Monday, June 18, 2018
Business

Questions raised over cost of recruiting CEO for Visit Florida

TALLAHASSEE — After giving $45,000 to a recruiting firm to scour the nation for a new CEO, Florida's official tourism agency found only two candidates — both from obvious places within the state.

A government watchdog group has slammed Visit Florida for its hasty no-bid contract with Searchwide, a Minnesota-based recruiting firm that returned mediocre results.

The two candidates found by Searchwide came from local Florida tourism agencies — places Visit Florida could have easily canvassed on its own without spending $45,000 on an out-of-state recruiting firm.

"What is your process and why are we not having that many candidates after spending $45,000?" Danny Gaekwad, a Visit Florida Board member and hotelier, asked Searchwide vice president Jim Carra. "I don't spend that much money when I look for my CEOs."

Tourism executives from the Tampa Bay and Panama City Beach areas were the only two candidates Searchwide was able to recruit for final interviews, which took place on Monday.

Visit Florida's acting CEO, Will Seccombe, also sat for an interview. After former CEO Chris Thompson resigned, board members at Visit Florida originally considered naming Seccombe to the position. Worried that making that decision unilaterally could upset the agency's chief funders — Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature — the board opted instead to do a national search.

After spending $45,000 in taxpayer money for a brief, six-week, nationwide search, Visit Florida ended up with two local tourism supervisors and Seccombe as finalists. Searchwide was the same firm that recruited Seccombe to Visit Florida in 2007.

Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, a group that advocates for tougher ethics laws, said Visit Florida's no-bid $45,000 contract was a sign of government waste.

"It's disappointing that $45,000 was spent and just two resumes from Florida were found," he said. "Where is the return on investment?"

Robert Skrob, director of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organization, defended the organization's recruitment process, calling Searchwide the "category leader" in the industry.

"Finding the right candidate quickly, with an open and efficient process, welcome to all candidates, is exactly how government should work," he said.

Carra said his firm posted the job online, sent out inquiries to more than 150 executives and spoke to dozens of interested candidates over the past six weeks.

Board chairman Glenn Hastings said the contract with Searchwide was helpful because the volunteer board would not have been able to canvass dozens of resumes in such a short amount of time.

Timing is crucial because lawmakers and Scott will soon make decisions about how much taxpayer money to direct into Visit Florida's budget next year. While other agencies have weathered steep cuts over the past two years, Visit Florida has seen its taxpayer funding more than double to $54 million.

Board members said that going into the next legislative session without having a permanent CEO could harm the agency's future finances.

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