Turns out the typical visitor to Gulf County looks a lot like those who choose to make the county home.
The Gulf County Tourist Development Council over the past six months undertook a series of research studies to assess those who choose the county as a destination getaway.
How often? From where? To do what?
That research came to dovetailing conclusions when compared to the demographics of those who call the county home – there is distaste for traffic and crowds; water and sunsets are at the center of activity; relaxation and a laid-back lifestyle are primary attractions.
“It is great to have a visitor profile that matches our community profile,” said TDC executive director Jennifer Jenkins. “It is a great opportunity. It’s a great community.
“I took away that we have an avid loyal visitor, we know a lot more about who they are, we know where we need to go and we know that our visitors are very passionate.”
The results of a multi-layered study of the local tourism market was approved the TDC board and Board of County Commissioners last year.
Jenkins said such a research of the visitors who come to Gulf County had never been undertaken and was essential for future marketing programs and outreach.
“My main goal was to identify the profile of the loyal visitor and the markets that were emerging,” Jenkins said. “I was trying to get a sense of the brand. We wanted to test drive the brand.
“These were things we had to do, but it really worked out well. They (researchers) delivered more than I expected. They came in respectfully and their procedures brought all this out.”
The research had four distinct components and were, Jenkins said, “unaided” in the sense that there were no questions crafted for the first phase and the results fed subsequent phases.
One involved “social listening” to responses sent out to 21,000 subscribers to the TDC e-newsletter. Jenkins noted those subscribers are a loyal bunch, with few opting out of the survey.
Lengthy interviews were conducted with those identified by TDC stakeholders as loyal visitors, those who return again and again to Gulf County.
There were also visitor opinion surveys and extensive interviews with stakeholders, not just the bed tax collectors but also restaurants and other businesses with a bottom line linked to tourism.
The results from the four provided an overlay of what the Gulf County tourist market looks like.
That market is one comprised typically of married couples who tend to be ages 35-64, with a near majority landing in the 50-64 age range. They typically travel with significant others, plan their vacations in advance, have some college and a whopping 92 percent drive to Gulf County.
Jenkins noted a significant number: while 52 percent say they travel with their children, just 30 percent attest to having children in the household suggesting that 22 percent are traveling with adult children, adding to the legacy of a trip to Gulf County.
A majority of visitors hail from the South – particularly Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee – and have household incomes that land in the middle to upper class.
However, the area also draws a strong Midwest component – Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota – and those visitors tend to be in higher income brackets, slightly younger and more long-range planners than visitors from the South.
“That Midwest corridor is strong,” Jenkins said.
Nearly 90 percent of visitors identify themselves as living in suburban or rural areas.
One of the more surprising findings in the research is that fishing is not the be-all and end-all for visitors in Gulf County.
Among those visitors who responded to surveys, the percentage who described themselves as fishermen/women were outnumbered by those who identify themselves as explorers and outdoorspeople, planners or someone seeking solitude.
Among those surveyed who said they brought a “toy” along for outdoor play, those who answered “boat” were behind those who brought their bicycle or kayak.
“That was surprising to our stakeholders,” Jenkins said. “But what it was says to me is that I can wrap up my message on fishing into water activities.”
The visitor who comes to Gulf County does so knowing the beaches are clean, are mindful of managed growth, enjoy the beaches being pet friendly and are looking for an “escape.”
They want no major changes.
One of the more telling aspects of the survey came with “tag clouds” outlining the emotional and descriptive words visitors think of when thinking of Gulf County.
“A brand needs to have an emotional connection,” Jenkins said.
Those tag clouds include words such as pristine, quiet, uncrowded, laid back, friendly, fun, peaceful, beautiful, wonderful, serene and natural.
There was scant concern about rainy days – about the only suggestion for additions was a theater with the writer adding that it “not a problem.” Rain was just liquid sunshine, another said.
“(In Destin) Beer is warm when you get home from the convenience store because the traffic is so bad,” one visitor wrote.
Another wrote, “It’s the pace – no traffic, cars, planes or anything. I love to get up and just have coffee with the sunrise. There’s nothing man can make that’s better than what God did (on Cape San Blas). You don’t ever want to go home. I haven’t ever found a place like it.”
There are opportunities.
For example, 32 percent of visitors to Gulf County said they stayed in Mexico Beach.
“That is a great opportunity for us” to differentiate, Jenkins said.
While visitors know Gulf County beaches will not be crowded and will be clean, visitors associated Mexico Beach with more crowded beaches and more growth.
Those who are not even aware of Gulf County and all it offers provided another opportunity for growth, Jenkins said, particularly during the winter months when tourism is consistently down compared to summer, fall and spring, the survey indicated.
“We can do something more for snowbirds,” Jenkins said. “These opportunities will become the basis of my communication and my messaging. This will guide it. I can understand my medium and how I deliver my message.
“You use this and write your brand story and you tell about your brand.”
Jenkins said she envisioned taking the research and writing that story and that story becoming the spoke on the wheel for partners, selling Gulf County and its charms.
“We have a great opportunity to work together,” Jenkins said. “This is not just quantitative, it’s qualitative and it’s emotional. I am humbled. I am proud. Now I have to create the program to validate this (research).”