tourist development councils. We talk on a continual basis. We are not afraid to talk about best practices. We still do that on a weekly basis.”

The Outlook “This spring and summer we’ll do very well. Fall went well, especially weekends outpaced last year because of the events and initiatives we did. We are marketing to snowbirds (winter guests from northern climates) and partnering with Vision Airlines to get Northerners down and really gear up for a strong marketing push for 2011.”

Future Plans “We need to get up with the times and surpass the times. We need to measure the return for our investment in anything we do for marketing. “I like things with big impact,” Bellinger says. “Next year, I want to partner with an electronics company and film the area in 3-D. There is no other tourism agency in the United States that is doing it. There is no one doing virtual reality for travel writers.” 


Capt. Mike Eller. Photo by Scott HolsteinCapt. Mike Eller. Photo by Scott Holstein
When ‘Opportunity’ CallsCapt. Mike Eller Shares His BP ExperienceBy Thomas J. Monigan + Photo by Scott Holstein BP’s Payout to Florida
Vessels of Opportunity Payments
Response & Removal
Tourism Grants
Individual and Business
Claims Paid
National Resource Damage Assessment Grants
Behavioral Health
Research Grant
Community Contributions
Total Payout (as of Dec. 9, 2010)

Since Mike Eller left school 29 years ago to work on his father’s charter fishing boat, he’s seen his share of challenging situations. But nothing compares with last spring and summer, dealing with the oil spill created when British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded and sank off the coast of Louisiana.

Eller is tall, lean and sinewy. Self-described as a “lumberjack-looking fisherman,” he has a steady gaze toward the horizon, but he’s not the silent type. Ask a simple question and you’ll get a yarn or two.

For the record, Eller owns and operates two charter boats: Lady Em, a 60-footer that can take 16 passengers, and Fish N Fool, a 45-footer that can take six passengers. And last summer both became Vessels of Opportunity (VOO), boats hired by BP to spot and clean up oil. Lady Em started June 21 and worked as a VOO for 34 days. Fish N Fool started July 26 and worked for 18 days.

How would Eller characterize the summer of 2010? “It sucked,” he said. “People were just out of whack. The apprehension and the fear were very real, palpable things. People were mad at each other, because some were getting work and others weren’t. It just threw the whole town into a stumbling mess, because nobody had control over their own destiny.”

BP’s catastrophe occurred on the night of April 20. In less than two weeks, effects of the disaster were being felt in Destin, which bills itself as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”

In early May, oil had not yet impacted local beaches, but negative regional and national news reports kept potential visitors away. By the first week of May the phone calls in to Eller’s charter business were just a trickle. Guests simply asked a lot of questions at first, but after a week reservations slowed and then stopped altogether. By the end of May, guests began to ask for  cancellations until the phone was ringing off the hook. “It was a very tangible, real thing for us,” Eller said.

Soon after that, BP started its Vessels of Opportunity program, which did not prove very impressive to the local charter boat crews. “It was such a mixed blessing for all of us, because on one hand it took the place of fishing, and that was a blessing, but on the other hand, it was mismanaged. And the boats were being not utilized properly to deal with that oil,” Eller summarized.

According to this co-president of the Destin Charter Boat Association, Destin’s band of fishermen, though vocal, were not heard. “While we did have representatives of our industry saying things, and BP heard them and shook their head ‘yes,’ nothing ever changed. And that became our mantra with BP: ‘They say all the right things. They just don’t do all the right things,’” Eller said.

Those who worked as Vessels of Opportunity were well paid. Forty- to 60-footers made $2,000 a day plus expenses and crew and others made $1,500 a day, Eller said. But the actual work proved to be less than fulfilling. “It got us all out of our groove,” Eller recalled. “Normally we work seven days a week in June, July and August, and that wasn’t happening for everybody. There were a lot of deckhands without work.”

Since BP’s VOO headquarters was the main dock in Destin Harbor, the overall atmosphere changed dramatically. “Down at the dock it was just deserted, no people, no locals,” Eller said. “You couldn’t go down there and hang out, and since the boat belonged to (BP) you couldn’t have a beer on the boat or anything.”

Accustomed to being in charge at all times, Destin’s charter captains were no longer giving orders. “They told us repeatedly, ‘You’re no longer fishermen, you belong to BP, so just be quiet and do what you’re told,’ and for a bunch of independent owner-operators that’s hard to swallow,” Eller said.

Even when BP money was finally flowing, the local economy was seemingly at a standstill. “Deckhands and captains normally go and have a drink and a bite to eat after a day’s fishing, but nobody was spending any money, because nobody was sure of what was happening,” Eller said as his face creased into a wince. “I noticed the bartenders and waitresses suffered.”

But the financial restraint went well beyond socializing. “I didn’t buy any fishing tackle or any supplies,” he added. “I didn’t buy anything non-essential. We all cut it to the quick.”

There were some costly side effects. “Oil got on my brand new $6,000 paint job that I spent 41 days last winter painting,” Eller recalled with a wry twist of a grin. It took three days and a lot of solvent and “elbow grease,” but eventually he removed it.

In addition to the Vessels of Opportunity pay, Eller also received some BP compensation. “For Lady Em I filed a six-month claim and got it within 10 days,” he said. “The other boat I filed earlier and I still haven’t seen anything.”

And even though the actual environmental impact didn’t come anywhere near the negative economic impact of last summer, Eller and his fellow charter boat captains have been left with plenty of worries. “We’re not gonna know for a minimum of five years. Until time goes by and we start seeing what’s not there. And the National Marine Fisheries is going to be right on top of this. They know long-term damage was done to fisheries that were already under pressure,” Eller said.

Overall bookings were down 70 percent last summer, and Eller said he believes there will be some lingering hangover there for at least the next two years. “But by then, we’re just going to get an inkling of the resources we lost,” he said.

Summing it all up, Eller called short-term help from BP “very helpful.” But when this charter captain looks ahead, he still worries. “I just don’t think there’s gonna be a whole lot of fish they’re gonna let us catch and keep. Short term it could be three to five years. I think it’s going to be ugly. I think if you’ve got money now, you’d better save it,” he advised.




The BP grants provided the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau with $2.1 million. Here’s how it was spent:
Filming daily news updates on the beach and streaming the video on the home page of the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau’s website.
Providing $200 debit cards to guests reserving overnight lodging stays with select partners.
Sponsoring the Destin Seafood Festival, Armed Forces Appreciation Day, the Destin Fishing Rodeo and the Mullet Festival.
Two “Rock the Beach” concerts featuring The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Placing the destination’s name and website on the hood and tail of a professional race car during an Atlanta NASCAR event.

Reports say BP has distributed $1.5 billion dollars in payouts to the tourism industry. Thousands of local employees and businesses have experienced decreased business at the least and some have been forced to close their doors. Despite the catastrophe, many local business owners remain positive, while others remain cautiously optimistic. We spoke with a few locals who work in tourism-related businesses about their outlook for the 2011 season and this is what they said:

“To me it looks like a great year. I expect all the tourists to come back. The fishing’s going to be great. Baring any other surprises, it should be one of the best years we’ve had in a while. A lot of tourists laid off taking vacations because of the oil, so they’re going to come back and spend money with us.” — James Duff, Manager, Destin Ice Seafood Market & Deli

“I really think that because of what the media did to us, we’re going to be hurting for two to three years before people will have faith that the fish are OK. CNN and Fox News did more damage than the beach itself … last year during the Destin Fishing Rodeo I did 48 trips. Even though BP raised the prize to $70,000, this year I only ran four. I hope to get my customers back, but they want to wait and see how things go. No one is committed.”  — Steve Land, Captain, Miss B Haven and Sportsman II

“We continue to experience the shortest booking window we have seen in a decade, which of course increases the difficulty in managing and projecting long term. However, our call volumes continue to outperform year over year and have for several months. Guest feedback is at an all-time high which is encouraging for upcoming peak seasons … bookings for spring and summer are tracking at our projections and with everything above considered we are very optimistic.” — Jon Ervin, Director of Public Relations & Marketing, Cottage Rental Agency in Seaside