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Wanted: New Leader for Visit Pensacola

Visit Pensacola

Visit Pensacola is saying farewell to its president and CEO of the past six years, and beginning the search for his successor.

Steve Hayes announced in October he’s accepted a similar position with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater in Pinellas County. He took over Visit Pensacola in 2013, helping it break away from the Chamber of Commerce to become a standalone tourist organization.

“Keep in mind during that time period – even before I got here – there was already some talk about ‘how do they go through to do that?’ And this was in ’13, three years after BP [oil spill]. So you still had the growth – people unaware of what was going on within the Pensacola area and even in Northwest Florida.”

But as Hayes and others discovered, there was more to creating an agency focused on tourism than just hanging out a shingle and changing the stationary.

“You had to create bylaws for the organization; what would your board look like, creating the finance policies, travel policies, you had to come up with an employee manual,” said Hayes. “Essentially you’re taking the current staff and then transitioning them, and then what equipment are you going to need? But I think it’s been very successful.”

Hayes then asked the question, “What is that long-term strategic plan for tourism?” The answer was an initiative called Destination 2020, for which Hayes provided the framework.

“We brought in national leaders to talk about the big picture; and then people around the table in Pensacola,” said Hayes. “Stakeholders, and non-stakeholders to talk about ‘what does this thing about tourism look like?’ And if we said in five years what does it look like to kind of get them thinking beyond that.”

By all counts, Destination 2020 is a success — tax collections on tourist development are up by 58%, visitor spending up 24%, and growing the number of visitors has risen 27%. A lot of that, says Hayes, was getting the information and developing a yardstick.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Outgoing Visit Pensacola President and CEO Steve Hayes, at a "Tourism Works" event in 2018.

“[When] I came here we did not have a solid research program,” Hayes said. “Now, we can go back and say, in 2018, visitors to this community spend almost $840 million, and they’re generating $23 million in local taxes. That’s our visitor and what they’re contributing to the local economy.”

“In the three years I’ve been on the board, [Steve Hayes] has really moved the needle, both with his understanding of the tourism visitation industry, [and] his understanding of our community, the strengths of this community and the unique attributes that make Pensacola such a phenomenal place to live,” said Retired Navy Capt. Sterling Gillum, who’s director of the National Naval Aviation Museum and incoming chairman of the board for Visit Pensacola.

The board will look for Hayes’ successor with the help of the headhunter firm SearchWide Global which specializes in the tourism destination marketing industry.

“They are at the start of what probably will be a 16-week – maybe a little bit longer – process,” said Gillum. “To try to determine what do we need in a president, to continue to move the ball forward such as Steve has done in his time here.”

Plans are to identify qualified candidates – the total number to be determined. But Gillum says they do want to cast a wide net.

Credit Escambia County
Former Escambia Co. Administrator Jack Brown, who becomes interim CEO at Visit Pensacola on Dec. 12.

“I suspect when SearchWide interview the folks, they’ll slay things like, ‘We want someone who understands the industry; appreciates the unique attributes of Pensacola, because this is not just another beach down,” said Gillum. “Pensacola has so many things to offer here. Also, the ability to lead.”

During the search, former Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown will take over on an interim basis. 

“That gives us a go-to franchise player who understands the industry,” Gillum said. “He understands the funding mechanism that supports Visit Pensacola as a county administrator. And he’s a superlative individual, whose hallmark during his military service was strategic planning.”

“I will continue to manage the day-to-day operations of Visit Pensacola and continue to look for new events to bring to Pensacola and work with the board,” said Brown, who will also do some work to update the organization’s strategic plan and help out with some ongoing projects.

“Right now we’re pursuing a [sic] RFP [Request For Proposal] with the Sun Belt Conference, to potentially host a basketball tournament here in 2021, 22, 23,” said Brown. “We’ve got a lot of things going – we’re trying to get the tall ships back, and we’re excited.”

And now the $64 question: is Jack Brown interested in dropping the “interim” tag by applying for the job? He says stay tuned.

“I really don’t know at this point; I want to get to know the people,” said Brown. “I found out a long time ago that it’s better to do your due diligence, than to just jump into something. It will be something my wife and I will talk about.”

Dec. 12 is both Steve Hayes' final day at Visit Pensacola, and Jack Brown’s first day. Hayes begins his duties in St. Pete-Clearwater on Dec. 16.