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In Tourism-Heavy Markets, Radio Adapting To A Season Like No Other.

For a lot of tourism areas the one-hundred days of summer, roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day, are the make-or-break season. The ripples quickly spread through local economies, including radio stations. After the COVID-19 lockdowns brought spring travel to a screeching halt, stations are hoping to salvage some of the busy season. But challenges also remain.

David Miller, whose Yaquina Bay Communications owns six stations along the popular Oregon coastline, is facing a common situation. The Oregon Coast Aquarium, normally a big draw for visitors, is still closed. It’s the same with many area restaurants and hotels. The other big industry, fishing, has also been docked with no market for all those fresh catches on restaurant plates. “It is not going to a very good year for tourism or our economy,” said Miller, who also pointed out several small businesses have also closed and the local Georgia Pacific paper factory even shut down operations for two weeks.

But while that may sound dire, there are also bright spots. “We have not had a lot of cancellations in advertising, but we are finding it very difficult to get new and returned business going at the present time,” Miller said. He credits the crowd of retirees that live in the area for helping to keep the money flowing.

It’s a situation that general managers in heavy tourism markets around the country have also shared. There’s also optimism that as coronavirus restrictions are eased, more people will take a vacation and local businesses will be able to offset some of the hit they suffered so far.

John Sheftic, Market Manager of Dick Broadcasting’s Myrtle Beach, SC cluster, estimates radio and TV ad billings in the market were down by as much as 70% during March. But each month has been progressively better. And he thinks revenues could even be flat with a year ago come July. Sheftic draws a direct line with the reopening of the businesses that are the lifeblood of the city where tourism reigns. Hotel bookings went from essentially zero three months ago to small crowds during Memorial Day weekend. “People were just chomping at the bit to get out and take a walk on the beach,” he said. As restaurant capacity is increased and more attractions open, Sheftic expects visitor numbers to grow.

How many tourists arrive is a big deal for radio in these cities. While most ads aren’t directed at visitors, they do target people who work in tourism. If a resort bartender isn’t working, he’s not buying a car, and that means fewer car dealer ads. But as things start returning to normal, Sheftic said dealers are “dipping their toe in” to advertise once again. It’s something he’s noticed among many clients. “Instead of spending the ten grand for the quarter, they’re putting it in [for] two weeks and monitoring and watching,” said Sheftic. “You’re not sitting there wondering if you will ever sell a spot again.”

In California’s Big Bear Lake region, a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, adult alternative KBHR (93.3) owner Rick Herrick said the area’s summer resort business also had a “very strong” start to the season during Memorial Day weekend compared to a year ago. “There is pent-up demand for recreation and outdoor activity in Southern California,” said Herrick, who in addition to his radio ownership is also the mayor of Big Bear Lake. “We are seeing a record number of visitors to Big Bear in comparison to other May's of the past 25 years that I've been doing radio here,” he said.

Yet clients remain cautious, according to Herrick. “Revenues for KBHR are slightly down as many businesses are playing catch up and have less dollars to spend on advertising,” he explained. That has resulted in a higher percentage of local direct advertisers than in years past, but Herrick expects that to shift back to a greater percentage of tourism-based advertisers as the season progresses.

Slower Reopening, Bigger Impact On Radio

Massachusetts has been slower to reopen, similar to most other states in the Northeast that would feed tourists into Cape Cod. “The ramp-up to our summer season is slow and anything but normal,” said Cape Cod Broadcasting managing partner Gregory Bone. “Normally, seasonal businesses start opening in March, April, and May. This year, the only option for seasonal businesses to open was to offer curbside service. Some have done enough business to pay their bills and stay open, some have delayed opening until the season starts, and some have closed their doors.”

Cape Cod Radio General Manager Tim Levesque estimated business was down by as much as 60% during the past three months, with the key advertising category of restaurants among the hardest hit. “With restaurants being our biggest category it is hard to say if things are getting back to normal,” he said. Only outdoor seating is allowed now, but Levesque thinks that category will eventually get back to normal. “Unfortunately by the time we are at the third and fourth phases of reopening on the Cape it is going to be too late to really say if it will be a successful season,” he said.

The stay-at-home orders did help keep some clients active, however, mainly in the home improvement, landscaping, appliances and liquor categories. And while Bone agreed COVID-19 will have a “major impact” on advertising this year, he’s also optimistic.

“There’s been no rhythm to the market this year, and the second half of 2020 is not going to be easy,” said Bone. “But compared to being closed these past few months, there’s now an opportunity for all Cape business to open and reopen with adjustments to the changes and new marketing strategies to attract and service their customers.”

Playing The Local Card

Travel experts predict more Americans will stick close to home this summer. That could present another shot in the arm to tourism markets like Big Bear Lake which can draw on nearby cities like Los Angeles and Riverside-San Bernardino. Herrick said it’s not all that different than what occurred following 9/11. “I believe that we will get used to these new realities and business will return to a normal busy summer season,” he said.

Cape Cod is a big destination for cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and Levesque thinks they too could see higher levels of visitors if the right mix of hotels and restaurants open. “We may also see some of those potential international travelers cancel their trips and spend a week on the Cape instead,” he predicted.

Locals could help radio in other ways too. Sheftic said his cluster has leveraged its live-and-local operation to help keep clients on the air, such as air personalities talking about what shops were opened during the worst of the business closures. “Our clients feel that we’re doing a lot for them and a lot to try to help them,” he said. “If you were going to cut your ad spending, we were one of the last people you were going to do that with because we were trying to be great partners and we have the ability to give out that local information that you can only do when you have live DJs.”

Levesque agreed radio is stepping out of its traditional box and finding new ways to make things happen for clients. “We are all doing everything we can possibly do to show our advertisers that we are here to help them,” he said. “Radio has a unique opportunity to show the power it has through terrestrial and streaming to drive traffic to a business when the messaging is properly delivered.” Levesque has even hired two new sales reps, explaining he feels confident enough that business is heading in the right direction.

Ad Copy Radio Can Agree With

Any listener can quickly detect the spots they’re hearing in 2020 aren’t quite the same as last year. The ads tend to reflect the times, rather than the getaway vibe. Levesque said his Cape Cod clients have moved on from the “we’re all in the same boat” and “unprecedented times” sort of creative. Now many feature “clean and sanitary” copy, he said, with a message that it’s safe for people to come to their business. There’s also been more “buy local” messaging, he said.

Herrick has also heard a lot of spots carry a “community and unity” message. “But that will change,” he predicted, “as that type of advertising lacks a measurable call to action.”

Radio managers said how long things remain disrupted will depend on the coronavirus outbreak itself. "I am not sure what that looks like any more,” said one. Yet in markets where businesses are used to weathering everything from hurricanes to fickle whims of travelers lured to the next “hot” destination, there’s a feeling that, like the commercial copy says, this too shall pass.

“We are not going to set any revenue record this year, but when it is all said and done if things keep going the way they are, we will survive the year,” said Sheftic. He said radio’s a lot like the clients it serves. “You pick yourself up and dust yourself off, and you figure out how to keep going.”

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