With Houston and the mainland still recovering from flooding, Galveston officials have launched a $500,000 marketing effort to run through December targeting other parts of the state, while island businesses say returns on the campaign can’t come soon enough.
After being closed for days during Hurricane Harvey, island businesses flipped their signs to “open,” only to encounter extremely slow sales, hitting retail shops, restaurants and hotels equally hard and proving just how much the seaport city depends on tourism from the mainland and Houston. The city is also battling a false perception that Galveston was slammed by the storm.
“The days we have been open, business has been very, very slow,” said Christine Solis, owner of Somewhere in Time Antiques, on 124 20th St. “Just a trickle of people.”
After Hurricane Harvey, which caused severe flooding on the mainland and Houston, the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau first took a cautious approach in getting the word out that the island was open for business after the storm. The tourism group marketed online, but pulled television and radio ads for the Houston area, which makes up half of Galveston’s market.
Pulling Houston area ads was meant to be sensitive to Houston and North Galveston County, which fared much worse than the island in the hurricane, park board Executive Director Kelly de Schaun said.
The Galveston Park Board of Trustees, a city entity charged with boosting tourism, has kept a sensitive tone and will reach out more to San Antonio, Austin and Dallas than usual, de Schaun said. The group will spend $489,000 in marketing through December with a heavy focus on social media, de Schaun said. About $300,000 of that spending will go toward marketing efforts as a result of Hurricane Harvey.
For the Houston market, the marketing and advertising push will take on the message, “We’ve been there … we’re here when you’re ready.”
“We were sensitive first that our market was destroyed,” de Schaun said. “This was an unusual position for Galveston to be in,” de Schaun said. “In the last storm, our product was affected and our market was intact.
“Unlike Hurricane Ike, this time our product is intact and our market is suffering. We know we will not progress until Houston progresses.”
Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, about 200 miles south of the county, on Aug. 25. After making its way up the coast, the storm stalled for four days over Southeast Texas, dropping more than 50 inches of rain in parts of the region.
Out of the direct path of the storm, Galveston escaped the devastation seen by cities such as Dickinson, Friendswood, League City and Houston. Galveston flooded on Aug. 29, but many businesses were spared and opened as early as the following day.
Labor Day weekend, which usually caps the summer tourism season with huge crowds, was a dud, many shop owners said. Business has picked up since then, but it’s still slower than this time last year, they said.
“We’re starting to feel the normalcy again,” said Wydell Dixon, owner of the Naked Mermaid, 2113 Postoffice St., in the island’s downtown.
At the Wyndham Hotels on the island, weekend business is down 20 percent, and weekday business is down 30 to 40 percent from last year, said Steve Cunningham, general manager of Hotel Galvez, 2024 Seawall; The Tremont House, 2303 Mechanic St., downtown; and Harbor House Hotel & Marina, at Pier 21.
Low demand has also pushed down average rates, he said.
“Average rates are down significantly, meaning we’re selling cheaper than we have in the last several years,” Cunningham said. “We’re competing with other destinations; we’re competing with the San Antonios of the world and other beach destinations.”
Galveston Restaurant Group, which owns several restaurants on the island, had been on track for a record year, co-owner Johnny Smecca said. That likely won’t happen anymore, but business is at least picking up a little, he said.
“I want to say that we’ve hit the bottom and that we’re starting to somewhat come back,” Smecca said. “We’re kind of coming up slowly.”
The visitors bureau’s immediate marketing response to the storm is about fighting the perception that Galveston is closed, officials said. To areas not in disaster zones, the message is that Galveston is “open for business,” and to Houston, the message is one of support, de Schaun said.
The city also will hold a “Galveston Cares” weekend Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, encouraging people to come down and give back to areas up north that were badly affected. The park board will waive beach parking fees and the city will halt parking enforcement along Seawall Boulevard and in downtown that weekend.
Throughout the rest of the year, the tourism group will increase the promotion of fall, winter and spring activities, de Schaun said. That includes Winter Wonder Island and fall festivals, she said.
“We need to come out of the gates and promote Galveston so folks know we’re open for business, so when spring comes around next year, there is no question in anyone’s mind that there’s no reason to come to Galveston,” de Schaun said.
Businesses are still waiting to see the effects of the marketing, said Genette Bassett, owner of downtown shops Gracie’s and Bungalow.
“I’ve had people from Dallas call and say, ‘When do you open?’” Bassett said. “When I have people calling from Dallas, clearly the message is not out.”
Many people have stood in support of the park board’s decision to lay low on marketing right after the storm, including Trey Click, executive director of the Galveston Downtown Partnership.
“You can’t just go out and say come shop now and buy T-shirts while your house is flooded,” Click said.
The park board seems to be taking the right approach, but more money might be needed to get Galveston back to where it should be, Cunningham said.
“I think they’re right on and they can’t do enough, especially when it comes to advertising,” Cunningham said. “I think they’re on track and they’re doing the right thing but they probably need to spend more than what they’re planning on.”
Smecca also supported the sensitivity the park board is taking. Still, the city needs to remain economically stable, he said.
“It’s already a tricky environment for us and it’s important that we maintain the ability to do well so that way we’re here to continue to help the county and region,” Smecca said. “It’s important that we maintain this sensitive approach, but we also have to protect the economy of Galveston.”
For now, the businesses just have to keep doing what they know: sell.
“I hope people come back soon,” Solis said. “It’s kind of a lifeblood for a lot of small businesses like us.”