Spending on Pitbull, soccer team and race car worth it, says Visit Florida CEO
TALLAHASSEE — After spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a race car, soccer team and a pop star with sexually charged lyrics in his music, it's easy to see why the state's primary tourism marketing agency has become an easy target for fiscal hawks.
With a budget that has grown from $29 million to $78 million since 2009, Visit Florida has spent $1.2 million over the last two years on a British soccer team that isn't even in England's famed Premier League. Details on contracts to advertise on a race car and with hip-hop star Pitbull have never been disclosed publicly, giving more ammo to conservative lawmakers taking aim at the agency's budget.
"I don't even know why we're in that business," said new Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, about the role Visit Florida plays in marketing the state's tourism industry.
The president and CEO of the agency, however, told the Times/Herald this week that Visit Florida's spending choices have been strategic and crucial in maintaining the state as a top tourism draw in a competitive marketplace.
"Everything we do is based on strategy and research," Will Seccombe said in a wide-ranging interview with the Times/Herald from his Tallahassee office that proudly displays a photo of the Visit Florida race car.
Seccombe acknowledged that he had some regrets about parts of the deals, but said there was a rationale for each one.
The Pitbull deal was essential in reaching millennials — generally those born between 1982 and 2004 — who are less enamored with Florida as a travel destination than previous generations, he said. The soccer team and race car were gambits in securing Florida's place in the minds of Europeans.
Seccombe said each decision the agency has made was based on financial research that led to record tourism visits and, more importantly, record spending by visitors.
For proof of his agency's effectiveness, Seccombe points to the growth in the number of Florida tourists: from 82 million to more than 106 million since 2009. While the growth in spending grew at a faster clip — 169 percent — than the number of tourists — 29 percent — Seccombe pointed to another number: tourist spending.
The $50 million increase in state marketing spending led to an additional $30 billion dollars of visitor spending, Seccombe said. Sales tax collections are up $1.6 billion and that has a lot to do with Visit Florida recasting its mission on winning "high yield" tourists.
No effort reflects the agency's innovation in spending more than the state's $1.2 million to advertise with Fulham Football Club, a British soccer team. The United Kingdom has long been Florida's most important international market outside of Canada. And the numbers show why.