Tourism 'rebound' likely to take time

Getting Florida back to pre-coronavirus tourism numbers could take several years, state tourism-marketing officials acknowledged Thursday as they moved forward with a “rebound effort.”

“We know that this rebound is going to take a while, and we have to make sure that Florida continues to be a top travel destination,” Visit Florida Chief Marketing Officer Staci Mellman told members of the state-backed agency’s Executive Committee in a conference call.

The rebound plan, which still must go before the Visit Florida Board of Directors, is considered “flexible” as the agency continues to survey tourism businesses across the state to better understand the impact of the crisis on the industry.

“You use the word flexibility,” said Visit Florida Chairwoman Virginia Haley, who is the president of Visit Sarasota County. “I think that will be the watchword for all of us as we react to changes in the consumer mindset over the next couple of years.”

Current marketing plans have been put on hold, with the hope that summer domestic travel can move into fall. The same applies to what is considered more adventurous international travel from England and Brazil.

“We're not running with those marketing campaigns. We don't plan on continuing running with those marketing campaigns for the summer,” Mellman said. “But we've seen an uptick in interest for fall. And, definitely, I think winter is another opportunity to kind of put that Florida message out there. Again, an opportunity for us to pitch what we have best and give people maybe a second chance at summer, because they haven't been able to get that summer experience.”

The plan is also advancing as Visit Florida awaits an anticipated report on the decline in rental-car use, as a surcharge on the vehicles helps the agency’s Tourism Promotion Trust Fund.

Visit Florida has not released first-quarter tourism numbers, which will include the period of coronavirus-caused shutdowns in March. Among other things, Major League Baseball halted spring training, theme parks were shuttered and spring breakers were told to go home to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Florida had a record 36.4 million visitors during the first quarter in 2019, starting what would be a record 133.7 million travelers in the state for the year, according to state figures.

A recent survey of tourism-related businesses by Destinations Florida, which represents travel-marketing organizations, found that companies that had laid off employees over a three-week period leading up to April 15 had reduced staff by an average of 73 percent. The survey also found mid-April hotel occupancy at 13 percent, down from 84 percent at the same point a year earlier.

Visit Florida has started to run ads on the Dallas-based syndicated radio show Kidd Kraddick Morning Show and has launched a video series focused on Florida artists and creators as a way to keep Florida in people’s minds, Mellman said.

Still, the agency is approaching the rebound in a more methodical manner, preferring to wait to see how eager Floridians are to go beyond their homes and hometowns as new COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to increase.

Dan Rowe, a Visit Florida board member who heads the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, cautioned agency officials to follow public health recommendations but also that any statewide tourism effort might not benefit all parts of the state equally.

“I happen to represent a part of the state that gets very little in-state travel,” Rowe said. “I believe there's going to be partners in Northwest Florida that will be disenfranchised when the effort from the state marketing organization is focused on people who are not going to come to our market.”