Disaster Diverted

Known for its 32 miles of sugar-white sand and sports facilities, the coastal communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., were thrust into the national spotlight due to the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Facing an almost insurmountable battle of public perception, the Alabama Gulf Coast Sports Commission, along with its parent organization, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism (CVB), worked diligently on numerous fronts to face this unprecedented challenge head-on.

The following narrative explains the battle, the efforts and the results, which included record-breaking sports numbers.

The Opponent

“As ironic as this sounds, our biggest battle was not the oil products but the public’s perception of our beaches,” says Beth Gendler, who serves as the director of sales for both the sports commission and the CVB. “We knew that we had a long battle on our hands.”

The battle began just days after the rig exploded, as media reports speculated about the damaging effects the spill could possibly have on the tourism industry along the Gulf Coast.

“We were very aware of what was being communicated in the media,” says Mike Foster, vice-president of marketing of the CVB, who served as one of the spokespersons for the destination during the spill.

“People saw the images of oil-soaked birds and heavy crude, and naturally assumed that those pictures could be found on every beach destination along the Gulf.”

Approximately one week after the explosion, the national and regional media descended upon the Alabama beach destination, and began reporting about the effects the oil spill could possibly have on the local tourism industry–effects that had not even come ashore yet.

The Game Plan

“Our team made a conscious and deliberate decision at the beginning of this crisis; we were going to be honest, no matter the outcome for us,” Foster says.

That honesty began with the activation of the CVB’s crisis page about a week after the explosion. This Web page on GulfShores.com and OrangeBeach.com contains a pre-set template to normally communicate information about hurricanes and other tropical systems. However, once the page was activated, staff members utilized this medium to relay verified spill information from the official response team.

“There was a lot of noise–for lack of a better word–out there,” Foster says. “We wanted to streamline the flow of information for our current and future guests, including sports teams, so that everyone could have the facts without speculation.”

Throughout the coming days and months, CVB staff members updated the Web page daily and sometimes hourly, seven days a week, so that it was the most current source of oil-spill information specific to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach communities. When the oil impact–ranging from sporadic tar balls to a more significant impact coming ashore–occurred, those details were included on the page.

“It was important for our sports commission to use this page,” Gendler says. “We wanted to and needed to stay on the same message as our CVB. At some level, our traditional leisure guests and sports guests needed the same information.”

Future sports guests were also shown another CVB product–the daily beach update video. Debuting on May 22, the two-minute YouTube video was shot each morning to show the actual beach conditions, in addition to highlighting a few upcoming events and attractions.

“We felt that it was important for the families of our athletes coming into town to see what the other families were doing in our area and vice-versa. It was crucial for our leisure guests to see the activity surrounding all of the sporting events,” Foster says.

While these videos continued to be produced and posted daily, the sports commission also used the same concept to create a three- to four-minute video welcoming several United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) events–including four World Series.

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