Visit Florida’s new CEO made a desperate plea to lawmakers Friday morning as they prepare to pass a budget that would slash the marketing organization’s funding by 67 percent.
The request from Ken Lawson, who was named to the job in January, was backed by statements from Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
“We need you to fund Visit Florida, not just because it’s an organization,” Lawson said. “Because we’re a state and we’re a brand and we’ve got to fight the competition that’s coming after us.”
Leaders from the Florida House and Senate this week agreed to a budget deal that would allocate $25 million to the tourism marketing corporation for 2017–18, down from $76 million this fiscal year. Earlier this month, Scott asked legislators to set aside $100 million for Visit Florida in a surprise increase from his earlier request.
The political wrangling follows a tumultuous stretch for the organization, which came under fire for a lack of transparency over a $1 million contract with the Miami rapper Pitbull. Three top executives, including former CEO Will Seccombe, were forced out, and the Florida House of Representatives threatened to pull funding altogether.
“A number of states have made ill-advised cuts to their tourism offices,” Dow said in his statement. “The economic consequences of this risky, discredited experiment are swift, severe and can take decades to recover from.”
Before the budget deal was reached, a dozen representatives from destinations throughout the state gathered at a Visit Florida-organized media luncheon in New York City early this week to pitch the beaches, theme parks, rocket launches, and other attractions in their various locales.
It was a routine get-together in what has been a not-so-routine year.
“We never thought that [funding] was going to completely go away,” said Nicole Stacey, director of marketing and communications for Visit Pensacola. “This is the worst it’s ever been, the fear.”
At this week’s event in New York City, representatives for the destinations said the organization helps them expand their reach — “for instance, this event,” one pointed out — but also gives a crucial boost to international efforts.
Visit Florida helps overseas journalists travel to the state, joins forces with local groups on advertising campaigns, and creates incentives for airlines to fly to local airports, among other initiatives.
“We would not be able to pay the airfare for all the journalists that Visit Florida brings in,” said JoNell Modys, public relations and communications manager for the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity that would just disappear if Visit Florida’s budget were cut.”
Modys said her bureau is facing the prospect of reduced funding for marketing dollars at the county level as well.
“There are people who just do not understand the power of destination marketing,” she said. “If you don’t have a message in the marketplace directed at today’s travelers, you’re nowhere. They’re going to react to someone else’s message and go there.”
Canada, the UK, Germany, and Latin American countries including Brazil are all important sources of foreign visitors for Florida, and that international market is increasingly fragile as the strong dollar makes visits more expensive. Still unknown is how much the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies might discourage visitors. Emirates, for example, has already announced it is scaling back the number of flights to Fort Lauderdale and other U.S. cities due to actions taken by the administration.
On Friday in Florida’s capital, Lawson warned legislators that other states including California, Georgia, and Texas were already trying to capture the state’s tourists. And he said thousands of jobs could be lost if funding is cut to $25 million.
“If we fail to properly fund Visit Florida and be an arm to market these small, medium, and large communities across the country and world, we’re going to see it in our revenues,” Lawson said. “We’re going to see people unemployed, we’re going to see business not growing and we’re going to feel the pain of a philosophical discussion that could have gone another way.”