There are new faces on the beach armed with helpful hints and smiles for locals and visitors alike.
The Beach Ambassador program, an idea originally pitched last year by Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the Tourist Development Council, has not only come to fruition, but put three fully-trained ambassadors on county beaches seven days a week, 10 hours a day.
The $94,000 program was funded by the one penny that the TDC collects in bed taxes for beach nourishment.
Spending for the program was approved by the Advisory Council prior to going before the Board of County Commissioners for final approval.
Once the program was approved, Jenkins began accepting applications, seeking people who grew up on the beaches and were familiar with the rules.
“I was looking for people who represent the Gulf County brand,” said Jenkins. “People who would go out and represent our area with the truest ability.”
Among the 14 applications were three that met and exceeded Jenkin’s guidelines.
Austin Burke, Justin Cothran and Blake Kemp were hired as beach ambassadors and underwent an intense week-long training to prepare them on how to handle any given situation. They completed their training last month and have been on the beaches for several weeks.
Also part of the new team are brand ambassador Adrian Woodward, who splits time between the Welcome Center and the beaches, and Napoleon Hill, a beach maintenance tech who hauls off large trash items left behind by guests.
Each day, the ambassadors cover more than 30 miles of beach utilizing a fleet of vehicles. A truck allows the team to cover Indian Pass, an ATV is used on Cape San Blas and a golf cart gets the job done in St. Joe Beach.
The priority is not to police the beaches, but to provide education. Many visitors are simply unfamiliar with county ordinances and ambassadors interact, offer assistance and collect data to be examined at the end of the season.
If the ambassadors see a beach-goer drinking from a glass bottle, they’ll offer a GCFL-branded plastic cup.
If a dog isn’t on a leash, a free one will be offered.
If someone asks where to eat dinner, a Gulf County Visitor’s Guide is provided.
Everything is done with a non-confrontational approach.
“I tell people that I’m their guardian angel and that I’m going to help them not get a ticket,” said Burke.
During the interaction, the ambassadors ask where people are from, how long they’re staying and any highlights of their experience so far.
“The Gulf County TDC does not develop, implement or enforce ordinances,” said Jenkins. “We’re out to make guests feel welcome and protect our natural resources.”
Burke and Cothran spent last Wednesday afternoon on the Cape spreading goodwill, and if spending your days on the beach helping others enjoy what Gulf County has to offer sounds like a dream job, you’re probably right.
“It’s the best summer job, ever,” said Burke, a 2009 graduate of Port St. Joe High School. “I’d be out on the beach anyway.”
Burke and Cothran, a 2013 graduate of PSJHS, heard about the open ambassador position in the newspaper and applied quickly.
“You take so much from your hometown when you grow up,” said Cothran. “Eventually, you have to give something back.”
The ambassadors check park restrooms, collect garbage, pull abandoned items off the beach and generally help wherever they can, whether it’s assisting a fisherman remove a stingray from his hook, helping someone set up a beach tent, or calling the turtle patrol if a sea turtle has stranded itself on the shore.
Ambassadors are also trained in CPR for worst-case scenarios but work closely with the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department and Gulf County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Smith for all real emergencies.
What’s the easiest way to spread the Gulf County brand?
It turns out that all you have to do is wave. Burke and Cothran said that a simple wave establishes a friendly presence and as long as they initiate the friendliness, it makes people comfortable.
“We don’t want people to be intimidated by us,” said Cothran. “People are free to come up and talk to the ambassadors. We’re here to help.”
Perhaps the most important rule is that one person’s trash can become another person’s treasure. If an abandoned boogie board is found one day, it often makes a great gift for another child a day or two later.
During one of his shifts, Burke said he noticed a group of manta rays in the shallows off the Cape. He began talking to nearby children about the harmless sea creatures and soon had amassed quite an audience.
“What we do is fun for the kids,” said Burke. “When they leave the beach later, seeing that manta ray could be their favorite memory.”
In addition to spending their own childhoods on the beaches and in the water, Burke and Cothran have an interest in marketing, with Burke currently pursuing a degree at Troy University.
Burke said the job, in addition to being fun, will look great on his resume.
Outside of their ordinance-related responsibilities the ambassadors take photos of sandcastles, wildlife and people enjoying the area. These pictures are later uploaded to the TDC’s various social media outlets to help further promote the brand.
“This is a major marketing job,” said Burke. “One day I want to sell things that I truly believe in, and there’s nothing you can back up more than your hometown.”
While the ambassador program is set to run from Memorial Day through the end of September, Jenkins’ long term goal is to see the positions become year round employment opportunities.
“We just try to be the friendliest people on the beach,” said Burke. “Besides, not many people can say they have a job where shoes are not required.”