Visit Florida's recent history has been rocky. Will a former Republican lawmaker have success making the case to her old colleagues for increased funding?
Visit Florida has its newest president and CEO: Dana Young, a former state senator who narrowly lost her 2018 re-election bid.
On Monday, the tourism marketing corporation’s board of directors voted unanimously in favor of the Tampa Republican, who also served for six years in the Florida House of Representatives. Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, who will be sworn in Tuesday, nominated Young late last week.
Young, who starts Wednesday, will be the first woman to serve as head of Visit Florida and the first former state elected official in the role. She will be paid $175,000 a year, the same as her predecessor.
Board members cited Young’s history of support for the tourism industry over her eight years in the Florida Legislature as well as her political know-how as they praised her nomination during a call Monday afternoon.
“On many, many occasions we have been in her office asking her support on tourism issues,” said Carol Dover, chair of public affairs for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. “She has a stellar voting record with us, 100 percent all the time on tourism.”
Lino Maldonado, the board’s chair and a regional vice president for Wyndham Vacation Rentals North America, said Young would “no doubt help us maneuver” the upcoming legislative session that will determine Visit Florida’s funding level.
“It’s a really good choice,” said Danny Gaekwad, an entrepreneur, hotel owner, and treasurer of the board. “She will be very helpful in the upcoming session, I mean extraordinary.”
Visit Florida has been locked in budget battles over the past couple of years, though ultimately funding has remained stable at $76 million. The organization was rocked by scandal in 2016 over transparency concerns surrounding a $1 million marketing contract with the rapper Pitbull. In the fallout, Visit Florida’s CEO, chief financial officer, and chief marketing officer all resigned.
Ken Lawson was named the new CEO in early 2017; a former federal prosecutor, he had been serving as secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. DeSantis tapped Lawson to lead the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity in December. His last day at Visit Florida is Tuesday.
Young takes over an organization responsible for driving tourism to one of the country’s most-visited states. In 2017, nearly 119 million tourists came to Florida, an increase of nearly 6 percent from the previous year. The 2018 total is expected to increase as well, with visitation through the third quarter up 6.7 percent year-over-year.
After working as a lawyer, Young was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2010, then won a seat in the Florida Senate in 2016. The 2018 election that she lost was so close it went to a manual recount.
After the board’s vote, Young joined the conference call Monday to thank the group.
“I can’t tell you how honored I am to have your trust and your support,” she said. “I am absolutely thrilled with this opportunity and I promise you I will not let you down.”
She vowed to set meetings with the members “immediately — as soon as I find my office.”
This story has been updated to include more details about Young’s appointment.
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Photo credit: Dana Young, pictured in a still image from a 2016 campaign video. She was named the new Visit Florida president and CEO on Monday. YouTube