After a pitched battle in Tallahassee over the importance of the public-private agency’s marketing efforts, state lawmakers slashed funding for Visit Florida to $50 million for the budget year that starts July 1, down from $76 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year. With visitor counts shattering records year after year, Florida’s tourism sector has emerged as an unstoppable force, an economic driver that brings in billions of dollars a year. Now state leaders are posing a $26 million question: How much of the influx can be attributed to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency? And how many visitors would come no matter how much taxpayers invest in advertising? After a pitched battle in Tallahassee over the importance of the public-private agency’s marketing efforts, state lawmakers slashed funding for Visit Florida to $50 million for the budget year that starts July 1, down from $76 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year. House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has made no secret of his antipathy toward Visit Florida, an agency he has deemed “unnecessary.” Arguing that Walt Disney World and other private-sector players already market Florida as a tourism destination, Oliva says there’s no reason for taxpayers to support the industry. “In a trillion-dollar economy, a few million dollars put toward advertising a few different places cannot possibly have a direct correlation with tourism,” Oliva said last month. Oliva pushed to end state funding for Visit Florida entirely. While that didn’t happen this year, tourism officials fear the marketing arm remains on the chopping block for the next legislative session. Tourism boosters acknowledge that Disney World, which will open a Star Wars attraction later this year, and Universal Studios will remain major draws with or without Visit Florida. In Palm Beach County, iconic destinations such as The Breakers in Palm Beach and the Boca Raton Resort seem likely to prosper with or without state marketing money. But other, less prominent destinations might suffer — and tourism boosters warn that California, Texas and other rivals for Florida’s visitors are poised to pounce on the budget cuts.
“If Visit Florida goes away, Miami will be fine. Orlando will be fine,” said Andrew Hertz, a former chairman of Visit Florida who runs a billboard company in Miami. “If you’re taking away Visit Florida, all you’re doing is making Miami and Orlando the epicenter of tourism, and everything else is secondary or tertiary, if even that.”
That possibility worries Jennifer Berthiaume, managing director of Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee. The attraction’s out-of-the-way location begs for marketing. “We’re 15 miles from I-95, so we need that opportunity to be promoted,” Berthiaume said. “We definitely are concerned.” Virginia Haley, a member of Visit Florida’s board and head of Visit Sarasota, said Visit Florida’s marketing muscle has provided important support to her agency. “We needed them at the top of the funnel to get people interested in Florida, and then we could get involved in smaller campaigns to market Sarasota,” Haley said. After last year’s red tide outbreak scared tourists away from Southwest Florida, money from Visit Florida bolstered Sarasota’s visitor counts for February and March. Visit Florida’s past budgets have included emergency funds to respond to algae outbreaks, hurricanes and other natural disasters. “I’m worried, because there won’t be that flexibility next year,” Haley said. Meanwhile, Haley said, she’s unlikely to attend an important tourism trade show in London without Visit Florida’s backing. “You wouldn’t even be able to find our booth if we weren’t in the Visit Florida booth,” Haley said. “We’d have to skip it.” The battle over Visit Florida comes amid a backdrop of ever-rising tourism. A record 124.7 million tourists visited the state in 2018, another banner year in a string of record years since the Great Recession. In the first quarter of 2019, 35.7 million people visited the Sunshine State, a 5.8 percent increase from the first three months of 2018 — and, of course, another record. Fiscal conservatives in the House question Visit Florida’s role in the record run. After all, who doesn’t know that Florida is home to warm weather, miles of beaches, theme parks, outlet malls and golf courses? The battle over Visit Florida’s budget mirrors an earlier fight over Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency. House Republicans targeted that organization, questioning the wisdom of offering job incentives to private employers. Visit Florida, for its part, spurred controversy by spending millions on eyebrow-raising promotions, including $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and $1 million for Miami hip-hop artist Pitbull to promote Florida in videos and on social media. Hertz, who served on Visit Florida’s board until this month, argues that the Pitbull promotion was misunderstood — and that it achieved its goal of pitching Florida to millennials. “The money that was spent on Pitbull had a budgeted return on investment of eight to one. We got 10 to one,” Hertz said. “It wasn’t just a good way to spend money. It was an efficient way to spend money. (Opponents) just didn’t like the face that was attached to it.” With the state cutting Visit Florida’s budget, those sort of campaigns seem unlikely to continue. Staci Mellman, Visit Florida’s interim chief marketing officer, said the budget cuts will force the agency to rein in its spending. “We’re just going to have to make our media dollars work harder for us,” Mellman said. “Some of those high-value, high-dollar impacts, like television, are going to be off the table.” Even as Florida has tried for decades to transform itself into a high-tech, high-wage locale, the low-paying tourism industry remains a cornerstone of Florida’s $1 trillion economy While there’s no central cash register tallying up visitors’ value, taxable spending is a proxy. Tourism generated taxable spending that totaled $102 billion in 2018, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of data from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research. Even so, those who work in the tourism industry are vexed by the 34 percent cut in state funding for Visit Florida. “I’m optimistic,” Lion Country Safari’s Berthiaume said. “But I’m also realistic that cutting funding is going to have a ripple effect throughout the state.”
By Jeff Ostrowski with Palm Beach Post