After 'hard and messy' battle, Visit Florida faces new problems
The state's tourism marketing program, Visit Florida, got all of its money back, but at a very steep price.
Weeks after Gov. Rick Scott struck a compromise with House Speaker Richard Corcoran to impose a list of new regulations on Visit Florida in return for its $76 million budget, the marketing of one of the world's most popular tourist destinations is in serious disarray. You wouldn't know if from the governor's frequent references to record visitors, but Visit Florida has plenty of problems.
Tormented by fiscal uncertainty during the legislative session, several high-level tourism officials simply quit and moved on, forcing Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson to undertake a reorganization plan and to scramble to seek applicants for key jobs. At the same time, a dozen local tourism programs said goodbye, severing their partnerships with Visit Florida when the new fiscal year began July 1 rather than comply with the many new transparency requirements.
"We have not renewed our partnership as we often would do," said Visit Tampa Bay spokesman Patrick Harrison. "We still don't have a clear idea as to quite what the new regulations mean. We're kind of in a wait-and-see pattern."
Harrison said Visit Tampa Bay interprets the new law to require local tourism board members, who serve without pay but who also have full-time jobs in the private sector, to disclose their income (the bill requires disclosure of "employee and board member salary and benefit details from public and private funds.") Said Harrison: "That is one of the concerns." (Visit Florida has a different and less burdensome interpretation of that provision).
Other local tourism programs that have cut ties with Visit Florida are Amelia Island, Brevard County, Discover the Palm Beaches, Experience Kissimmee, Florida Keys & Key West, Franklin County, Greater Miami, Orlando North Seminole County, Santa Rosa County, Visit Orlando, and Visit South Walton. That's a lot of Florida, and the breaking of those marketing partnerships means an end, for now at least, to co-op advertising that promotes local destinations, especially in overseas markets.
Scott and Corcoran sealed Visit Florida's fate. First he demanded the ouster of former CEO Will Seccombe last December and more recently he signed House Bill 1A into law June 26.
Tourism officials are grumbling privately that the governor capitulated to the demands of Corcoran, who dragged Visit Florida into the spotlight by exposing an undisclosed $1 million contract with the rapper Pitbull that cost Seccombe his job and for a time had Visit Florida on the chopping block. While the agency survived, tourism people are just now discovering a "sunset" provision in the new law, which means Visit Florida goes out of business in 2019 if it's not renewed by the Legislature. That means more political battles lie ahead.
One Visit Florida board member expressed disgust at how Scott and the Legislature turned a team of marketing professionals into just another government bureaucracy, bound by excessive rules and regulations. But as Corcoran and other lawmakers emphasized, Visit Florida's lack of transparency and flouting of fiscal common sense had to end, and it did.
In a statement, Visit Florida's Stephen Lawson said it "is unequivocally committed to transparency, accountability and efficiency, and we have fully embraced the new measures that help us achieve those standards. Our partners will see new and affordable cooperative marketing programs unveiled in the coming weeks."
CEO Ken Lawson, in a memo to "industry partners" on Tuesday, framed the challenges ahead: "I came in as an outsider and fought by your side. Thanks to Governor Scott and each of you, we were able to achieve full funding ... Nevertheless, the battle was hard and messy. It is now time to heal and come together."