Florida's tourism marketers are going the extra mile to beat the competition this summer: co-producing and launching an original series set in St. Pete-Clearwater and launching on Amazon Prime Video. It's a whole new tourism marketing frontier. Action!
When travel and the world shut down in 2020, digital consumption accelerated at a global level — platforms such as Netflix and Disney+ experienced up to 12 percent in growth in 2020, and internet usage spiked as much as 70 percent. It’s no surprise that the lines between work and home blurring even further drove viewership and subscriptions even higher.
Coupled with an anticipated boom in backyard summer travel around the corner, two of Florida’s destination marketing organizations (DMOs) saw an opportunity in this streaming bonanza, taking an innovative tourism marketing approach to reach Americans just as they start booking post-vaccine trips.
Instead of streaming just ads, Visit Florida and Visit St. Pete-Clearwater scripted and co-produced an original series launched this month and streaming on Amazon Prime Video, as well as on YouTube and GoUSA TV.
“Life’s Rewards” is a dramedy set entirely in St. Pete. Eight-episodes at 10-15 minutes each tell the story of Dan Kinney, a privileged Floridian corporate executive whose luck runs out when a major deal falls through while on a business trip to St. Pete.
Fired from his father’s company and his bank accounts frozen, Dan ends up using his millions of hotel points to hole up at the historic Don CeSar Hotel or the “Pink Palace” on St. Pete beach for an extended stay. As he runs out of cash, he builds new friendships with locals he might never have interacted with otherwise.
Visit Florida and St. Pete-Clearwater each funded $275,000 for this project, sourced from the marketing budget and bed taxes respectively. The series was filmed and co-produced by Sarasota-based Odyssey – the Studio at Miles Partnership.
“What makes this stand out, compared to how we as a DMO or a film commission would typically work with a production, is that the story line is on the destination itself,” said Steve Hayes, CEO of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater. “Therefore, when they are talking about going someplace, it’s an actual real place. When they’re talking about the Don CeSar, it is the Don, they didn’t make up another hotel name, or Tarpon Springs, it’s a real city and community.”
There’s no hint in the series that it doubles as a marketing campaign — a couple of episodes in, the quirky storyline develops and turns it into a binge-worthy watch that takes viewers across popular sights and local restaurants in the St. Pete-Clearwater area.
“Why it happened right now, and why we kind of pushed for it right now is the pandemic: people were spending a lot of time in front of their streaming devices,” said Staci Mellman, chief marketing officer at Visit Florida.
“We are solely focused on Florida’s recovery as a tourism destination, our economy is dependent on it, so we’re going to use every single tool in our toolbox.”
It’s a clever, direct blurring of lines between tourism marketing, film entertainment and streaming, showcasing the destination to consumers in their favorite devices at a time when travel is restarting in the U.S., all while creating a new role for DMOs.
Success Metrics for A DMO-Produced Series Is Virgin Territory
Unlike most states during the pandemic, Florida has been reaping the rewards of having beaches and coastlines as well as relaxed Covid restrictions which allowed for an earlier reopening last summer.
“In mid March of this year, our occupancy was equal to or greater than 2019, which was a banner year for us,” Visit St. Pete-Clearwater’s Hayes said. “In March, our tourist development tax revenues exceeded our totals for March 2019. I’m not even comparing 2020. In talking with restaurants to attractions to even lodging, most of them for March and April exceeded 2019 levels.”
Hayes is nevertheless staying cautiously optimistic, in spite of signs that Memorial Day this year will be more robust than 2019.
Rolling out an Amazon Prime series is only likely to boost that pent up demand — and the DMOs are figuring out how to measure that success.
“I think the big measure is going to be number of downloads and people watching, and the other element to it is, if there is enough of this… it ends on a cliffhanger and so does that lead itself to season two?”
Mellman said this was virgin territory and difficult to know what would be a reasonable success metric for this series project. “The Florida Keys did a survey after the first season of Bloodline came out and that had a big impact on them — the impact was about $65 million of incremental visits, and that again was on a streaming platform, that wasn’t in a post-Covid world.”
“I want the visibility, I want people to talk,” Hayes said. “This is our unique way to do that and hopefully that has us out on the cutting edge of a new way to tell our story.”
For now, Visit Florida and Visit St. Pete-Clearwater are celebrating an early win — the”Best Breakthrough Streaming Series” award at the 2021 Sunscreen Film Festival earlier this month.
a DIRECT Role for Tourism in Film Beyond Ancillary Benefits
Ancillary benefits from this project included at least 40 local talent hires, a significant number at time of tourism downturn, in addition to supporting a local production company and 250-275 room nights for the St. Pete-Clearwater area.
But Mellman said the project is just starting and a lot of additional benefits will follow, noting the reality of film induced tourism and people traveling after being inspired by locations on their screens, from Game of Thrones to Sex and the City.
“We as a destination shouldn’t necessarily just experience the accidental positive impact of this film induced tourism, we can actually take a stand and create it for ourselves,” Mellman said. “That is the hope of this project.”
So far, the Don CeSar has launched a “Life’s Rewards package” offering $250 recreation credit and a daily $150 food and beverage credit for a minimum two-night luxury stay “in a Dan-approved suite.
A New Horizon: Feature Film Production
As the series’ closing credits roll, Hayes and Mellman’s names appear under the producer list, without a direct mention of their roles at Visit St. Pete-Clearwater or Visit Florida.
Visit St. Pete-Clearwater plans to continue on this new, direct path where tourism marketing blends into film storytelling by co-producing a full feature $1 million “Hallmark” style film with a local production company.
“We’re working directly with the producer,” Hayes said. “It was something we already had in mind and actually we were already starting that process as we were finding out what Visit Florida was doing. We would work with the production company to shop it, and where it could be broadcast, whether it’s on Netflix, Amazon, or actually joined up on TV.” That project is likely to move forward in the Fall.
Mellman hopes Visit Florida has more brave partners like Visit St. Pete-Clearwater in the future who will invest after they see the success of “Life’s Rewards.”
“I can remember when I was over in Tampa and we had a 30-minute infomercial and we thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Hayes said. “So it’s finding new ways to get our story out to the consumer in a way that they want to see it versus traditional mechanisms.”
Photo credit: Life's Rewards is set at The Don CeSar hotel on St. Pete Beach, and is the first DMO-scripted and produced original series. Courtesy of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater / Visit St. Pete-Clearwater