The Tourism Industry Relies on Past Lessons to Stay Ahead of an Uncertain Zika Threat
Sandy Stilwell simply must wait to see if her businesses will get bitten by Zika. But the inn and restaurant owner is not idly standing by. She is increasing her knowledge and awareness of the mosquito-borne disease, partly because of efforts by the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and Lee County Mosquito Control District to educate and equip businesses for this new, largely unknown potential threat.
As the start of fall approached, non-travel-related reports of the Zika virus grew to 70 in Florida (with the majority in Miami), and Stilwell’s email inbox received invitations to attend Zika information sessions the two entities were holding in late September. There, hotel general managers and others working in tourism operations could learn how to take proactive prevention measures, remove standing water and boost gulfshore business october 2016 17 their mosquito-control efforts.
Stilwell, CEO and owner of Stilwell Enterprises & Restaurant Group, depends on the Lee VCB and Visit Florida for updates and answers to potential Zika questions from guests now and during season. The state’s tourism marketing arm provides daily reports about Zika cases, answers to frequently asked questions and talking points, as well as a tutorial on using insect repellent.
On her own, Stilwell has brought out tiki torches, citronella candles, mosquito spray and mosquito misting systems, all to make guests at her Captiva Island Inn and six restaurants on the island more comfortable and to ease any worries about Zika. Guests also seem to have a greater awareness. “We have noticed they’re using mosquito repellent more,” she says.
Southwest Florida’s tourism industry is on high alert. Zika is a health concern with the potential for fear and huge implications on the region’s tourism industry. While Stilwell, like other local tourism owners and operators, hasn’t heard many guests calling with concerns about Zika or canceling reservations, that all could change if cases in Florida mount, especially locally.
Hotel bookings declined and airfares dropped in Miami this summer after nearly 40 locally transmitted Zika cases were confirmed, according to news reports. A locally acquired Zika case in Southwest Florida could pose a real challenge for the area’s tourism industry, says Brian Kramer, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa. As of August, there were seven travelrelated Zika cases reported in Lee County, one in Collier County and one in Charlotte County, but none that were contracted in Southwest Florida.
“We stay close in tune to where cases are being reported; how they’re being reported,” he says.
At the Hyatt, the few callers with Zika questions were directed to Kramer’s office. He wanted to personally assure guests that the resort staff was focused on their safety and security, trying to provide reassurance in an unpredictable situation.
“When there are things that can be out of control, it becomes really difficult to try to guarantee somebody that everything is going to be perfect when they come and stay,” Kramer says. “All it takes is one person in the area to have got bitten here.”
On the Front Lines
Lee County Mosquito Control District (LCMCD) mans the front lines in the fight to protect residents from mosquitoborne diseases. The district monitors chickens to detect West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis, responds to local complaints of pest mosquitoes and preemptively strikes at the populations of mosquito species that can carry malaria and other diseases.
But two specific mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus), which transmit dengue, chikungunya and Zika, pose a new challenge that LCMCD is adapting to combat.
LCMCD is Florida’s largest mosquito control district with 74 full-time employees, 15 aircraft and more than 100 ground vehicles, including heavy equipment such as tankers and flatbeds, as of August 2016. Budgeted expenditures for fiscal year 2015-16 are $17.5 million, with $7.2 million in reserves, for a total budget of $24 million. It expects to collect $15.1 million in ad valorem taxes for fiscal year 2015-16. These resources make it a formidable foe to all mosquitoes—except those that can carry Zika.
Aedes aegypti and albopictus are unique in where they breed, how little they travel and what they like to eat. Specifically, they breed in containers near homes that offer protection from the sun and wind, travel about the distance of a football field and prefer human blood over the blood of other animals.
“Generally, if a person has Aedes aegypti or albopictus [nearby], they’re breeding them themselves,” says Shelly Redovan, LCMCD’s deputy director of education and communication.
There are two components to the district’s efforts against Zika: education and preparation. LCMCD educates property owners on how to keep their land from becoming breeding grounds (from rinsing bird baths, draining containers and removing debris to not planting bromeliads), which enables the county to selfregulate the populations of potentially Zika-carrying mosquitoes. For more than 25 years, the district has conducted K-12 classroom education in which science core standards are taught using mosquitoes as examples, and projects require working with parents. The district also gives presentations to homeowner associations and civic groups and provides resources on its website (lcmcd.com).
LCMCD’s response strategy is modeled on the Florida Keys’ response to locally transmitted dengue outbreaks in 2009 and 2010.
In the event the Lee County Health Department reports the location of a suspected local transmission, the LCMCD sets traps in the area and sprays for two consecutive nights. If the suspected case is confirmed, LCMCD will continue to spray adulticide (pesticides that kill mosquitoes on contact), and will also spray larvicide (pesticides that target larvae in breeding habitats).
“We haven’t had a locally transmitted case ever in Lee County, so we haven’t ever gone to the aerial larvicide,” says Redovan. “But that component is part of our plan.”
The Collier Mosquito Control District is also employing techniques to control Aedes aegypti and albopictus. The district, which has an $11.88 million budget, 26 full-time employees, eight aircraft and 16 ground vehicles, uses specialized surveillance traps to determine the relative number of mosquitoes in locations of suspected or confirmed cases of Zika. If the traps indicate appreciable numbers, then the district reduces habitat sources by draining and rinsing containers near homes, distributing adulticide by handheld devices and helicopters and spraying larvicide in the area for at least a month.
“Interrupting the life cycle and colonization with these bugs requires tenacity— a marathon instead of a sprint, if you will,” CMCD Executive Director Patrick Linn said in an email. CMCD regularly meets with the Collier County Health Department, deploys surveillance traps and tests all trapped mosquitoes. All pools have tested negative for Zika, dengue and chikungunya. The district has not yet undertaken any specific treatment for Zika cases, because all cases in Collier have been travel-related.
The district has an app that lets users request treatment, request notification of treatment, report a mosquito problem, read educational material and find contact information. It's at the App store—enter Collier Mosquito Control District.
A Costly Nuisance
Some properties and businesses already are seeing Zika’s potential costs. As of early September, Congress had not approved funding for mosquito control and vaccine research, but Gov. Rick Scott authorized in June $26.2 million in emergency spending to combat the virus.
In addition to the Hyatt’s usual daily mosquito spraying, Kramer estimates the property has spent several thousand dollars more this year to have a mosquito company backpack-spray the resort and grounds twice a week for additional coverage. The hotel also has bug spray available, which seeks to provide peace of mind for guests and hotel management.
“For me, I feel better. [We are] doing our part to help make it so that it’s not a concern for anybody,” Kramer says.
Training reservation agents, front desk, food and beverage staff and others to answer questions with the facts may take time, but is a proactive step that hotel operators must take, says John Naylor, owner of The Naylor Group, a hospitality management consulting business, and a board member of the Lee County Hotel Association. Images in national news reports that show efforts in Southwest Florida to combat mosquitos could also have a positive impact.
“To me, that part of the media coverage has been pretty good. People are saying, ‘Oh look, they’re doing something about it,’” says Naylor, former manager of the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina and the Sandpiper Gulf Resort in Fort Myers Beach. “It’s not as if you’re seeing film of swarms of mosquitos with nobody doing anything.”
Learning from the Past
Hurricanes are never welcome, but at least hotel operators and businesses that rely on tourists know how to prepare for and handle storms. But the Gulf oil spill, which was unpredictable due to uncertainties over how far the oil would spread and the constant media coverage, actually provided lessons for future fluid situations, like Zika.
“Having been through that experience, now I think we’re much more keen to stay abreast of every little detail that comes out about any new case or anything that’s happening so that we can stay out front of any type of incident that happens,” Kramer says. “We’re cautious about making sure that we understand what … impact it can have on future business and our hotel.”
At the Visitor Information Center, run by the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, the summer saw fewer than 10 Zika-related calls. None said during the conversation that they were canceling their vacation, says Jack Wert, executive director of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. The CVB has representation companies in both the United Kingdom and in Germany. The German office had not received any calls, while the UK office fielded a couple.
“They were both from tour operators who wanted to inform their customers whether or not there was a threat. So far, we haven’t seen any change in visitation. In fact our international visitation is actually up for this year,” Wert says.
While the Lee VCB keeps in contact with industry partners and hotels locally to monitor any cancellations due to Zika, it also holds weekly phone calls about Zika with its representation in the UK, Germany and Canada, says Pamela Johnson, deputy director of the Lee VCB. Those representatives then pass along information to tour operators and travel agents.
The Lee VCB also was operating as usual with eight familiarization trips— known as FAMs—in September and October for media and meeting planners from the Southeast, Northeast, the United Kingdom and China.
“Just under 60 individuals in the next couple of months are coming in for the express purpose of looking at Lee County for future business, for their meetings or international travel,” she says.
While some vacationers head from Miami to Naples, and vice versa, Wert says there doesn’t appear to be a ripple effect by people canceling trips to Miami. The Florida Department of Health, as of late August, identified non-travel-related cases occurring in a one-half-square-mile area in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood and a 1.5-square-mile section in Miami Beach, and was investigating cases in Pinellas County and Palm Beach.
That’s why Wert is so adamant about making sure correct, up-todate information reaches potential visitors. He remembers when misinformation about the Gulf oil spill in 2010 resulted in an almost immediate slowdown in tourism. They tried to combat national media reports that oil covered Southwest Florida beaches with beach cams, photos and eyewitness accounts of clean beaches.
“For now, we need to stay with the story of what the facts are. We don’t have any locally contracted cases,” Wert says. “[They are] all travel-related. That problem is far enough away that probably that situation is not going to affect us.”
In Florida, tourism officials reported a record 106.3 million visitors in 2015, and another record was set for first-quarter visitation in 2016, with 29.8 million people from January through March. From April through June, 27.3 million people visited the state.
The impact, as of early September, has been virtually intangible and untraceable, with guests asking very few questions about Zika, says Eric Ashton, general manager of The Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village. He adds that the focus continues to be on educating associates and guests, taking all precautions to remove standing water and working closely with Lee County VCB to stay updated on any tourism impact.
But Naylor worries the area could see an impact in 2017, if vacationers and snowbirds only remember Florida and Zika in headlines. After all, mosquitos are nearly year-round pests in our region.
“If I was a young couple in Chicago, whether thinking about starting a family or my wife was already pregnant, ahhh, I would give some real serious thought as to whether I wanted to go to Florida anytime in season,” he says.
Here comes the ... bug spray
Stilwell wonders whether the local wedding industry could feel an impact. Wedding parties and their guests often include pregnant women, who are most at risk with Zika. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August recommended that pregnant women and their partners postpone trips to the identified areas in Miami.
“If you’re very mindful of having a great destination wedding someplace, you’re going to be thinking about all your guests and all the people that are going to be impacted by it,” Stilwell says.
So far, wedding and event planner Courtney Armen says her Estero-based company, CocoLuna Events, has seen no effect. Armen started the business in 2014 and says revenue is on track to grow about 30 percent from 2015 to 2016. She estimates that about 70 percent of its weddings involve out-of-town couples. Some have family members who have a home here, or they grew up vacationing here. Some have just seen photos of Southwest Florida and choose the beaches for their destination wedding. As for Zika, not a single person had asked, at least through August.
“From what I’m seeing right now, it seems like it’s being pretty thoroughly ignored [by visitors] at the moment,” she says. “I’m crossing my fingers that it stays away.”
Even so, Armen strongly encourages her brides to set up “relief stations,” which cost $40-$60 extra and include insect repellent, itch relief and cooling sprays with lavender and cucumber.
“It is something that I’m doing a lot more since I’ve heard about Zika,” she says. “These are young couples getting married. They’re on their ways to [having] kids.”
Zika joins a list of threats, including water quality and hurricanes, to any business with a tourist customer base. Although hotel operators, restaurants, boutique owners and others can’t control where Zika is contracted, Wert says they should continue to operate with an eye on Zika and making sure they deliver the best travel experience that they can.
“You’re delivering the best product you can and being sensitive to the fact that people will have some concerns, but it’s not the majority of travelers,” he says. “It is perhaps a temporary setback, perhaps something that’s going to affect some of the business, but it probably won’t have the devastating longterm effect that 9/11 did.”
Even before the Zika virus flew onto the radar of most Americans, two Florida Gulf Coast University virologists were working on a treatment for the mosquito-borne illness. That treatment, along with a treatment for a related virus, dengue, was created by Scott Michael and Sharon Isern and will reach clinical human trials early next year.