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As goes the recent narrative, gas prices are projected to approach $6 per gallon in some parts of the United States over the busy summer driving season.

The Gulf Coast region has traditionally been among the cheapest, if not the cheapest, place for gasoline prices in the country. So it’s unlikely that the Gulf region will see the $6 mark that could be reached on the right and left coasts. But, in all likelihood, our area will see historically high prices this summer. Typically, travel and tourism expenditures are directly related to fuel costs, so one would expect summer 2012 to be a down year in the hospitality industry, overall.

While the high cost of gas may hurt some top tourist destinations, it can represent a regional travel opportunity for other markets. Contrary to the prevailing logic of cutting advertising dollars during a downturn, these markets could benefit from increasing their marketing programs.

Don’t Buy Into the “Staycation”

Inevitably, we’ll get a rush of special interest stories about how gas prices are causing people to use there summer break as a ‚Äústaycation,‚Äù staying at home rather than traveling. The fact is, when it comes time to take a little time off, staying put just doesn’t seem to be in the modern American’s DNA. Joseph McInerney, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, put it best last year when he stated, ‚ÄúAmericans really believe a vacation is a right…It’s not a luxury.‚Äù To be sure, gas prices have a ripple effect on spending while on vacation, types of trips, and most significantly, how far people will drive to reach their destination. But, even if the number of people taking vacations declines a few percentage points, there will be plenty of summertime vacation travelers.

Herein lies the opportunity for regional Gulf South destinations. Typically, individuals and families who may shy away from perceived high-priced trips to amusement parks or other “made-for-vacation” spots may instead opt for free beaches or quaint surroundings. Realistically a family can spend just as much in such locations, but the perceived value of these regional markets is much higher. Perception is reality, and herein lies the opportunity. The advice to up-and-coming destination markets in these times would be to really double-down on marketing and outreach.

Smart Advertising

‚ÄúDoubling down‚Äù doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot more, or necessarily any more. But it does mean being careful not to pull back, and giving a strategic look to how the economic environment should influence your media strategy.

Think in terms of it this way ‚Äì everybody already generally knows about the ‚Äúmega-destinations‚Äù and ‚Äúlegacy-destinations,‚Äù both nationally and in the Gulf South. Awareness of these destinations is high, as is perceived experience and relative cost. This means that travelers typically won’t spend as much time researching these destinations. Why research something you assume you already know? However, for the regional Gulf South up-and-coming destination markets, there will not be the degree of awareness, or perception. Travelers will be actively researching: 1) general options for ‚Äúalternative‚Äù vacations, and 2) specific information on potential destinations they uncover in the first phase of their search. What’s the vehicle for this research? Internet, of course.

Organic search, travel review websites, and social media outlets will all be sources of decision-influencing information. Marketing 101 says if that’s where your audience is, (and when they’re in the appropriate frame of mind) then that’s where you should be. Search engine optimization, targeted online display advertising, remarketing campaigns, and hyper-profiling are all possible ways to reach people who are actively choosing their travel destination. Likewise, social media campaigns are perfect for tourism marketing as “friends of friends” can have great influence among their social networks, especially for scenic and family oriented destinations.

Seize the Traveler

Price-conscious travelers want to get out-and-about just as much as they ever have. The economy doesn’t effect desire, so give them a reason to hit the road to your destination. Be where they’re searching, learning, and shaping their travel decisions. First make yourself an option to them, then give them a reason to come. After all, you can’t expect to create a return visitor if you don’t get them there in the first place. Long-term, it is obviously much¬† better for the economy for fuel prices to stabilize or retreat. In the near-term, take advantage of the opportunity the environment has created. The travelers are there . . . go out and get them!