State Lawmakers Divided On Funding Visit Florida

The plug could be pulled on Visit Florida if the Sunshine State’s destination marketing organization doesn’t receive state funding.

As it stands, the House and Senate are split on Visit Florida’s importance.

State Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican, has proposed a plan that would fund Visit Florida until October 1, 2019, before the doors would shutter.

“We have a history with Visit Florida in this particular chamber,” Trumbull told the Tampa Bay Times when asked about the House’s position.

That history includes two contracts that drew the ire of lawmakers. One was a $1 million promotional contract with rapper Pitbull and another was an  $11.6 million deal for a cooking show hosted by celeb chef Emeril Lagasse.

Another argument against the destination marketing organization is that the state practically advertises itself because of the beaches, amusement parks, pro sports teams and weather.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, believes that thinking might be fine for the big name cities across the state but points to the smaller towns that really take advantage of Visit Florida.

“Many people think that Visit Florida is about promoting, you know, the big areas, the big attractions. That is not where Visit Florida targets,” Dover told WGCU. “Many of our larger areas in Florida don’t need as much marketing as say our rural areas.  Like Panama City now when they begin to come back, Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe. Who’s going to tell people they’re back open for business when they get back opened?”

But even the large cities like Miami Beach appreciate Visit Florida’s marketing powers.

Alex Tonarelli, managing director for the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, wrote an opinion piece in the Miami Herald explaining why Visit Florida should continue promoting the state.

“As hoteliers, it’s difficult to sell our properties unless the meeting planner has a positive impression and is educated on how much our state has to offer,” Tonarelli wrote. “This is where the value of local and state tourism promotion agencies come in. The marketing and advertising programs of Visit Florida and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau raise awareness about everything Florida has to offer.”

Tonarelli goes on to note that Florida saw a record 126.1 million visitors in 2018.

Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young believes the agency is the major driving force behind that massive number of visitors and noted that the organization has a $2.15 return on investment for every $1 spent, which is backed by the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Eye-popping numbers like that is what has state senators like Joe Gruters of Sarasota and Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg backing the continuation of Visit Florida.

A bill submitted by Gruters, which would remove the repeal date and make Visit Florida permanent, has already passed committee.

“They play a very important role in terms of marketing our state. Especially when we have issues come up like (hurricanes) Matthew, Michael and Irma as well as red tide. They make sure that people know we are open for business,” Gruters told WGCU.

Gulf Coast tourism officials have echoed Gruters’ sentiments on Visit Florida’s importance to areas affected by red tide.

Jack Wert, executive director for the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau, told Florida Politics that Southwest Florida is “very dependent on the many services” Visit Florida provides.

One of those services was the $500,000 in grants the Visit Florida awarded to counties hit by red tide in 2018.

Another was $250,0000 in emergency funding to help speed up the recovery efforts after Hurricane Michael.

“We benefit the entire state, not just members of the tourism industry,” Young told the House committee.

Whether or not Visit Florida stays open will be decided come early May when the state’s 60-day legislative session comes to a close.