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Florida wants to show the world the tourism opportunities the state has to offer.

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Visit Florida is about to jump start tourism to its overlooked hidden gems in its northwestern region. The destination marketing organization was awarded a $10.5 million grant earlier this month to promote the eight counties in that region, said Visit Florida CEO and President Dana Young.

Young spoke with Skift about the grant, emerging travel trends in the state, how Los Angeles became a top inbound market, visa wait times, and more.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

$10.5 Million to Drive Tourism to Northwest Florida

Skift: Visit Florida was recently awarded $10.5 million from Triumph Gulf Coast, a state-funded non-profit, to promote its northwestern region.

Dana Young: All eight counties that were included in the group of counties that were deemed impacted by the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill many years ago. All of those counties came together with support of their county commissions and they partnered with Visit Florida to get this grant. 

Northwest Florida is so beautiful, sort of what you would think of old Florida, but beaches in that area, which we call the Florida Panhandle, are absolutely magnificent and uncrowded and certainly not as developed as you would see in South Florida. The counties are geographically large, but they’re less populated, some are more rural. It’s just a different feel up there. 

What’s your marketing strategy for this hidden gem?

We’re going to do a two-pronged marketing approach that aims to level out seasonality and introduce that region to new markets around the U.S. There’s going to be a regional campaign called “Adventure within Reach” that highlights adventure travel opportunities in all eight counties. 

The second prong is we’re developing individual marketing programs for each of the eight counties in coordination with their DMO to highlight the specific things that they want to show to the rest of the country.

What are some other campaigns you have in the works?

We did get $5 million in our budget this year, specifically earmarked for nature-based travel and trails and trail towns. We started this campaign last year. Many people do not realize that Florida has over 15,000 miles of trails, and they aren’t just hiking trails. They are hiking, biking, kayaking, paddle boarding, scuba diving, horseback riding. We even have a fishing trail that’s launched. Focusing on those adventure activities, definitely a push for us.

We are definitely seeing a real trend with impulse travel, people that are just able to get up and go. We are really looking to target these millennials and young adults that are impulse travelers with campaigns that are focused on increasing desirability and bookings in the spring months.

NAACP Travel Advisory’s Impact on Conventions

Last year, the NAACP put a travel advisory on Florida. Skift Meetings reported on a wave of conventions pulling out of the state due to its controversial laws. What was the impact on Florida’s events calendar?

My understanding just from conversations with the DMO heads around the state is that for any meetings that were canceled for any reason, there were three or four lined up to take their place. In 2023, revenue was up by 13% and grew faster for meetings and convention bookings than for leisure bookings. So I think that those sorts of advisories are publicity stunts more than anything. 

Latin America See Strong Rebound, But Visa Wait Times Aren’t Helping

How is Florida’s Latin American tourism source market performing? Has there been an impact from the long visitor visa wait times?

Latin America is really doing great. Mexico is particularly a shining star right now. Mexican visitation is the highest that we have seen since we started tracking those numbers.

The visa wait time issue is still very, very real and very, very significant in its impact to us. Florida is disproportionately impacted by this because we have such a huge level of visitation from Latin America. 

Brazil tourism recently reached a million. That’s the first time since 2019 that we’ve gotten to that level. A lot of those are new visa holders. 

I have met with the State Department on numerous occasions in person to talk about the wait times and what they’re doing. And after those meetings, it’s kind of funny, the wait times will go down in some markets then a few months later they’re back up. So I don’t know what’s going on over there, but they certainly can do better.

Tourism Recovery of Fort Myers Since Hurricane Ian

In the fall of 2022, Hurricane Ian devastated Lee County, home of Fort Myers. How has that area’s tourism sector recovered? I know it brought lots of negative publicity and destruction.

The negative earned media was huge. It was about $164 million in earned media because what they did is just show the destruction over and over again.

I was down there about six months ago and spent three days touring around the areas and they are actually doing well. So visitation is up, but they’re off about 29% from pre-hurricane 2022. But given that they have had sort of a limited number of accommodations that were open, they’ve been gradually reopening, that’s pretty darn good. 

As of April 11th, 77% of hotel rooms are back open and the airport saw a massive 29% increase this March compared to last year. They’ve got some new properties that have opened. There’s a brand new resort, Margaritaville Resort, on Fort Myers Beach that is stunning.  Everything’s trending in the right direction.

Californians Flock to Florida

During the pandemic, Florida wasn’t locked down for too long and did not stop marketing. Fast forward, what have been the long-term consequences of this?

Our numbers have been really just remarkable since 2019. We’re up 10.2% in travel spending from 2019. We’ve seen an increase in our domestic market share, which largely came from California. So that’s kind of fun. 

Prior to 2020, we had really done no marketing in California. We’ve not done any marketing in Los Angeles or on the West Coast, just because typically folks from California were vacationing in Hawaii or Mexico for warm weather vacations. But during the pandemic in 2020 and early 2021, we started marketing in certain cities in California and Oregon and Washington. 

LA has gone from not even on the radar to one of our top 10 inbound markets. They were looking for freedom and they found it here in Florida.

Florida’s Michelin Stars Attract Culinary Tourism

Like Discover Atlanta, Visit Florida partnered with Michelin to review local cuisines. What’s the payoff?

We are entering our third year of our partnership with Michelin. Orlando, Miami and Tampa each invested $150,000 and Visit Florida invested $150,000.

Prior to our partnership with Michelin, 37% of respondents in a survey that we do saw Florida as having unique local cuisine. Two years into our partnership with Michelin, 51% of respondents see Florida as having unique local cuisine.

When we entered into this, we wanted to make sure we were highlighting cuisine throughout the entire state, not just those three cities. We launched two different culinary based video series highlighting cuisine all over Florida. They’ve been extremely popular.

Has the Michelin Guide helped attract culinary talent to Florida?

Absolutely. We’re seeing chefs move to Florida from other cities because they see opportunity to get a star. A lot of restaurants are opening. Look, I mean that improves the quality of life for Floridians and visitors.

Visit Florida on TikTok

Congress just passed a bill that gives TikTok until next year to find a new owner or be banned in the U.S. Is Visit Florida on TikTok?

We were significantly ahead of the legislative push that a lot of states, including Florida, had. We just decided that that was not a platform that we wanted to use and we stopped using it and we’ve seen absolutely no impact to our reach.

We just feel like we were the smartest ones in the room. We did it early and we’ve already made other plans. A lot of state tourism boards are going to be struggling to fill that hole where as we did it very mindfully way back.

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Tags: california, florida, rural tourism, tourism, travel leaders, visa, visit florida

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