Www.Fla-keys360.com just launched on June 14, and according to co-creator Dan Baker, it will likely never be completed.

But, that’s ok. That’s the point.

Originally, from Minnesota, Baker is a Marathon resident who has worked for mainland news affiliates and news bureaus worldwide for more than 20 years. He’s been showing South Florida and the world all the news and excitement that transpires on a daily basis down here in the Florida Keys.

Baker met his business partner, Tavernier resident and photographer/cinematographer Bob Care, who has worked with the likes of National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and TLC among others over the course of his career, while producing a segment on destination weddings for the Florida Keys News Bureau.

With a keen eye to spot the critical “money shot” in news photography, Baker, also a licensed dive master, was positioned at the base of the Christ of the Abyss statue during the shoot. He returned to the boat for a split second and when he returned, Baker found another photographer posted in his spot and unwilling to move.

“I told Andy (Newman of the Florida Keys News Bureau) that there was a guy down there who wouldn’t get out of my spot,” Baker remembered. “When he surfaced, Andy handed him a $150 tip on the spot.”

Care had been called to fill in for another photographer who’d called out sick, and Newman knew that anyone who could find the best angle for the shot like Baker was worth the first, and perhaps only, tip he’d ever handed out to a photographer.

So how did the idea for the 360-degree virtual tour of the southernmost paradise come about?

“I was looking for something else to do to make a little more money,” Care explained.

The demand for real estate and wedding photographer had tapered off a bit with the dwindling economy. Several months ago, a neighbor referred a real estate agent to Care regarding virtual home tours.

With approximately two hours in the field and several more in production to piece the still photos together, Care decided that time spent in producing virtual tours for real estate agents did not warrant the meager earnings. So, he put his technological expertise to work and began experimenting with 360-tours.

Care called his old photography buddy who’d just returned from a cross-country sabbatical to pitch his latest idea.

“When Bob showed me the technology, I got so excited,” Baker said. “I swore I’d never touch a camera again.”

So, How Does It Work?

With less than two months on the web, www.fla-keys360.com has already logged more than 55,000 page views from more than 7,000 visitors.

The kicker?

They haven’t spent a single penny on advertising.

Yet, somehow, they’re collecting money from advertisers, or sponsors, that lease the 360 tour created for their business.

Unlike virtual tours produced for real estate that span around the interior of a home from one vantage point on a fixed tripod, www.fla-keys360.com provides a vertical as well as a horizontal exposure.

When the pair took to the air in a helicopter, they knew they’d struck gold.

When you first arrive at the website, a satellite image of the island chain is the first thing you see. Upon entering the site, the aerial tour of the Keys begins at MM 107 at Jewfish Creek Bridge. The site is organized by the Mile Markers that serve as a guide along U.S. 1.

Since the site was created nearly as an accident, not all Mile Markers and points of interest have been highlighted on the virtual map.

“People ask why we didn’t go to Key West first since more than half of Monroe County’s businesses are there,” Baker said. “We never intended for this to happen. For met, it was just going to be something to do during retirement.”

The pair also made another interesting discovery during their trial and error of the technology. They figured out how to conduct 360-degree tours below the surface.

“The dive shops were going bonkers when we showed it to them,” Baker said.

After shooting anywhere from six to 15 still images, the photos are essentially sewn together with several different computer programs.

The end result is a virtual tour that makes you feel like you’re standing right in the middle of the action.

Who’s Benefiting From This?

Specifically for the Keys and its tourism-based economy, Baker calls it “comfort photography”.

“When you book a hotel online, you only see what they want you to,” he explained. “You can see the beautiful pool out back, but a picture online might not show you the 24-hour truck stop right next door to the property.”

Judy Hull, Executive Director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, said the website would serve as an incredible marketing tool for the businesses in her community.

When her staff fields inquiries about local accommodations, visitors often ask if there is a beach on the property. Now, people will not only be able to see the beach where they’ll stay, they’ll also have a bird’s eye view of the tidal pools and gorgeous surroundings.

“It really helps to explain so much to our visitors before they even arrive at their destination,” Hull said.

www.Fla-keys360.com will not only benefit the tourism industry.

The aerial tour is a key marketing tool for the Florida Keys Scenic Corridor Alliance, a grassroots effort aiming to designate U.S. 1 a National Scenic Byway.

Hull is also among the group spearheading that effort, and she said the photography and aerial tours are going to be an incredible asset to that project.

Baker said though the by-products of an accidental discovery have produced what will be a great marketing tool for the tourism industry that was not the original intention.

“We’re doing this for the 304 million people who don’t live here,” he continued.

As more dive spots are recorded, new events unfold and more sponsors come on line, the pair continues to add new photos and tours almost daily.

Their confidence in their product is infectious, and so far, the positive feedback has been overwhelming. They’ve received calls from tourism boards.

“If someone doesn’t want to sponsor us now, it’s ok,” Baker calmly reflected. “They will.”

He compares the www.Fla-keys360.com project to the ultimate toy on Christmas morning.

“Together we have 60 years of combined commercial photography experience, and we both refuse to give up,” Baker laughed. “Look at where we are after only four month!”

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. Instead of a single photo, this is actually a series of photos that after pieced together with several computer programs, result in a 360-degree aerial tour of the old and new 7 Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key in Marathon. Check it out at www.fla-keys360.com/weekly.



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