19 JUN 2019: Despite record visitations for eight consecutive years, Florida tourism is on a slippery slope thanks to funding cuts and a threat of closure, says America’s top-ranking tourism official, Roger Dow. The state has slashed its marketing organization’s budget by 30 percent and has presently reauthorized it only until the end of June 2020 (the so-called “sunset clause”).

“What’s happening at Visit Florida is they’ve cut their budget from $76 million to $50 million, which is a real problem,” says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association.

Acknowledging that the move is a “political problem” caused by “folks (who) say it’s not government’s role to get involved (in travel),” Dow adds, “I know what’s going to happen: next year they’re going to say, ‘See, it didn’t make any difference.’ But it will take two or three years (to trickle down) – we’ve seen this all over the country – Pennsylvania, Washington, Colorado – where you cut the budget and two years later, tourists stop coming…”

In 2018, Florida received 126.1 million visitors, but Dow notes that for years the number stagnated around 81 million. But under governor Rick Scott (2010-18), Visit Florida’s budget nearly tripled to current pre-cut levels with Dow stating, “It’s the clearest line I’ve ever seen in my life: as the Visit Florida promotion went up, visitation went up…”

And that’s not only good for the travel industry, but the economy at large, Dow explains. “In a state like Florida it’s drives so much, everything about the economy. In fact, Governor Scott said to me, ‘You know, you’re the No. 2 industry in Florida, agriculture is No. 1,’ and I said, ‘Rick, if you take all the lettuce and things the tourists eat, we’re No. 1.’”

Indeed, a report by the Florida Legislature’s chief economist says that tourism accounts for approximately US $389 million in annual sales tax and supports one new job for every 78 visitors. Moreover, Visit Florida’s return on investment is US$2.15 for every dollar spent.

“As my favourite philosopher, Forrest Gump, says, ‘Stupid is as stupid does,’” says Dow. “I think it (the budget cut) is a huge mistake. We worked very hard two years ago when they first tried to cut it out, zero it out, and were successful (in helping prevent the cuts).”

And that effort has not abated, he adds.

For his part, Visit Florida’s chief marketing officer Gerardo Llanes is naturally more optimistic about the organization’s prospects. Having taken office only on May 13, the former tourism executive at Visit Mexico and most recently in Abu Dhabi, told Travel Industry Today that the whole of the Florida tourism industry is “behind the push” to have Visit Florida reauthorized for the long term and to have its funding restored, and to demonstrate its importance to “local communities and families.

“It’s very important,” he says, “that people have to understand that without promotion, tourists don’t come. And if tourists don’t come, Mrs. Jones, who owns a business at the beach, is affected… Local communities can die without tourism.”

And while many Florida CVBs and DMOs have recently chosen to ditch the ongoing Visit Florida turmoil (which in 2017 included a leadership purge and vote to completely defund the organization) and uncertainty in order to go it alone, Llanes says Visit Florida still works them to “complement their (promotional) efforts.”

“We all support Florida; everybody benefits,” he says.

As for Canada, Llanes says this country (which sent 3.5 million visitors in 2018 – a 2 percent increase – and is the state’s top source of international visitors) is “under review” due to the Visit Florida budget cut, but remains a top priority, including extending in-country representation for the start of the 2019-20 fiscal year on July 1. (Visit Florida has completed an RFP process and expects to “make a final decision soon”; Pulse Travel Marketing remains the rep at least until June 30).

Nevertheless, and despite a necessary restructuring of the department due to the budget cuts to “serve where the biggest volumes will be coming from (and) prioritize the things we need to do in the markets we need to do it,” Llanes promises Canada “a lot more engagement, a lot more involvement, a lot more presence” with a focus on “showing Canadians the Florida they don’t know (and) developing a fly-and-drive program so they can get out and explore…”

“Canada is a priority. Period. That’s the big message,” he says.

Similarly, the travel trade is a priority, he maintains, noting that the organization is committed to connecting with, educating and providing access to travel agents and tour operators in this country. Because, in the end, he says, “They are the sales force. And we cannot expect them to sell us if we are not engaging them and recognizing them for their efforts.”

Llanes says Visit Florida is eager also to communicate directly to Canadian consumers. “Florida is a very big place that has very many unique experiences and places to see beyond the very well-known ones… We have to give people a strong emotional reason to visit those places.”

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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