The site that sells sunshine
Florida Vacation Auction site holds the ticket to affordable getaways
It started back in the '90s, when the Internet became public domain and electronic marketing was just emerging.
In 1996, a marketing program caught the eye of veteran hospitality marketer Sal Dickinson. He received an e-mail marketing program from Cathay Pacific, offering airline seats by auction at a fraction of retail prices. Mr. Dickinson — then vice president of marketing for South Seas Resorts Company in Southwest Florida — was intrigued.
The Internet quickly opened up a whole new world for bargain travelers with dotcom companies such as Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. And for the first time, buyers felt they were in the driver's seat as they booked their travel adventures.
Not much has changed in 13 years — except everything.
The evolution of Web marketing gave Mr. Dickinson's exacting vision and his unflappable
confidence a new frontier, and he hit the ground running. He entered a hefty budget line for dot-com marketing in South Seas' marketing budget. He was granted a third of his request — not much of a playing field, but a field, nonetheless, and
he passionately pursued the new territory.
Dickinson Some others in the industry stood back, contemplating the potential of the World Wide Web, dot-com and e-mail marketing. As hospitality marketers pondered and puzzled over the Internet's potential, Mr. Dickinson, then 36, moved around them, ahead of them and beyond them. "At South Seas, we were one of the early adapters (to the Web)," he says. In this instance, the hare bested the turtle outright. Taking it to the Web
In 1998, Mr. Dickinson began purchasing and collecting vacation auction domains from Alabama to Alaska, along with domains targeting personal interests and lifestyles. In all, and over time, he invested more than $20,000 into securing domains that would be his to use at the appropriate time.
FloridaVacationAuction.com tested the waters of vacation auction viability. Florida also happens to be the market that raised Mr. Dickinson in the hospitality profession. As one-time chair of the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International and an adjunct hospitality marketing professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, this was clearly Mr. Dickinson's area of expertise and his time to shine.
"It was a tremendous learning experience," he said. But, as he also said, "Failure was never an option."
Fast forward to 2005, and Sal Dickinson is CEO of Fort Myers-based Dickinson & Associates and has launched a Web-based auction site, FloridaVacationAuction.com, giving bidders access to first-rate hotels and attractions within the state at a fraction of retail price. Running the daily operations are Tracy Hart, who manages all aspects of administration and customer service, and Glenn Letch, director of sales, who is responsible for advertiser development.
When the site went live in 2005, there were 13 advertisers. Today, there are 163.
Like every inventor worth his salt, Mr. Dickinson has attracted mentors with like passions who share his vision. He'll bring three of them to Fort Myers in July for a strategic planning session, utilizing their "fresh eyes" to inspire future growth. One is an advertising and sales guru. One was a founder of one of the top travel Web sites in the world. ("He's forgotten more about the industry than I know today," says Mr. Dickinson.) And one is an astronaut, hero and friend, Story Musgrave, who encourages his friend to let his dreams of take flight.
Power to the people
A live auction with FloridaVacationAuction. com works like any Internet bidding site. The offerings change weekly, so bidders always have a fresh assortment of destinations to consider. Bids are open for a week and close at 10 p.m. each Sunday.
In the first week of June this year, the site closed 39 auctions, including a three-night stay at the Tradewinds Island Beach Resort on St. Petersburg Beach with a retail value of $831 plus tax. The package can be purchased anytime using FVA's "Buy Direct" option for $582 plus tax, a $249 savings. The actual winner of the auction paid $405 for the stay, with all taxes included. Having tax included could mean an additional savings of 14 percent.
A two-night stay at the Blue Tree Resort just outside Disney World had a retail value of $410 and a "Buy Direct" special price of $330. The auction winner that week grabbed it for $160. Add what was saved in taxes, and the saving is close to 75 percent.
Buy, stay local
For Southwest Floridians looking for a local getaway, the site offers stays at many Southwest Florida hotels, such as the Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa, 'Tween Waters Inn on Captiva, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point, the Pink Shell on Fort Myers Beach and Marco Island's Lakeside Inn. Orlando area destinations include two Sheratons, Disney World's Royal Plaza, the Imperial Swan and the Pirates Dinner Company.
Bidder Jill Hassel of Bonita Springs discovered FloridaVacationAuction.com in 2007. "I entered 'Florida vacation auctions' as a Web search and there it was," she said. "I didn't know such a site existed."
Aside from hotel stays, Mrs. Hassel has won bids for tickets for the Spanish Quarter Museum in St. Augustine and the kid-centric Wannado City on Florida's east coast.
"The first time we bid, we had a win, which was exciting. But I'm a pretty frugal bidder, so I set a price I'm willing to pay," she said. Mrs. Hassel takes advantage of the site's referral service, which gives her a $5 credit on her next winning bid for each new member who signs up at her recommendation.
Fort Myers resident Craig Nesvik visits the site faithfully on Sunday, when auctions are coming to a close. "My mother and brother are in Orlando, and I use it primarily for that. I can get a really nice condo for the price of a hotel room," he said.
And the auction concept has given him a chance to become reacquainted with destinations he had pretty much forgotten. "I hadn't been to Matlacha for probably 20 years. I got a place with a dock for $80 for two nights. We brought out our wave runners and had a great time. I'd go out there again in a heartbeat."
Advertisers certainly see the benefit. Susan Johnson, general manager of the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers, has advertised her dinner theater destination on the site since the program's inception.
"We've found so many new customers either visiting the state on vacation or folks from Florida looking for deals as they travel, especially during the summer," Mrs. Johnson said. "It allows us to use up 'dead inventory,' and Florida Vacation Auction customers are looking for deals. It's truly a win-win."
Dawn Grigsby, national director of resort sales for Starwood Villa Rentals in Orlando learned about Florida Vacation Auction three years ago. "It looked like a great outlet for exposure for our villa properties, and I liked the functionality and look of the site," she said. "We hear great compliments about our villas and the FVA program." When asked about business gains from the FVA association in the future, Ms. Grigsby replied, "We must have a good feeling about it, as we are continuing into our third year."
NYT brings national attention
Floridians aren't the only ones enjoying the savings. After Michelle Higgins of the
The New York Times wrote about Florida- VacationAuction.com for its travel section on May 17, traffic on the auction site traffic spiked. As of June 10, there have been more than 1,542 referrals from the NYT Web site. Traffic from all sources has been up 50 percent in the 30 days following the column's publication, Mr. Dickenson said.
To infinity — and beyond
Though he won't disclose the exact location, Mr. Dickinson said he plans to launch a second vacation auction site later this year. He does hint that it's a state on the Gulf of Mexico with year-round tourism.
In the future, we can expect Mr. Dickinson to pull from his collection of domains as he launches vacation auction sites around the world, one after another.
From this launch forward — as his astronaut friend Story Musgrave surely knows — the sky really is the limit.