It's been a tough year for Visit Florida, the taxpayer-supported agency that promotes tourism in the Sunshine State.
Legislators blasted the organization as fat and politically tone deaf. Visit Florida had to lay off 15 percent of its employees to deal with a $10.5 million budget cut. Directors dismissed controversial chief executive Bud Nocera, even though it meant paying him $537,000 in severance over the next two years.
On Thursday, officials at Visit Florida took flak from a usually friendly crowd: tourism officials from Florida counties.
Their biggest gripe was the agency's plans to cut back on promoting Florida in Europe, an important feeder market. Visit Florida will close its last marketing office on the continent next month and ended a public relations contract in the United Kingdom.
California recently launched a $10 million tourism advertising campaign in Europe, said Pinellas tourism director D.T. Minich at the meeting of Visit Florida directors at the Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor.
"How can we compete in that market from (offices in) Tallahassee?" he said. "There's no face of Florida in Europe, and that's a darn shame. Showing up a couple times a year isn't good enough. We've got to fish where the fish are."
There were 137,000 fewer overnight visitors to Pinellas County in the first quarter of 2009, down 6.6 percent from a year earlier. But the number of European tourists held steady. They typically stay longer than domestic visitors and spend more money, Minich said.
Visit Florida officials insisted the budget cuts — nearly $7 million from advertising — made it impossible to fund the European efforts, which cost about $500,000 annually.
County tourism directors also objected to how little information they received in the wake of Nocera's dismissal May 8. Some grumbled over how directors picked Chris Thompson, the agency's chief operating officer, as his permanent replacement without a national search.
Visit Florida directors had to move quickly to re-establish credibility with legislators and restore confidence among demoralized staffers, said Richard Goldman, chairman of the board for the quasi-public agency.
Nocera angered a key committee chairman, state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, by hiring a Missouri call center instead of one in Florida. Fasano unsuccessfully lobbied Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the agency's $25 million budget.