17 JUL 2017: Ken Lawson, the new CEO of Visit Florida took over at a turbulent time. The problems began last summer after Visit Florida had hired Armando Christian Perez to promote the State, and company executives agreed to keep secret the details of the contract signed with Perez, known more familiarly as Pitbull. By December the sand had hit the seabreeze - Florida lawmakers and the media went wild over redacted contracts and million dollar payments and, long story short, Visit Florida’s then CEO, COO and CMO were history.  

In January 2017, Governor Rick Scott appointed Ken Lawson Visit Florida CEO.

Lawson’s short tenure has not been without drama – the Pitbull incident had political repercussions – these are just the bare facts:

• Despite strong opposition by Governor Rick Scott and the state’s tourism industry, the Florida House Careers and Competition subcommittee passed a bill in early February to pull state funding for Visit Florida.

• Barely two weeks later The Florida House Appropriations Committee voted to slash Visit Florida’s budget by 67 percent.

• Governor Scott, a Republican, worked against his own party members in the Florida legislature warning that the move would lose tourists and cost jobs.

• By June the state’s tourism industry breathed a sigh of relief and those that did the heavy lifting deserved a round of applause, as the state legislature passed House Bill1A which will provide $US 76 million in funding for Visit Florida for the next fiscal year.

So now, Ken Lawson is out reassuring Canadians, (and everyone else), that Florida is open for business.

“The thing to make sure in Canada,” he told us, “Is that Canadians know they are important, they are number one, and Florida welcomes them.”

It is also important, he says, to ensure that Visit Florida has programmes in place that help the community - the DMO’s across Florida and the world, and he has Visit Florida focusing on programmes and marketing strategy that’s based on metrics and measurable ROI.

Asked whether he had faced any problems with the “political contingent” Lawson replied,

“Not at all, we have the funding and to be honest we’ve had a tough session. Things have happened in the past that perhaps should not have happened, but our partners at the Governor’s conference are committed – our partners across the state – the DMOs- they stood up and they explained the importance of Visit Florida as an umbrella to market Florida.”

The politicians in the House and Senate came together and, while under the legislation that was passed regarding funding, there’s a transparency requirement Visit Florida has to fulfil, Lawson is not concerned, “That’s fine.” He says.

Lawson says that contrary to reports, under the new regulations Visit Florida partners and Board Members salaries are not made public. If a DMO partners with Visit Florida, according to Lawson, any fees paid that member to be on the Board are public – not his/her private salary.

Lawson said he and his general counsel walked through the provisions with all the DMOs in a conference call, “of course we told each one to check with legal counsel – but based on our reading this is what we found.”

He said conversations with members of the house and senate about the language and the process regarding salaries being made public had the same response. They will not be made public.

“There was confusion on this originally and many versions were out,” he admits, “but the version that matters is this one. We talked to people and we explained and went through the process and we’ve had people join us. Some people perhaps have made some choices in the short term, in the long term. We do have some partners say they are not going to join us – they just want to watch and see what happens and that’s all right, and others are joining us which is good. But the burden of requirement is on Visit Florida not the DMO.”

Asked about his qualifications for the position, Lawson notes he had been serving as the Secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), which gave him contact with hotels, restaurants and some (slight) interaction with Visit Florida.

He was born and raised in Florida then joined the military. He lived Washington, and was assistant general counsel at the TSA.

“One of the best jobs in the world. We had lawyers, airport security counsels at every major airport – so my job was to fly all around the country – I spent a year doing that – seeing our country and then I was in Djakarta, Indonesia, for two and a half years and I saw Asia and then came back – I love Florida. And, back in 1986 I did an internship in Florida Tourism.” He says with a grin.

“Here’s my job, it’s not just to market Florida, but also serve as a leader for our industry – each DMO has a responsibility, but as head of marketing for Florida, if we need someone to provide authority, to provide clarity, it they need direction, I’ll provide it. But also recognize this is a partnership – we’re not here to tell you what to do – this is a dialogue to help each other.

“I’m a lawyer, we say ask your lawyer to give you guidance – but we are happy to talk to you and answer questions.”

Lawson says he is available to anyone with questions on Visit Florida, in fact he suggested we publish his email so readers can reach out to him directly should they wish to – so here it is:

klawson@VISITFLORIDA.org

“We took a beating and we’re standing tall.” Says Lawson, who is enthusiastic about his marketing plan for which he hired an outside consultant – and he believes it will show results.

“In this past year we had our highest rate of out of state tourists coming to Florida $112.3 million and the previous year they spent $109 billion - $11.3 billion tax revenue for Florida – that’s huge.

“We’re getting great results – in terms of our organization – good programmes, metrics – current marketing plan, research base, we have a great return on investment – so our marketing plan – especially international, works.”

The top producers – Canada, the UK and Brazil.

This past year 3.2 million Canadians spent $3.5 billion in Florida.

But that’s down from 2013 when 4.5 million Canadians visited Florida.

Lawson admits that Florida might have taken the Canadian market for granted, and he’s upped spending in Canada.

“This past year we’ve increased spend in Canada, and now we’re going to see the results. But recognize also that Canada has changed – we have our snowbirds, but we also have new Canadians, young millennials.” Said Lawson, suggesting that vacation choices might change within these groups.

“We need to concentrate on key countries where we’ve seen some decreases –we saw a decrease in Canadians, saw a decrease in New Zealand, also we have some challenges in the UK – this year we had a great campaign, but we saw a lot of competition from California and other States.”

China is number five or six in visitation, but it is an emerging market that Florida is cultivating, and the Germans market is also growing. Citrus Springs is a particular favourite with Germans.

As for any political fallout (local and national), “Last year we had our best year ever. First quarter this year – best quarter ever – we’re not seeing a drop off – think about what we have to offer – you can’t deny that – there may be concern from some of our partners, but not from our customers.”

Still, he says, “what we have to do as an organization is a better job in sharing what we have to offer so people will come.”

We asked whether when pitching Florida whether he compared his state to other states such as California or New York?

“Sure,” chuckles Lawson, saying he’ll do what it takes. “I’ll compare us to Dubai, Paris any place in the world – ‘cause we have the best product in Florida. I know. I’m from Florida. Born and raised.

“There’s more to Florida than beaches. Just look at the Tampa area – Tampa, St Pete, Clearwater, Sarasota – so you’ve got art, music, culture, great restaurants, tons of art galleries – the Dali, the Ringling Museum - the bottom line is we need to share that message - that diversity.”

Lawson is on the road, selling his product. Toronto was just one stop of many, “I am travelling the State of Florida and also traveling to meet key partners to explain who we are and what we are doing. I met with the consul general of Brazil, went to Canada Day, and am planning to meet with all the consul generals based in Florida from other countries. Then I meet with the politicians to be sure they understand the changes, the transparency, accountability – how marketing Florida impacts in districts - to every DMO across Florida.

“My career has been a progression as to what’s needed in leadership and understanding the importance of the marketplace, tourism and our stake.

“I fought the war and now I’m making the peace and explaining how Florida benefits from all our efforts. That’s the most important thing.”

 

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