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VISIT FLORIDA President and CEO Dana Young.

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VISIT FLORIDA signs off on budget cuts

The agency survived Session — but took a 34 percent funding cut.

Faced with a “prove-it” year to state lawmakers, the board of Florida’s tourism-marketing arm on Wednesday approved a 30 percent payroll cut.

A reluctant VISIT FLORIDA Board of Directors agreed to slash payroll by $3.65 million, and strategic marketing by $17.8 million, with an acknowledgement the agency must do a better job of selling itself to lawmakers, particularly in the House, which sought to eliminate the public-private agency during this year’s legislative session.

VISIT FLORIDA survived in the Session — but took a 34 percent funding cut.

Board Chairman Lino Maldonado, vice president of operations for the gulf region for Wyndham Vacation Rentals North America, said there are “painful decisions ahead” as Visit Florida continues to compete against other states for tourists.

The budget reduction will require a number of staff members to be let go. Those decisions will start to be made now that the board has approved an operating budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The agency currently employees about 135 people, with an overall payroll of $12.1 million.

The cuts to marketing will mostly affect television spots seeking to attract winter and family travelers and will require the agency to rely more on digital and social media for advertising.

VISIT FLORIDA President and CEO Dana Young, a former state lawmaker from Tampa, said during Wednesday’s meeting at the Henderson Beach Resort and Spa in Destin that the agency will “make the best of every penny.”

“I believe that we will succeed in conveying our message,” said Young, who will travel this month with Gov. Ron DeSantis to Israel, where VISIT FLORIDA will host a networking reception with Israeli companies in Tel Aviv.

“So, that is an opportunity for us to show what we can do on the international stage,” Young, a former House and Senate member, said.

The board action came on the same day that DeSantis announced Florida set a new first-quarter record for visitors.

The estimated 35.7 million travelers to the state during January, February and March represents a 5.8 percent increase from the same period last year.

Board member Andrew Hertz, president of Dade Media which operates billboards and other outdoor advertising, advised members to hit lawmakers now with a “reality stick” on the importance of the agency, because he doesn’t anticipate major changes in tourism numbers in this “prove-it-to-us year.”

“I don’t think the numbers are going to prove anything to anyone if they are already skeptical,” Hertz said. “I don’t think we are going to see an uplift in our numbers or a downshift in our numbers that is going to be significant enough in the short run to make any difference to anyone depending upon what side of the fence they’re on.”

Under state law, the agency was scheduled to go out of business on Oct. 1 unless reauthorized by the Legislature. House leaders wanted to let it expire, but DeSantis’ support for the agency convinced lawmakers to allow it to continue until the June 30, 2021, end of the upcoming fiscal year.

DeSantis proposed spending $76 million on VISIT FLORIDA during the upcoming year but accepted a Senate compromise proposal of $50 million.

The House has maintained a hard-line stance against the agency in recent years, pointing to questionable past contracts and skepticism about the effectiveness of the tourism-marketing efforts.

As this year’s Session wound down, House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, said he accepted a request from the Governor’s office to keep VISIT FLORIDA in business for another year “so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is.”

Visit Florida board member Carol Dover, who for more than 20 years has been the president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said she had to read Oliva’s comment twice after it came across her phone.

“We’re going to have a really short summer and then we’re back in committee with drafts of legislation in September,” Dover said. “We have to market ourselves, and the campaign, I’m making it up as I’m sitting here, should look something like, ‘This is how necessary we are.’ ”

With the reductions, the public-private agency anticipates projected revenue for the upcoming fiscal year will be $112.1 million, down $61.3 million from the current year, which ends June 30. The total includes state money and private money.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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