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Will Seccombe’s nine-year tenure at Visit Florida — and as the organization’s CEO for the past four years — ended last month following a controversy involving Miami rapper Pitbull’s work with the organization and Visit Florida’s lack of transparency with taxpayer dollars used to promote the state to travelers.
Seccombe’s departure left destination marketers in the U.S. and abroad wondering about the future of tourism marketing in America’s most-visited state — and perhaps in their own.
Visit Florida, which received $76 million for tourism marketing and promotion this year, suddenly found itself in a fight for its existence. This week a Florida House of Representatives subcommittee voted in favor of a bill that would eliminate funding for Visit Florida.
The bill’s next step is a vote before the entire Florida House and State Senate, which a spokesperson for Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who supports the bill and has criticized Visit Florida, said could happen in mid to late March.
Other states such as Hawaii have since proposed legislation to make their tourism boards more transparent and their spending more accountable.
Despite missteps with funding transparency, Seccombe said Visit Florida reached its tourism goals each year. “I’m really proud of the work the team did, the results that they generated and certainly wish the team all the best moving forward to continue to build on that success,” said Seccombe.
Total annual visitation to Florida increased 34 percent from 82 million in 2009 to likely 110 million international and U.S. visitors in 2016, said Seccombe. Total annual out-of-state visitor spending in Florida was $108.8 billion in 2015, $30 billion more than total spending in 2010.
Since leaving Visit Florida, Seccombe has been consulting as president of Revolution Strategy, a Florida-based tourism, sports and entertainment focused strategic marketing practice, and said he plans to stay in the travel and hospitality industry.
Skift spoke to Seccombe last week about what he learned at Visit Florida. Seccombe declined to speak about the Pitball controversy and our conversation focused on the current state of destination marketing and near and long-term challenges for tourism boards.
An edited version of the interview is below.
Skift: Do destination marketing organizations work for household name destinations such as Florida when many travelers will probably visit with or without any marketing efforts anyway?
Will Seccombe: In a hyper-competitive global space, I firmly believe that destination marketing works. I think it works at the local level, at the small DMOs, at the large DMOs. I think it works at the state level, it works at the federal level. You can certainly see demonstrated success in each of those markets.
Certainly, some are more impactful than others, but I think in Florida we were able to demonstrate not only significant increase in growth in terms of out of state and international visitors, a significant increase in spending, which is ultimately the prize. Increased jobs in the hospitality space.
Not only was the state growing, and tourism in the state growing, but it was growing at a faster click than the rest of the country over the course of that time. We’re gaining market share.
Skift: Looking back on your time at Visit Florida, what were the key ingredients for successful destination marketing?
Seccombe: I think there are probably five key elements to successful destination marketing organizations. I think to see the DMOs that are successful, again, at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level, is you have to have them all.
You have to have visionary public sector leadership. Understand that promoting the destination is good not just for the visitors, but it’s good for the community in terms of generating economic impact, creating jobs in the community, providing quality of life services.
I think if you just look at Florida, there is no way that the 20 million Floridian population could sustain the diversity of attractions, of retail, of restaurants that we are able to enjoy but for the 110 million visitors that are here to spend their money. Again, it gets put in some context. In Florida, we have more people out of state and international visitors in the state of Florida today than live in 13 U.S. states.
Tourism provides the kind of benefits in terms of jobs, and quality of life, infrastructure, and restaurants, and shopping, that Floridians wouldn’t otherwise have. Tourism has a huge economic impact on the direct financial side, the job creation side and on the quality of life piece.
That doesn’t just naturally happen. You have to have somebody to set the bar. The public sector has to invest in either through tourism development taxes, state investment, whatever that level is it takes money to compete in hyper-competitive global marketplace. That only comes when you have visionary public sector leadership.
I also believe that you have to have a passionate and engaged private sector that buys in, participates. Helps drive strategy, but participates in the promotion. You can’t just write a check and think it’s going to grow share. The industry has to be brought into the solution.
Skift: With the public sector versus the private sector, which side were you able to engage or grow more? What do both sides need to work on? Whether that’s bringing on more players or shifting strategy in a different direction, for example?
Seccombe: I think, again, just looking back over nine years there has been a significant increase in participation and support from both the public sector and the private sector.
The budget growth from the $30 million to the $76 million is a signal that, and the private sector participation in Visit Florida, that marketing programs grew exponentially over that time as well.
I think as you look at the public-private partnerships, but even in destinations that are in government themselves, the success of engaging the private sector is critical.
It doesn’t have to be a membership model or partnership model like we had at Visit Florida. But having an actively engaged industry is going to be critical.
There’s always going to be a balance. That pendulum will shift from being more public driven and more private driven depending on certain circumstances, but I think both are critical for success.
Skift: What are some factors that can determine which way that pendulum may swing and how can you compensate for that as a tourism board?
Seccombe: It’s always a challenge. Again, a great lesson learned at Visit Florida is when there is public dollar being invested, it has to be accountable for a public dollar.
I think that I see an increase clearly in Florida but also in others places around the world in the demands for transparency and accountability. I think that’s not necessarily a function of tourism marketing or DMOs, but I think it’s more a function of the place in time where we are today with consumer confidence, or voter confidence and public confidence in institutions.
I think to the extent Visit Florida is a public-private partnership, it probably operated more on the private side than the public side. There’s a balance that has to be met. Clearly, the shift in Florida has been more towards the public side. With the idea that there are public dollars being spent it has to be accountable and transparent like any other government agency would be.
Skift: From what you know about what’s happening in other destinations, do you think other tourism boards are also facing a similar shift more towards the public side?
Seccombe: I don’t know if that’s so much the case. There’s more of a national mood. Not in the tourism marketing space, but just in following the U.S. election we’re probably at a 40-year low in terms of public confidence in institutions, whatever that institution is. I think that just adds to the demand for increased transparency and accountability. Across a lot of things, not just DMOs.
I think that just adds to the demand for increased transparency and accountability. Across a lot of things, not just DMOs.
Skift: Communicating with elected officials is a big part of any destination marketing organization’s job. What kind of conversations need to be had in the age of a new White House administration? What are some agendas that destination marketers need to address with their elected officials, whether they’re new or have had long tenures in elected office?
Seccombe: I think it’s continuing to demonstrate the return on investment for marketing issues at the grassroots level. The industry’s ability to create a sound economic impact and create jobs at the local level.
All tourism is hyper local as is all politics. It’s clearly articulating what the results are from destination marketing efforts. Like I said, there’s no question that destination marketing works.
Some might work better than others, but it all works. It’s generating economic activity in communities which, going back to the last conversation, is benefiting local citizens by creating revenue at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level that offsets what would be either lost services or increased costs for locals. Absent for the dollars that are being spent by visitors from outside the community.
Skift: And thinking about the challenges of attracting international travelers, whether your destination is in the U.S. or elsewhere, currency pressures are universally felt by all destinations at one point or another. What did you learn about that?
Seccombe: I think it’s incumbent upon a destination marketing group to be able to identify and understand how best to maximize the economic impact of tourism through a destination.
Certainly, there are different ways to look at it. You can shift resources to markets with fewer challenges. You can recognize the importance of those core markets, and double down, and grow market share in the down economy. Which I think is certainly what we had done.
Brazil will bounce back. The Canadian travelers are still coming. They might not be spending as much money, but they’re still coming and we want to make sure that they continue to do that.
Skift: Say for the Canadians, like you said, that are still coming but they might not be spending as much. What might they not be spending as much on? What area would be the first to take a hit? Is it accommodations, attractions, souvenirs or dining?
Seccombe: If you think about it, in reality, they’re probably spending the exact same amount of money in their mind. They just don’t realize it’s that much money here. You always tend to see trade-offs in travel.
We see that in down economic times and in the U.S. as well. People are going to make trade-offs based on their priorities and their passions. Some may choose to cook in a little bit more often. Others may choose to do different activities. You want to make sure you’re continuing to get the business there for the long-term health of the destination.
That being said, at Visit Florida we made a strategic shift a couple years ago to focus not on the volume, but focus on the economic impact. Again, in the near-term scenario of economic impact today you might make one decision.
If you’re looking long-term at the key core markets, Florida certainly won’t abandon our number one international market in Canada and lose market share when the tables are turned.
Likewise, Brazil would be the same scenario. Brazil was the hot market that everybody was after nipping at our heels. But when the economy is down we’re going to make sure we double down to maintain our growth share. It’s all about having a comprehensive strategy that all DMO stakeholders are aligned with.
Skift: Speaking of growing international market share — Brand USA was established in 2009. We’re now into the organization’s eighth year of existence and you worked with them during your time at Visit Florida. What are some lessons you’ve learned from having a national marketing arm to help represent Florida when Florida is already so well-known abroad?
Seccombe: With Brand USA there’s a lot of value in cooperative marketing efforts and the ability to leverage resources and turn one plus one into three, four and five. That’s what co-op marketing does.
Visit Florida is built on a co-op marketing model. I know Brand USA was built in many ways on that model, as well. They bring leverage to destinations that want to compete on the international level, recognizing that there are very few destinations in the U.S. that can aggressively compete in major international marketplaces just because of the cost of doing business.
You have to consider relative budget levels compared to not only other international destination but the general other products in major metro areas. That outweighs the investment based on the added investment of a Brand USA.
Skift: But last year Brand USA said that it was having difficulty meeting some of its goals for international visitation. How did that impact what you were doing at Visit Florida?
Seccombe: Think about this, again, if Florida tourism were to decline five percent that would have been a record visitation a year ago. If this year we were to decline five percent, that would have been a record for visitation last year, but that would mean $5.4 billion dollars out of the economy, $324 million dollars in lost sales tax collections and 70,000 job cuts.
Again, with success, you raise the bar every year. In Florida, we know every 85 visitors creates one job. The flip side to that is also true, if you lose visitors you lose jobs.
Skift: Looking ahead to the rest of 2017 and to future years, what are the largest challenges that destination marketers will face?
Seccombe: One challenge is always going to be securing the level of funding that you need. I think there’s very ample evidence and looking at case studies from around the country that when destinations increase funding it allows them to broaden their footprint, be more competitive and have a much higher awareness of the destination product as a result of increased funding. It is going to pay off.
The flip side is also there are too many case studies about what happens when funding is decreased. Probably Colorado tourism is the best, but when you pull back on funding, all of a sudden you’re not on travelers’ radar screen. They’re going to look at other places, and you’re going to see declines in tourism.
Colorado is the perfect case study for what happens when you pull back on marketing. We see marketers in any product know even in tough times, that’s when you want to double down to maintain and grow market share in tough economies.
Looking back on at any destination trying to do the same thing that’s been successful for them for the last five years, and tries to replicate that, and continue to do it for the next five years and hope for the same success isn’t going to happen.
The world is changing too fast. Consumer habits are changing too fast. Marketing metrics and marketing tools that are available to marketers to better connect with visitors, and continue to influence the decision-making process across that customer journey, are exponentially more powerful today than they were a few years ago.
Over the next five years, you’re just going to see that continue. I think that the successful destination marketing organizations are going to be those that destinations start to really reinvent their marketing efforts, given that rapidly changing landscape and the incredibly evolving technology that enables marketers to have much more direct, relevant interaction with travelers.
Those that do commit to innovation, and aggressively exploring some of these newer tools that are at our disposal, are going to be the ones that are successful with large or small budgets.
Skift: You’re talking about destinations engaging with travelers while they’re actually traveling, and recommending things to do or getting real-time feedback, right?
Seccombe: Yes, connecting visitors with recommendations of residents. We’ve all known forever that the advice of friends and relatives has always been, and will always be, the most powerful influence on travel decision.
Over the last several years, we as consumers increasingly trust advice and suggestions and recommendations of people we don’t even know more than we trust traditional marketing. How do you engage your residents and community to be advocates for your destination, your community, and your brand?
At Visit Florida, we had an incredibly successful program called Share a Little Sunshine with #LoveFL, a campaign that was incredibly powerful. I think well over a million pieces of user-generated content were contributed by people that love the state. That kind of a program and actively engaging other people in telling the destination’s story is going to be critical.
Follow on that with the social listening of what are Floridians talking about? What are people in your community talking about? How do you get them to engage in helping to promote the brand, as well?
That has more influence on a potential traveler than a really well-written ad. Because it’s authentic, it’s real. It’s very impactful.
Skift: What about the future of partnerships in destination marketing, given that a destination such as Florida has watched shifts in its relationship with public and private sector players in recent years?
Seccombe: There’s an extraordinary increase in the influence of partnerships with Facebook and what they’re doing in travel and tourism. Then there’s Google and what they’re doing in travel and tourism and Expedia and what they’re doing.
Then, all the innovation that’s coming out of the smaller start-up community around travel is going to make for a really exciting time. Again, I think their successful marketing efforts that we look back and we see in three to five years will look very, very different than the award winning, high performing work that’s being done today.