Miami Makeover

Tropical paradise or violent hellhole? If you ask the wizards selected to design the city's publicity campaign, the answer is as clear as a bright summer day.

In the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau conference room high above Brickell Avenue, staff members sometimes display an oversized flow chart that shows how the public-relations catastrophes of the early 1980s nearly ruined tourism before the dramatic recovery in recent years. Still, despite its reminders of such bad news as the Mariel boatlift, "civil unrest" (i.e., riots), and wild shootouts with cocaine cowboys, it is headlined "Greater Miami and the Beaches Visitor Rebound." The belief in yet another rebound, that same optimistic spirit, still prevails among those who are on the front lines of the never-ending battle to restore Miami's good name.

Mayco Villafa*a, the bureau's soft-spoken and preternaturally calm director of communications, doesn't need any such history lessons to remind him that a Miami PR man's work is never done. "We're not fooling ourselves that we can make the perception of what happened in Florida and Greater Miami disappear overnight," he says, referring to what he calls the "tragedies" of last fall. But he A along with a New York public relations firm, a local ad agency, and the bureau's members and staff A has done his damnedest to effect such a change in attitudes just in time for Pow Wow, the huge travel trade show that will come to town later this month.

Villafa*a and his fellow flacks have been zealously working since last year to undo the damage caused by the killings of German and British tourists and the resulting firestorm of hostile press. Bureau officials recall that they handled the crisis coolly, although one member of the organization, publicist Seth Gordon, says the group's leaders were all "shell-shocked."

They had good reason to be worried. Five tourists had been killed in Florida since December 1992. Then came the major blow: In April 1993, German tourist Barbara Meller Jensen was robbed and brutally murdered in Liberty City after getting lost driving a rental car from the airport. Several weeks after the Jensen killing, the visitors bureau began soliciting proposals for a new advertising plan to replace the two-and-half-year-old campaign, "Miami. The city with a rhythm all its own." The slogan, which had been intended to sound festive and exotic, now seemed to be almost sinister. Even without the string of murders, it was time to hire a new agency: The original one had folded about two years earlier.

An even greater sense of urgency gripped the bureau in September when Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand, another German tourist, was killed by a rifle blast from a truck that had pulled alongside his rental car as his wife watched in horror. Less than a week later a British man was killed as he and his girlfriend napped at a highway rest stop near Tallahassee. An international media frenzy swept over Miami. The killings were, everyone said, a tragedy for the families of the victims but they were also a catastrophe for the Miami area's $14 billion tourism industry -- and one hell of a marketing challenge.

As Villafa*a tells it when the first round of serious media strafing began following the slaying of Barbara Jensen, "our first concern was for the family." Their selfless compassion was apparently so great that, Villafa*a insists, "I don't think anyone here was in any way thinking of how this was going to affect the market."

When the grieving tourist executives eventually began pondering their strategic response, they looked to a few comparable mega-calamities for insight. "The only thing the Miami situation could be equated to was Tylenol [the 1982 poisoning incidents] or the Exxon Valdez oil spill," Villafa*a says, adding, "It was our obligation to tell our story to the media so we could deal with the perception that crime was out of control here." (One minor problem complicated that task, though: Florida's rate of serious crime has led the nation for several years, and Dade County has by far the highest crime rate of any metropolitan area according to FBI figures. And Florida's reputation as Crime Hellhole Number One was hardly softened by Villafa*a's efforts to explain that there are too many differences between cities to justify such comparisons.)

Each new murder incident put the tourism group and public officials on the defensive. They were forced to answer constant questions about safety, while doing their best to point out that the raw number of homicides and tourist robberies in Dade County had actually gone down in the last few years. Tourist robberies in unincorporated Dade and the City of Miami, for instance, dipped by more than 50 percent from April through October in 1993 as compared to the same period in 1992. The tourist organization had long been concerned about crime; it had lobbied local law enforcement authorities to provide new crime-fighting programs after the shooting of a British couple in 1990, and late last year helped form the anti-crime civic coalition Dade Partners for Safe Neighborhoods.

But even with its clout, the bureau and the tourism industry it represents recognized that it didn't have any direct powers to implement change. "We can't do law enforcement or affect social conditions," Villafa*a says, "but we can help on marketing and promotion."

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