Visit Florida faces elimination

Visit Florida, the state’s public/private tourism agency, is scheduled to go out of business and the Legislature doesn’t seem to be rushing to save it.

That’s causing concern among hospitality industry leaders that reduced marketing efforts could lead to fewer visitors and cost the state an economic hit.

Dan Lindblade, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, sent and email to members, saying, “With only days until a final budget is laid on [legislative] members’ desks, it is imperative that you reach out to the House members in your area and House Speaker Jose Oliva and tell them shuttering VISIT FLORIDA is an irresponsible move for the entire state and for your community. Too many small businesses and jobs rely on tourism for the legislature to take this misguided action. Too much of our state’s revenue counts on visitors coming to Florida.”

The Florida Senate has passed a bill (SB 178) that would keep the tourism agency (official known as the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corp.) running past its sunset date of Sept. 30. However, a House committee hasn’t heard a counterpart bill.

Tampa Bay TV station WFTS reported that the agency has typically been funded at a rate of $75 million a year, but would get about 33 percent less if both chambers agree.

The clock is ticking with about a week left in the legislative sessions.

Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told Florida News Service that fluctuations in funding for Visit Florida haven’t correlated to the number of tourists coming to the state. “In a trillion-dollar economy, a few million dollars put towards advertising a few different places cannot possibly have a direct correlation with tourism,” Oliva said.

One flash point between Visit Florida and legislators was a $1 million contract for rapper Pit Bull to promote the state. Then incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran had filed suit to get the financial amount in the contract made public and the rapper divulged the contract in a tweet.

There was a house cleaning at Visit Florida, including the resignation of President and CEO Will Seccombe.

A 2018 analysis of Visit Florida’s effectiveness by EDR showed $1 of marketing by the agency returned $2.15 in taxes. The analysis indicated that 57.3 percent of all out-of-state tourists were influenced by tourism marketing.

One issue may be that the ROI dropped from $3.21 in a 2015 study. “During the review period, VISIT FLORIDA’s budget was 82% larger than the prior analysis. In contrast, the total number of out-of-state tourists grew by only 16% over this period,” the study found. “Moreover, local Destination Marketing Organizations (DMO) spending and theme park advertising grew at rates that exceeded out-of-state tourism growth. This amounted to more advertising dollars being spent to attract each out-of-state tourist to Florida. Therefore, the net economic benefit of each tourist attributed to VISIT FLORIDA was lower due to the higher cost of attracting each additional tourist.”

However, the analysis added, “The recent strong growth in total visitors and marketing-influenced tourists suggest that VISIT FLORIDA’s marketing is working.”

Visit Florida’s 2018/19 marketing plan shows a focus on the basics: targeting winter travelers, international tourists from key feeder markets, weekend travelers, and experience and adventure travelers.

Lindblade was urging the public to call, email and tweet House and Senate members (click here for a list) and House Speaker Oliva and let them know they support Visit Florida.

Not having a state tourism marketing association appears to be a rarity nationally.

In 1993, Colorado became the only state to eliminate its tourism marketing function, when it cut its
$12 million promotion budget to zero, said a study by Bill Siegel, chairman and CEO of Longwoods International. “As a result, Colorado’s domestic market share plunged 30% within two years, representing a loss of over $1.4 billion in tourism revenue annually. Over time, the revenue loss increased to well over $2 billion yearly. In the important summer resort segment, Colorado dropped from first place among states to 17th.”

It took until 2000 for the Colorado tourism industry to convince the legislature to reinstate funding with a  $5 million budget, Siegel wrote. Within a few years the ROI hit $12 for each dollar spent.

A 2017 article on Skift.com said Washington state was the only one without a state-funded tourism office.

Cheryl Kilday, president and CEO of Visit Spokane and chairwoman of the board of the Washington Tourism Alliance, said then that the state missed out on joint marketing opportunities because of the lack of funds and personnel. Rural areas without marketing budgets were particularly impacted.

The Washington Legislature subsequently approve creation of the Tourism Marketing Authority.

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