Visit Florida tries to build legislative supports

Visit Florida logo

Florida’s embattled tourism-development arm has started a self-marketing campaign that is aimed at state lawmakers and highlights the industry’s vital economic role.

In arguing Tuesday to maintain funding for her agency, and to keep the doors open beyond the end of the current fiscal year, Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young pointed to a recent state report that noted the tourism industry is outperforming other sector of the economy. The report, known as a financial outlook, also warned that an economic slowdown was ahead.

“Even a 2 percent reduction in tourism-related revenue would result in an immediate decrease of $64 million in state sales-tax collections,” Young, a former lawmaker, said during a meeting of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee. “This risk is not to be taken lightly.”

The Senate committee is expected to offer a friendlier crowd for Young than the House, where leaders have questioned the need for Visit Florida.

Senate Commerce and Tourism Chairman Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, backed legislation during the 2019 legislative session to keep Visit Florida operating as it came under fire from the House. Lawmakers ultimately reached a compromise that reduced funding for the agency from $76 million in past years to $50 million during the year that started July 1.

The compromise also ensured that Visit Florida would remain in business through at least June 30. But that means the agency’s future could again be a contentious issue during the 2020 session, which starts Jan. 14.

Tourism trade groups have started lobbying to restore funding to $76 million for the public-private agency, which supporters say has helped drive record numbers of tourists in recent years.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Jose Oliva has dismissed concerns that tourism would be hurt if Visit Florida went away.

“If we set another tourism record with Visit Florida’s budget cut in half, it begs the question, is it necessary at all?” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said last month when asked about funding for the agency.

House leaders have sought to eliminate Visit Florida, pointing in part to questionable spending from several years ago that included an $11.6 million deal to sponsor a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $2.875 million contract with an auto-racing team known as Visit Florida Racing and a $1 million promotion contract with Miami rapper Pitbull.

Young’s lobbying effort comes after the funding reduction this year forced the agency to cut staff from 146 to 85. The agency has also made various other cuts, such as shifting advertising from more-expensive broadcast television to digital and social media sites and reducing staff travel.

Economists have warned about an economic downturn, estimating that the state will bring in $867 million less in revenues over two years than projected earlier. Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, told lawmakers last month that tourism now accounts for a record-high 13.4 percent of overall revenues.

Tourism has also covered for sagging construction numbers, particularly in suburban home building. Young said economists have found that for every $1 in tourism marketing, the state receives a $2.15 return on investment.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has requested $50 million for the agency next year. In pitching that request, Young played up the role of the agency in promoting to the world that Florida remains open to tourists whenever a disaster hits one part of the state.

She also said Visit Florida has been able to match the state’s investment through funding from companies that include Disney World, Busch Gardens, Legoland, and Universal Orlando, particularly for international marketing.

“These companies write checks to Visit Florida, not the other way around,” Young said. “While it is probably obvious that these companies don’t rely upon Visit Florida to succeed, they do find tremendous value in the umbrella brand that our organization provides.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.