Lessons of Zika virus heeded as mosquito season looms
Though last year’s Zika virus scare did lead to some meeting and convention cancellations, 2016 tourism numbers for the county were once again the highest in recent years, says William D. Talbert III, president & CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Mr. Talbert attributes this to countywide initiatives that kept everyone up to date on mosquito-control developments and allowed the tourism industry to speak with one voice.
“In working with the bureau’s crisis communicators,” he says, “our theme was to send appropriate messaging – that there is an issue, but we are all working together and we will solve it. This was very effective.”
County government took the lead in overseeing all community mosquito-control operations, says Michael Hernandez, who as spokesperson for the mayor’s office was the principal liaison with the media and the public.
“This is critical to seeing that all members of the community understand that there is one entity in charge of mosquito control,” he says. “That’s not to say that the affected municipalities – Miami Beach and Miami – were not involved. We worked very closely with them.”
Once local transmission of the virus was confirmed, Mr. Hernandez says, Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak shouldered the responsibility of coordinating the county’s eradication efforts and maintaining clear lines of communication.
Taking a page from the state’s handling of the gulf oil spill, Mr. Talbert says, he suggested to Mayor Gimenez daily conference calls to keep county agencies abreast of developments.
“It was very robust,” he says. “There was a roll call every day, and we would give a report of what was happening in the hospitality sector and also with Visit Florida” – the state ‘s official tourism marketing corporation, chaired this year by Mr. Talbert.
With daily reports on every call, Mr. Hernandez says, Ms. Hudak could brief the mayor personally.
The county also mounted aggressive trilingual radio and social media campaigns under the hashtag “Drain & Cover,” Mr. Henandez says, costing well over $1 million.
“Last year we had $1.6 million budgeted for mosquito control,” he says, “but we spent $25 million, of which $15 million was reimbursed by the state.”
For the local tourism industry, the Zika scare – which became a worldwide media sensation – did the most damage to bookings of meetings and conventions, Mr. Talbert says. “There were cancellations, particularly from groups with younger members,” he says, due to the threat of birth defects when Zika is contracted during pregnancy. “And of course there may have been unknown bookings that did not occur.”
“A year ago we didn’t even know what Zika was,” says Wendy Kallergis, president & CEO of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association. “It came on so fast and furious, and then there was the media factor. A lot of hotels were losing significant group business.”
In response, the bureau and the hotel association got together to create the Zika Pledge for county hotels.
“By signing this pledge,” Mr. Talbert says, “they are telling the world that we are taking preventive measures, and there is some consistency.”
The pledge, Ms. Kallergis says, “commits these hotels to being responsible not only for the education of their visitors and their properties, but to have very good preventive programs throughout the year.”
So far, Mr. Talbert says, 74 major hotels across the county have signed the Zika pledge.
While Miami-Dade won the distinction of being the first community in which locally generated Zika was obliterated, Mr. Hernandez says, “given the fact that it is spreading in Latin America and the Caribbean, we have to be vigilant.”
With the mosquito-breeding season fast approaching, preparedness plans are kicking in.
“We will be presenting to the county commission a baseline budget of $11 million for mosquito control,” Mr. Hernandez says. “That includes the cost of 20 new inspectors who have already been hired. We want to add another six. We’re also looking to hire a medical entomologist.”
Media campaigns organized around the “Drain & Cover” hashtag – and also a new one, “Fight the Bite” – will get underway towards the end of March, he says, and continue through the end of the year. If necessary, daily conference calls will likely resume.
“At the end of the day,” says Mr. Talbert, “in this situation you’ve got to have all the facts. Prevention is the key to success in this kind of thing.”