DAVENPORT – There are a lot of uses for social media sites: catching up with old friends, instantly communicating with a family member or co-worker, even advertising what’s new at your business.
But can it actually bring visitors to Central Florida?
In a sign of just how popular social media sites like Facebook have become, one of the fastest growing industries in Central Florida’s tourism world, vacation homes, is using these sites more frequently to encourage people to spend their vacation dollars here.
And the state’s top tourism marketing agency is following their lead, even offering online sweepstakes that people can enter to win a Florida vacation.
“I’ve been using social media for quite some time,” said An Flamand, who operates USA Vacation Homes in Davenport. Flamand manages a number of vacation homes in the region, or houses that are fully furnished and provide families staying here with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen and private pool. Those who come with large families and don’t want to be crowded into a hotel room find vacation homes an appealing alternative.
USA Vacation Homes & Spa has its own Facebook page, Flamand noted, and the company in Northeast Polk County now has more than 1,175 “likes,” or fans who have signed up that they like this particular page.
Flamand has used the site to offer specials – like a savings of 20 percent off for anyone who books by July 23 and will stay by Sept. 30 – or to promote local attractions and special events, like the recent Star Wars Weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
It works, Flamand said, as guests often mention the Facebook page when they’re booking a home.
“It’s been very successful for me,” Flamand said. “I can use it to get people talking about what we have going on here in Orlando.”
Will Seccombe, the chief marketing manager for VISIT Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing agency, said social media sites have proven to be particularly useful in attracting visitors from international markets, which is why the agency offering the vacation giveaway.
In late May, VISIT Florida launched a social media campaign featuring “Florida’s Three-for-Free Giveaway,” allowing participants to enter to win a grand prize of three personally selected Florida vacation packages, as well as nine single-vacation prizes. Participants were able to enter the contests daily through VISIT Florida’s Facebook page.
“We believe very strongly in the power of social media, and we feel it’s a very powerful took for marketing the state,” Seccombe said.
And it’s not effective simply because a state agency like VISIT Florida or a business like USA Vacation Homes starts a page, he added. Every tourist from across the globe who comes to Florida and then brags about the trip – with photos – on their own personal Facebook page is also selling the state, he added.
“Social media takes what was once the vacation slide show to your neighbors,” he said. “That’s the inspiration of friends and relatives to come here as well.”
VISIT Florida hopes to piggyback on those online photo books, he added.
“We use social media as a platform to do that,” he said. “We’re using social media to drive and ignite those conversations. I think it’s a very powerful tool, sharing all the opportunities available in the state with other people.”
Not everyone in the hospitality or vacation home industry shares the view that social media is an effective advertising tool, though.
David Leather is the former president of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Property Managers Association, the trade group that represents vacation home managers. Leather said he thinks social media as a marketing tool is overhyped. The reputation that Walt Disney World has, or that Florida’s beaches are well known for, draw in more people than Facebook, he said.
“I don’t think social media is bringing in any type of the business that people think it is,” said Leather, who operates Hayes Vacation Homes in Kissimmee.
Because people are generally more familiar with what a hotel offers than a vacation home, Leather said, people who have never used one before want to speak to the actual managers and have some of their questions answered by a live person — and not simply log on to a social media page to learn more.
“There are more and more returning guests every year, but the first time guest is a little bit leery of what a vacation home is, and that’s where we come in,” Leather said. “The first timers still want that assurance that you can talk to somebody, and that’s not something you can do on social media sites or the Internet.”
But Flamand, who is the current president of the CFVRMA, noted that because so many people use these popular Web sites, advertising Central Florida’s vacation homes or attractions through them clearly works.
“It definitely brings awareness to the whole industry in Central Florida,” she said.
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