MIAMI — On a recent rainy weekday, tourist Niel Shalit, his wife and their two daughters strolled the luxury Bal Harbour Shops, lured, Shalit said, by "my wife's need for fashion."
"This is like the Fifth Avenue of New York, like the Americana of Long Island," said Shalit, referring to prime shopping spots in New York, where the family lives.
Despite the family's affection for the shopping destination of Bal Harbour, a village with two hotels, a wide beach and a nearly $2 million budget for tourism, the Shalit family stays elsewhere on its frequent visits to South Florida: South Beach.
"We just love walking out from Loews and having everything there," said wife Ofira Shalit.
Such is the blessing and the curse of sharing a region with an international tourist draw. Everyone knows South Beach, but that's the only place many people know.
A handful of South Florida cities and neighborhoods — including Bal Harbour, Coral Gables, Downtown Miami, Miami's Design District and Hollywood — are trying to change that by targeting visitors directly with messages that, they hope, will help their destination stand out and attract tourist dollars. Some have been trumpeting the message for years, and others are launching aggressive new campaigns.
"I'm a big believer that any destination can stand on its own," said Judy Randall, president and CEO of North Carolina-based Randall Travel Marketing. "You actually create more of a feeding frenzy when you do that and make it a more appealing destination overall."
She and other branding experts warn that each destination needs to do its homework to find out what they offer that is unique for tourists.
"The challenge for those small places is to identify: How do they fit into the game?" said Bill Baker, author of the book Destination Branding for Small Cities. "How do they fit into the game without banging heads with the biggest competitors?"
That means areas like Coral Gables and Downtown Miami are pitching themselves as the "fill-in-the-blank" alternative to South Beach.
Urban. Vibrant. Important. Family-friendly. Historic. Classy.
Downtown Miami calls itself an up-and-coming urban alternative to South Beach, boosted by the new superstar Miami Heat roster. Farther north, Miami's Design District has no hotels but relies on tourists to cross the Julia Tuttle Causeway from the beach.
Bal Harbour is happy to have day visitors like the Shalits — the village will even pick them up in a trolley that goes as far south as Lincoln Road. But tourism officials also want to see people stay there, and to that end have created children's programs, free beach yoga and an arts and culture series.
Coral Gables touts its sophisticated aura, historic properties like the Biltmore Hotel and Venetian Pool and restaurants and shopping on Miracle Mile and the Village of Merrick Park.
In Broward County, Hollywood boasts of beaches, a highly praised boardwalk, numerous mom-and-pop hotels and an invigorated downtown with an arts-themed park.
Even communities with no budget are making an effort. Key Biscayne, for example, has a 24-hour visitors center in the police station, and a presence on Twitter and Facebook to make its pitch: close to South Beach but a world apart.
"We use the tools we have that are free," said Kathye Susnjer, president of the Key Biscayne Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center.
Miami Beach officials say their city would likely benefit from increased tourism traffic anywhere in the region.
"Regardless of who's doing the promotion… when the person gets here, more likely than not, they're going to come to Miami Beach," said Hilda Fernandez, the assistant city manager who oversees tourism and cultural development.
But the city doesn't want to take that for granted: They took marketing efforts to gay pride events in New York this summer and plan to expand efforts in the fall when daylight savings time ends. The pitch: there's so much to do, you need another hour.
And even Miami Beach takes pains to offer an alternative to the South Beach scene.
"We want to make sure people understand there's more than beaches, more than nightclubs," Fernandez said.
Rolando Aedo, senior vice president for marketing for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he's seen competition for tourist dollars increasing in the region for the last five or six years. He said the bureau encourages smaller destinations to piggyback on the overall Miami brand to maximize their efforts.
The cities and neighborhoods spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases millions, to get the word out. That's beyond the millions already shelled out by county convention and visitors bureaus.
Travel writer David Molyneaux, editor of http://www.thetravelmavens.com, said more voices pitching the area — even if not the specific Greater Miami or Miami Beach brand — doesn't threaten the overall message. "The market is huge, and so I think the more the merrier, and the more good stuff and the more diverse stuff that you can offer, the better off you are," he said.
Baker, president of branding and marketing firm Total Destination Management, said that with more than 20,000 incorporated cities in the United States and 3,400 counties, everyone is looking for ways to stand out and attract tourists, new residents or businesses.
He used the Southern California region as a success story: Huntington Beach with its classic "surf city" vibe; Long Beach with a specialty in events and conferences; Laguna Beach's artistic edge and Santa Barbara with its abundance of nature, history and wine.
What makes those destinations successful, he said, is that they don't just have a slogan or brand. They know what they stand for — and deliver on what they promise.
"You can't be all things to all people. You can't be the center of it all, nor can you have it all," Baker said. " New York City doesn't even have it all. The whole concept of what is it you stand for is really hard."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun