SANTA ROSA BEACH — Walton County will miss what had been an informal goal of having a digital app in place by the March start of this year’s tourist season to handle vending of beach chairs, umbrellas and other amenities by the private companies handling that business.
Development of the app has been pushed by newly elected Commissioner Mike Barker, and the issue recently made its way onto a list of priorities connected to proposed changes in the county’s beach activities ordinance. The county reviews the beach activities ordinance at the end of every tourist season, including public workshops, to develop possible modifications.
The commission last week reviewed a number of proposed amendments to the ordinance and other means of addressing issues on the county’s public and private beaches. Development of the app was on that list, but last Tuesday’s discussion quickly moved beyond the original goal of simply tracking how many chair-and-umbrella “sets” were being placed on county beaches.
That placement of “sets’ has become an issue because vendors often place more than are being used, taking up beach space with unoccupied so-called “ghost chairs.”
Commissioners heard a presentation on a possible app from Jeff Zehnder of Zehnder Communications, the New Orleans-based company that handles the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) website. The company also handles a TDC app that has fallen into disuse as the website has become more usable via cellphone and digital tablet.
Zehnder proposed an app that would go far beyond beach vending rentals to include weather information, sunset times, beach safety alerts and other services.
“The goal is to have something that would be a lot more than just a beach vending app right out of the gate,” Zehnder told commissioners.
But he also suggested that the TDC website, which is easily accessible by mobile phones and digital tablets, could itself serve as an app to provide an array of information to tourists.
Commissioners also heard from local app developer Charles Galloway, who proposed an app in which the county would charge a transaction fee for linking tourists with beach chair rentals and other goods and services. Galloway’s company, Fire Vibe Inc., would then take a share of the fees as its compensation.
Faced with a broader discussion than they might have been expecting, commissioners decided unanimously to develop an RFP — a request for proposals — to let companies know that the county is interested in hearing their ideas for a tourist-related app. County staff and the commissioners would ultimately review any submitted proposals, with the commission making any final decisions on implementing an app.
In making the decision to send out an RFP, the commission missed a window to have some enhanced digital interface for tourists available for the beginning of the upcoming tourist season. Informal estimates from last Tuesday’s meeting pushed the potential availability of an app until sometime well into the tourist season.
Before the commission’s decision, Zehnder said he could have a basic tourist app in place within 45 days at a cost of $61,500, with later updates bringing a final cost to a little more than $130,000.
Alternatively, Zehnder offered to assist the county in developing specifications for the app and getting it implemented. Zehnder took time to offer some general advice on the app, telling commissioners that it should offer a high level of service, given the affluence of many of the visitors to the coastal resorts and other accommodations.
“I think that’s very important to our affluent customer,” Zehnder said. “They expect a certain standard of service. They expect a certain standard of style in what they see from us.”
Zehnder also provided commissioners with a sense of the reach they would get from a digital app. The TDC website, which Zehnder characterized as “mobile friendly,” meaning it can be easily used on cellphones and digital tablets, gets more than 1.2 million visitors each year, representing almost a quarter of the number of annual vacationers to the county.
Galloway, who has been developing digital apps for four years and who previously had had discussions with Barker and other county officials, said he approached the proposed tourism-related app with the idea that it should, at a minimum, answer a handful of questions: “How do you get to the beach? What’s a good restaurant that we can take the family to? How do we get beach chairs, how do we get bikes, how do we get all of that?”
In sum, Galloway told commissioners his approach would be “like the Yellow Pages” advertisements in telephone books.
Galloway didn’t openly quote commissioners a price for initial development of the app, but according to information from the meeting, he told at least one county official that it would cost $43,000.
It was when the discussion drifted into mentions of cost that commissioners began moving toward their eventual decision to seek RFPs, even if it meant a delay in getting an app up and running.
Before that decision, commissioners got a bit of advice from Michael Scher, an Inlet Beach resident who has been involved in other beach-related issues and who sits on the boards of some technology companies.
“You have to put this out for bid, there’s no doubt about it,” Scher said.
The app is an excellent idea, but he cautioned that commissioners “don’t know yet what your requirements are.”
Scher suggested the county consider finding a long-term partner for developing the app and handling it over time, because the county’s needs for functionality within the app are likely to grow and change.
“You’ll have tons of ideas, and the marketplace will tell you what to do,” he said.
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