Carolinas on their mind: VISIT FLORIDA sees new rivals for vacationers
Image via Visit North Carolina.

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina
They have some of what Florida offers, and some other stuff too.

Ahh: the beaches, the theme parks, the golf, the urban rhythms, the palm trees, the fishing, the food, the sunshine, the swamp stomping, the mountains.

The mountains?

That’s right. North Carolina and South Carolina are catching more and more vacationers. They have many of the same offerings as Florida, and some Florida lacks, like mountains.

According to a new survey of would-be vacationers conducted by VISIT FLORIDA, the Carolinas now are the top other-choice behind Florida. That came as a bit of a surprise to some when VISIT FLORIDA’s annual integrated marketing effectiveness study was presented Wednesday to the agency’s Marketing Council.

The Carolinas.

Not California, New York, or the Caribbean, as in past surveys.

Granted, North Carolina and South Carolina are not Florida. VISIT FLORIDA surveyed potential visitors on whether they are planning a vacation in the next year, and whether they are interested in taking a trip in the next two years, to a variety of specific destinations. Florida was tops — by far — among planned vacation destinations in the next year, with 35% of those surveyed listing the Sunshine State as their destination of choice. Likewise, 48% indicated Florida was a possible vacation spot in the next couple of years.

But the Carolinas combined as the number two destination, as planned by 23% of vacationers, and as a possible trip by 33%. VISIT FLORIDA didn’t differentiate between the two states.

“That is not normally true. If you look back at IMEs from prior years, North and South Carolina typically fall, at the very least, behind California, New York, and the Caribbean, and sometimes they’ve also been behind Hawaii, Nevada, and Texas,” said VISIT FLORIDA Director of Research Jacob Pewitt Yancey. “This is the first time we’ve seen such a high level of interest in the Carolinas.”

There was a nervous question for Florida’s tourism marketing group. What are the Carolinas doing to grab a bigger piece of the market?

“I can see why we’re paying attention to the North and South Carolina areas,” said Marketing Council member Mark Smith, of Florida State University/The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. “I’ve been there several times. And, yeah, they’re nipping at our heels when it comes to certain things, as far as being a destination area.”

Samantha Queen, director of corporate communications for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism, said their marketing research shows similar trends, particularly in hotel occupancy. She noted her state spent $20 million in state-provided COVID-19 relief money targeting the state’s huge drive market and focusing on the state’s outdoor recreation, from mountain lakes to beaches.

“The Palmetto State and the Sunshine State have always been friendly rivals, and while our population and tourism economy are much smaller than Florida’s, we’re proud to be punching above our weight class,” Queen said.

Wit Tuttell, director of Visit North Carolina, said the Tar Heel State also sees the increases, by marketing the allure of natural beauty and outdoor activities.

Yancey’s closer analysis of VISIT FLORIDA’s survey results showed that when it comes to every one of the things that attract people, including health and safety guidelines, activities, warm weather, family friendly environment, accessibility, and natural beauty, the Carolinas ranked better than most rival vacation destinations. The destinations didn’t have any super strengths, but there weren’t really any weaknesses. And for much of the Northeast-Midwest market, the Carolinas are closer than Florida.

Some of the strengths might have led vacationers to give the Carolinas a try during the COVID-19 pandemic. And maybe they liked it.

“I think what we have to look out for is that the situation over the last year and a half may have pushed people, who in the past might have gone to Florida for a vacation, to instead go to the Carolinas,” Yancey said. “And maybe they had a really good time there. And maybe the Carolinas start to look a little bit better than Florida in the future, because they had a really nice time there and it’s easier to get to.”

North Carolina’s Tuttell said that’s what they’re hoping for. People get into habits, he said, going on the same vacations year after year; and if you can convince them to try some place new, and they like it, you can steal their vacation loyalty.

“Our research shows we’re a very hospitable area, and if we can get people here, there’s a 75% chance they’ll come back,” he said.

Mused VISIT FLORIDA Chief Marketing Officer Staci Mellman: “This is a justification for our continued marketing.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]



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