As I watched Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and Speaker Richard Corcoran announce their plans for a special session to discuss tourism funding, I felt hopeful for the fate of Florida’s tourism industry. However, my optimism faded when I read the strict VISIT Florida provisions tucked inside House Bill 1A. Of course, I am deeply appreciative of our lawmakers’ willingness to rethink the issue of VISIT Florida’s funding, but I am concerned the severe restrictions still hinder VISIT Florida’s ability to help smaller communities compete in the increasingly aggressive tourism promotion industry.
VISIT Florida must be able to operate to keep tourists, and revenue, flowing into the Sunshine State. Restoring its funding to $76 million is certainly a critical component to ensuring our tourism industry continues to flourish, but the bureaucratic red tape proposed by HB 1A counteracts the increased budget.
I am a proud member of Pensacola’s tourism industry, so the fund matching provisions found in HB 1A are especially troubling. In its current form, HB 1A could force VISIT Florida to partner only with the larger tourism industry businesses that can match funds, shutting out county destination marketing organization. The small businesses that previously benefited from state tourism promotion efforts by partnering with their local destination marketing organization (DMO), like Visit Pensacola, will no longer be afforded this opportunity — and they are the ones who need tourism promotion the most. Seafood shacks, bed and breakfasts, kayak rentals and numerous other companies do not have a marketing team and therefore rely on their local DMO to partner with VISIT Florida. Similar are the smaller destinations in Northern Florida, without the same brand recognition as some of our state’s larger cities — without cooperation between state and local tourism promotion, many of Florida’s hidden gems would remain a secret.
Like many smaller communities, tourism is Pensacola’s livelihood. The tourism industry employs more than 22,000 residents and relies on Pensacola tourists to feed their families and maintain their way of life. And, those outside of the travel industry benefit from our county tourism promotion efforts as well. For example, every dollar invested in marketing Pensacola creates $3.55 in tax revenue. The money generated by tourism helps improve our roads, maintain our beaches and fund other public projects.
DMO’s, like Visit Pensacola, enable smaller, local tourism businesses to participate in VISIT Florida marketing programs they could not afford without local support. The small businesses could maximize their minimal funds by getting a matching contribution from both the state and their local tax-funded tourism bureau. For example, a water sports attraction on the coast can achieve exposure in magazine advertisements by partnering with their local destination marketing organization, reaching millions of potential customers across the country at a significantly reduced cost. Now, local tourism businesses will be excluded from these types of opportunities.
Recently, Gov. Scott announced Florida welcomed a record 31.1 million visitors in the first three months of 2017. This accomplishment is a direct result of last year’s $76 million allowance for tourism promotion, coupled with each county’s investment in publicizing the Sunshine State. Now that counties and other long-term VISIT Florida partners are unable to help fund state marketing programs, the strength of the Florida brand will surely weaken.
We have proven time and time again that investing in tourism promotion is good public policy, and VISIT Florida’s success has been consistent. Small communities and businesses who have been partners since the beginning should not be punished by a shortsighted decision. HB 1A must be modified so that counties both big and small can continue to benefit from VISIT Florida’s tourism promotion efforts. Tourism must work for the entire state — we cannot leave small communities in the dust.
Steve Hayes is the vice chairman of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations (FADMO) and the president of Visit Pensacola.