Brevard backs plan to double billboard spending

Plan gets tourism board's approval, but some call for new ad options

VIERA, Fla. - Brevard County's tourism board on Wednesday backed a plan to more than double its spending on billboards designed to draw visitors to the Space Coast, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported.

Under the proposal unanimously approved by the Brevard County Tourist Development Council, up to $600,000 would be spent in the coming year on billboards along highways such as Interstate 95 and Interstate 4, including off I-95 as far north as North Carolina. The money would come from a portion of the county's 5 percent tax on hotel room rentals. The spending plan still must be approved by the Brevard County Commission.

Tourist Development Council Vice Chairman Bob Baugher said the total spending on tourism billboards could be higher than $600,000, depending on how much money the Space Coast Office of Tourism receives in matching funds for joint billboard marketing from Port Canaveral, Victory Casino Cruises, local hotel groups and Brevard's cities. Baugher said a total of up to $300,000 could come from these partners.

Separately, the Tourist Development Council unanimously recommended that the County Commission authorize an additional $500,000 of hotel tax revenue be reallocated to market the Space Coast as a tourism destination. The money would be moved from the portion of the tax previously used to help pay off bonds on Space Coast Stadium in Viera. Those bonds were paid off in full earlier this year.

While the vote on the billboard issue was unanimous, there was extended debate, with some members saying the Office of Tourism needs to increase its online advertising push. That issue of billboards vs. online advertising also dominated debate a week ago at the Tourist Development Council's Marketing Committee meeting, when two of the eight members voted against the plan Baugher presented because of its emphasis on billboards. Baugher chairs the Marketing Committee.

At Wednesday's meeting, Tourist Development Council member Laurilee Thompson was most vocal on the issue, expressing concern about putting 30 percent of the $2 million advertising budget toward billboards, rather than focus on other things, including increasing the online advertising push.

"We keep recycling the same media plan, and it's not working for us," said Thompson, a co-owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville.

Hotel room occupancy in Brevard County decreased in six of the first nine months of 2013, compared with 2012 figures, according to data compiled for the Office of Tourism.

Thompson also suggested trying something out of the box, like renting trucks wrapped in advertising promoting the Space Coast's sunny beaches, and deploying them to cold-weather cities in the middle of winter.

Some Tourist Development Council and Marketing Committee members questioned the effectiveness of billboards promoting a destination, when travelers who see them already may be headed to another destination.

Baugher, an owner of beachside hotels and a former president of Ron Jon Surf Shop, maintained, that the "saturation advertising" plan he presented to buy roughly 200 billboards will work for the Space Coast. He said those billboards would generate an estimated 1 billion views by passing motorists over the course of a year.

Baugher compared it to a Coca-Cola ad campaign. An individual Coca-Cola ad doesn't necessarily get people who see the ad to drive to the store to buy a Coke. But, with the cumulative impact of the Coke ad campaign, "when they want something to drink, that's in their mind."

Through the Tourist Development Council vote, the total amount of the tourism tax spent on billboards will be capped at $600,000, Baugher said. But the amount coming from the tourism tax could be lowered, depending on how much in matching funds comes in from the Office of Tourism partners such as the port and the hotels.

The billboards typically would mention "Florida's Space Coast." But they would be dominated by words and an image promoting something more specific, such as the beaches, Port Canaveral or ecotourism.

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