Legislative budget negotiators have reached a deal to extend the life of the state’s tourism agency, which had been set to expire in October.
Under the agreement on Senate Bill 178, the House and Senate will provide $50 million to Visit Florida, and move its expiration date to June 30, 2020. While lower than the $76 million Gov. Ron DeSantis requested, it’s higher than the Republican-led House initially proposed. House Speaker Jose Oliva is one of Visit Florida’s most vocal critics.
“The governor’s office has expressed a desire to have it continued, to go forward, so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is,” Oliva told reporters after the House floor session. “I don’t know about fully funding it, but obviously it is something that the governor wants to see and it’s something that he wants to be able to assess, and we want to be supportive of him.”
Oliva and other House leaders have questioned whether a state tourism agency is necessary. House Majority Leader Jay Trumbull and others point to a secret, one million dollar promotion deal with rapper Pitbull they viewed as reckless spending.
“The reality is where, maybe [Visit Florida] have not done things in the past where we’ve hashed things out,” said Turnbull. “We have to separate this out as a body and our conversations as we go back and forth with the Senate that we focus on issues as it relates to tourism marketing.”
Visit Florida is now under new leadership, with Dana Young the new President and CEO. She points to the state of Colorado defunding its tourism and marketing agency several years ago, which sent billions of dollars in tourism spending to neighboring states.
“Utah increased their tourism marketing budget and their market share increased dramatically,” Young said. “So I would think that Georgia; Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, they are cheering this decision because it’s going to increase their market share, at the detriment of Florida taxpayers.”
More than 126 million visited the Sunshine State last year, when Visit Florida’s budget was $76 million. And they bring their wallets -- spending $112 billion in 2016.
“I am optimistic; I’m familiar with this process,” said Young, a former state lawmaker. “Members are still talking; this is very much still in play. So we’re just going to continue making sure that people understand the positive impact that Visit Florida has on the economy.”
“They’re like the bandleader in the state; they’re the ones that really pull everyone together in the state to talk with commonality and messaging,” says Steve Hayes, President and CEO of Visit Pensacola. While not receiving any direct funding from Visit Florida, he says the supplementary help provided to local tourism would have taken a hit had Visit Florida been scrapped.
“When you look at some of the advertising opportunities out there, Visit Florida may have a co-op – where the cost for us is lower to participate than if we went and bought it on its own,” Hayes says. “We could probably go in there on our own, but that cost would be greater, which means it would limit other things that we go through and do.”
Opponents claim funding Visit Florida is a mishandling of tax dollars. They contend the state's reputation as a tourism hot spot is enough to entice travelers.
In other words, Florida “sells itself.”
“I would also ask legislators that have their own businesses if they feel that you don’t need to the advertising or the marketing,” said Hayes. “People would just find them naturally? Do they go through and cut the advertising in their own business?”
Rather than just throw money to the wind, Hayes credits Visit Florida for being meticulous with a buck.
“One of the things that I commend Visit Florida on – they take a look at their messaging and they go back through research. They can document what they’re doing, the things they’re involved in, what is that return on investment.”
Proponents of Visit Florida point, in part, to its ability to counter negative media attention when areas have been impacted by disasters such as Hurricane Michael and the red tide outbreak last year. The agency has also sent out a video declaring, “Visit Florida driving visitation year-round,” generating $2.15 for each dollar invested.