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.
In 2015, 1.7 million tourists from the United Kingdom visited Florida — more than the number of visitors from Germany, Mexico, Australia, China and India combined. But it's more important than just the volume of visitors, Seccombe said.
British tourists spend and spend and spend. British tourists combined to spend $1.5 billion on their visits, dwarfing what travelers from any other nation but Canada spends. But twice as many Canadians visit and their overall spending has been in decline.
Hanging on to that British traveling dollar has been made more difficult by competition, Seccombe said. Turkey, Dubai, Spain and France are vying for their visits, while California has ramped up its marketing in England, hurting Florida's market share, he said.
"We had to step up our game there," Seccombe said.
The agency did so with soccer. Fulham is London's oldest soccer team and plays in Craven Cottage, a stadium that is just 6 miles from Big Ben. As part of the deal, Visit Florida is on the team's jersey and the logo is on the stadium's roof, which is in the glide path of Heathrow Airport, considered the second busiest airport in the world.
"So everybody that flies into one of the busiest airports in the world sees 'Visit Florida' outside the window along with Buckingham Palace and Big Ben," Seccombe said.
British tourists are a must if Florida is going to maximize its tourism economy, he said.
"The data shows us a Brit is going to spend more than a Canadian, who is going to spend more than a New Yorker, who is going to spend more than a visitor from Atlanta," he said.
The deal with Miami resident Pitbull required that the terms not be disclosed. Seccombe insists that Florida got a top return on its investment by delivering a message that Florida is cool to 100 million potential millennial tourists who are hard to reach because they avoid traditional media advertising. Visit Florida research shows that while Generation X and Baby Boomers list Florida as a "most desired" travel location, millennials favor other destinations, specifically California.
"We can't have them thinking Florida is just where their grandparents vacation if we are going to be the No. 1 destination 20 years from now," he said.
But the Pitbull deal is getting heat from legislators who are offended by Pitbull's music video for "Sexy Beaches," which includes Florida coastal shots and the rapper promoting the hashtag #ILoveFL. Visit Florida did not produce the video, but lawmakers are upset about the video's sexual content and the confidentiality on what Florida spent.
Before the start of a House training session Tuesday, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, played the video on his phone for three colleagues, all of whom shook their heads.
"Completely inappropriate," Trujillo said. "It's really disturbing. It's just sending an awful message."
Seccombe said he will never do another deal like the Pitbull one, where the terms are not publicly disclosed. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a good bet, he said.
"The strategy behind that was dead on," Seccombe said.
Seccombe said he knows how the "big shiny objects" look from afar. But he said the tourism marketing world has changed, and forced Visit Florida to change too.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who will chair a committee that helps establish Visit Florida's budget, openly questions whether Florida's tourism success has anything to do with the agency or if it's merely a product of low gas prices.
"We need to understand where state tourism would be without Visit Florida," said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
Seccombe said he knows the task at hand. He vowed he will show that Visit Florida is key to building up tourism, which he called "the bedrock of our economy."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this story. Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] Follow @JeremySWallace