In Volusia County, 
Beaches Beckon — and Kitsch is Cool

Tourism is on the rise in Volusia County, boosting revenue for local businesses. What’s driving this? In part, it is the behind-the-scenes work of our local tourism bureaus. Their strategies show that catchy phrases help, but success comes too from methodical work that can at times uncover less traditional, even cool, ways to promote tourism.

A couple of years ago, Erica Group drew a pair of angel wings on an old garage door in DeLand, a small town about halfway between Daytona Beach and Orlando.

  For the artist, it was a quick assignment for a photo shoot in her hometown. But word soon spread about the wings on the weathered green industrial door in an alley. They became a must for standing in front of to get a photo taken, making it seem like the wings protrude from the shoulders.

The furor over the wings got Georgia Turner, executive director of the West Volusia Tourism Advertising Authority, thinking about how to harness it to promote tourism.

“It was a really cool little viral thing that happened, just kind of by mistake,” Turner said. “It is one of those odd things that just took off.”

Turner’s job is to promote tourism in West Volusia, a stretch of 14 communities along the St. Johns River that, as she confessed, is not really that well known.

Her budget is only $900,000 a year, a fraction of the $8 million in Daytona Beach and $2 million in New Smyrna Beach, destinations in the county that are far better known.

The tight budget means that taking out ads in traditional outlets like magazines, newspapers and television is largely out of reach, and so Turner said she is always on the lookout for less conventional — and more cost effective — ways to promote West Volusia.

“Our strategy is to bring in influencers, bloggers, travel writers and people that can give us third-party endorsements,” she said. “It is really easy for us to say how great we are, but when a journalist says how great we are, or you are included in a story, you just can’t beat that.”


With the wings, since dubbed the DeLand Wings, Turner had an idea. Her agency asked Erica Group to be West Volusia’s artist in residence and contracted her to do five more sets of wings. The 29-year-old recently unveiled her latest installment, a pair of freestanding fairy wings at the end of Fairy Trail in Cassadaga, a community near DeLand.

Turner’s agency also hired her to host and narrate a video series on what to do and see in the area, as well as where to stay and eat.

In the series,“What’s Up in West Volusia,” Group kayaks down the St. Johns River, where she sees manatees in Blue Spring State Park. She meets locals, who tell her about the history of century-old homes and how they prepare meals from scratch with local, organic and seasonal food. Another says the fireflies on a spring night in the state park are a must-see.

Old homes in woods are visited, and the art, brewery and culinary scene are checked out in DeLand, where the main street recently was named the best in America.

The series has had thousands of views on channels like YouTube, Turner said.


Another angle in their marketing is to promote West Volusia as rather kitsch, Turner added.

At De Leon Springs State Park, for example, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House hasn’t changed much since the 1960s, and diners can still cook their own pancakes on a griddle in the middle of their table.

“It is what Florida used to be, what it might have looked like in the 1960s,” Turner said.

The strategy appears to be working. Occupancy rates at lodging in West Volusia shot up to 83% in July from 79% a year earlier — and 64% in 2016, the fastest growth in the county, according to data from Mid-Florida Marketing & Research, a research firm.

The rest of the county has seen stable occupancy, at 73% in the first seven months of 2018, in line with the previous year — and up from 70% in 2016, the data shows.


The challenge is different for the advertising authority in Daytona Beach.

The beach is already a popular destination for tourists from around the U.S. as well as Canada and Europe.

To bring more people, the key is to listen to what visitors are saying, said Lori Campbell Baker, executive director of the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Through methodical research and surveying, we determine what our visitors love about the area, and we use this information to carefully craft our messaging,” she said.

This led to the creation of “Wide. Open. Fun.,” the latest campaign theme launched in November 2017.

It makes sense. When most people think of Daytona Beach, it’s the long stretches of sand that come to mind. The beaches and surf are frequented by ocean sports enthusiasts and bathers who want to kick it on the warm sand.

Campbell Baker said the agency always leads its advertising by highlighting the attraction of the 23 miles of wide open beaches, using TV spots to showcase this beauty.

But digital and social media are perhaps more vital. By monitoring clicks on ads and other data, they’ve found that it is not just the beach that is bringing in tourists, but other experiences.

This has led the agency to widen its messaging to show what else is on offer, from arts and culture to NASCAR racing at the Daytona International Speedway and the many golf courses.

“There is something for everyone, even if that is relaxing while watching the ocean from a hotel balcony,” Campbell Baker said.


The organization’s long-term goal is not just to bring more people to the area, but to increase revenue per available hotel room.

Its efforts are paying off. The performance metric rose 2.1% to $99.40 in the Daytona Beach area in the first seven months of 2018 from $97.37 in the year-earlier period — and was up 8% compared with the same period of 2016, according to Mid-Florida Marketing & Research.

This came even as hotel occupancy slipped to 72% this year from 73% in 2017, but rose from 70% in 2016.


In New Smyrna Beach, a hip surf town with a quaint charm, the advertising authority is spreading the word with ads in the big lifestyle magazines Coastal Living and Southern Living.

These publications, online and in print, reach the area’s target: higher-income households with women who make decisions on vacation plans, said Debbie Meihls executive director of the Southeast Volusia Advertising Authority.

“We find it is a really good niche with those publications,” she said.

Last summer, a five-page spread ran on the New Smyrna area and got republished in Southern Living’s “Best Drives and Dives,” a guidebook on sale at bookstores and supermarkets.

Visitors like the “detox, relaxing environment,” the small independent restaurants and the wealth of water sports, from surfing to diving, Meihls said, adding that another big draw is the Ponce de Leon Inlet, the most biologically diverse estuary in North America.

The challenge has been to get the word out on a wider scale. The area has not been on the radar due to a lack of advertising to big markets like Boston, Chicago and New York, as well as internationally, said Meihls.

“It’s kind of like we’re a new thing,” she said. That’s changing thanks to the ads in the lifestyle magazines and on booking sites like Expedia and TripAdvisor, said Meihls, who as been at the helm for nearly three years. Tourism has been growing 5% a year over that period, she said.


Back in the Daytona Beach area, the wealth of hotel rooms, at more than 12,000, as well as plentiful options for bars, restaurants and other activities is important for the Ocean Center, a large convention center 400 feet from Daytona Beach’s shoreline.

“We can be a great building and a great destination, but you also have to have pretty good hotel capacity and availability,” said Tim Riddle, deputy director of the center.

“If we had a beach but nowhere good to eat at night, we wouldn’t be that attractive,” he said.

Riddle said people go to conventions for the professional development, but the leisure activities during the breaks are just as important.

This is where Daytona Beach gives his center an edge on the national competition.

“When you have a choice of going to the Midwest in February versus coming to the beach, we’re a pretty easy sell,” he said.

But he admits that it still takes more than this to compete. “Where you really make a difference is with your people — customer service,” Riddle said. “We take good care of our clients because we all want new business, but repeat business is great too.”

  This means helping customers and making sure the facilities are clean is important. If there is an off-the-street site visit, having tables and chairs put away between events “shows that you have your act together,” he said.

The approach is boosting attendance and bookings. Riddle expects the number of events to reach 136 in the October-September fiscal year, up from 123 in the previous period when attendance totaled 286,000 people.

To promote the venue, the Ocean Center advertises in specialty magazines in the association, business, religious and sports markets. But it is the sales team that brings in most of the business by attending trade shows, Riddle said.

“It is a relationship-based selling world,” he said.


While the first sales point for the Ocean Center is the venue, the second is the area itself.

“We are not an island,” Riddle said. “We sell the hotels, we sell the entertainment, and we sell the leisure part of our destination every time we sell our venue. It is a package.”

To do this, the Ocean Center works closely with the advertising authorities, through activities such as sharing booths at trade events and running ads side by side in publications.

“It shows that the service will be even better because there is cohesion,” he said.

The center also sends business to other venues in the area if it can’t fit them into its schedule.

It’s not alone in this sharing. “By collaborating and using our marketing resources strategically,” said Campbell Baker, “the message we’re sending out becomes stronger and more inclusive. It’s just good business, and it’s a win-win for the destination and for our visitors.”