With COVID-19 tourism collapse in rear view, VISIT FLORIDA seeks long-term stability

Pensacola - Family in innertubes at Pensacola Beach - 2020 (credit- Visit Pensacola) (Full Marketing Rights)
VISIT FLORIDA has been on a short leash for years. That could change.

With Florida now all but emerged from the catastrophic tourism collapse of the the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, the state’s tourism marketing agency is looking for long-term stability.

That could be found in two bills expected to move in the 2022 Legislative Session: Palm Harbor Republican Sen. Ed Hooper‘s Senate Bill 434, which would extend VISIT FLORIDA’s lease on life eight years to 2031, or St. Pete Beach Republican Rep. Linda Cheney‘s House Bill 489, which would push the agency’s sunset date forward five years to 2028.

“Certainly, either of bills those gives us the ability to focus again on a more directed way on just marketing, and not so much on the Legislative Process,” VISIT FLORIDA President Dana Young said. “The advantages of just having certainty are immense.”

VISIT FLORIDA, the quasi-independent agency chartered to advertise and promote Florida, has had little certainty for four or five years. That, Young said, has hampered not just the agency’s ability to recruit and retain staff but to negotiate good contracts.

The bills are being considered at what could be called a good time for VISIT FLORIDA and the state’s tourism industry.

In July, August and September — the third quarter of this year — Florida tourism’s pandemic recovery looked essentially complete as the Sunshine State set a new third-quarter record for visitors, welcoming 32.5 million people. With a pretty good second-quarter performance — not quite a record for Florida’s spring season, but not far off — Florida appears back on track.

Now Young and the agency’s supporters in the Legislature hope to settle into more routine operations, something not seen since the mid-2010s.

For a while, starting in 2015, the agency had become a legislative punching bag,  beset by harsh charges of bloat, misspending, ineffectiveness, junkets, questionable bonuses, lavish celebrity contracts, infighting, and lack of accountability. Audits and investigations followed. Even if none of that had happened, a growing backlash, born of conservatives’ argument that government shouldn’t be funding business activities anyway, found air. Some liberals questioning tourism promotion as a priority for tax dollars concurred.

The agency, its board and its leadership, were overhauled. Its budget was slashed. The agency was put on a short leash, with a year-by-year sunset clause. The Legislature could dissolve it simply by not approving a new bill to reauthorize it every year.

Last year, under Young, a former Senator, the agency managed to leverage enough promotional campaigns in Florida and nearby states to help Florida’s tourism economy survive a near total collapse as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel. Last spring, VISIT FLORIDA’s existence got a little breathing room: a two-year sunset clause, until 2023.

“We’ve proven that we are a very fiscally responsible, transparent organization,” Young said.

Funding is another matter. After 2018, Florida’s annual allotment of tax money for the agency was shaved to $50 million, from $76 million. Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ proposal for 2022 is unchanged.

Practically speaking that could spell a slight decline. For 2021, the agency was able to tap two federal programs, receiving a $25 million grant through the pandemic relief CARES Act that went into expanding marketing efforts; and $5 million from an Economic Development Administration grant, which VISIT FLORIDA used to help leverage local organizations — with an 80-20 match of state and local money — to help them market their attractions across Florida.

There’s a chance for another $14 million in federal money this year. Otherwise, VISIT FLORIDA must brace for reductions in those programs.

Young argues VISIT FLORIDA has demonstrated its effectiveness through the tumultuous coronavirus crisis and travelers’ quickly changing comfort levels, with changing strategies and programs that can market the small, outdoor activities and attractions that often get overlooked in the big picture images of beaches, theme parks and city life.

The pandemic took hold in the second quarter of 2020. Florida’s visitation fell 72% in that April, May, and June, compared to the second quarter of 2019. Domestic travelers declined 68%, and international travelers disappeared, dropping 98%. The third and fourth quarters of 2020 were bad, too. But the theme parks and other major attractions reopened, and VISIT FLORIDA refocused its advertising to target drive states like Georgia and the Carolinas. The summer and fall of 2020 were stronger than the spring. Improvements continued through the first few months of 2021, and by late summer even the business travel market began picking up again.

Florida tourism numbers in 2021 won’t approach the record 131 million visitors Florida enjoyed in 2019, just before the pandemic. But 2021’s final count, which should be available in early 2022, likely will match or exceed what Florida saw as normal as recently as 2017, when 118 million people came calling. And if Florida’s third quarter of 2021 tourism trends continue, 2022 likely could at least start out on pace for a new annual record. After all, international tourists only began traveling again in any significant numbers in November, when the United States lifted its pandemic travel ban.

During its times of trouble a few years ago, VISIT FLORIDA was constantly trying to defend its rate of return on tax dollars it spent. Now the agency is touting those numbers. The latest report from the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research showed VISIT FLORIDA attracts visitors who provide $3.27 in new tax revenue for ever $1 the state gave VISIT FLORIDA to attract them.

“We are making money for the state of Florida,” Young said.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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