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Visit Tampa Bay would take $1 million hit if state kills off Visit Florida

TAMPA — Visit Tampa Bay stands to lose up to $1 million in funding if the Florida Legislature kills off the state's tourism agency.

Local tourism agencies such as Visit Tampa Bay, which markets Hillsborough County, partner with the Visit Florida on marketing campaigns. Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada said the state agency spent about $1 million in the last fiscal year to help market Tampa Bay across the globe.

The loss in contributions would be a major hit, Corrada told a group of business leaders during Visit Tampa Bay's quarterly advisory board meeting on Thursday.

"We have a lot to be proud of," Corrada told the crowd. "We have fought through distractions before and the numbers continued to look as they do."

Visit Florida's budget came under heavy scrutiny in 2017, after it was disclosed the group had paid $1 million to rapper Pitbull and $11.6 million to sponsor a cooking show through promotional contracts.

As state agency officials struggle to convince lawmakers in Tallahassee their work deserves funding, Tampa's local agency reported continued increases in bed tax dollars it uses to operate.

Hillsborough County collected about $9.7 million during the first quarter of the year through the 5 percent tax on overnight hotel stays and other lodging. That's $1.2 million more than was collected over the same period in 2017 and nearly a half million more than last year.

The number of airplane tickets to Tampa grew 8 percent and the number of hotel stays 5 percent over 2018, according to data shared by online booking site Expedia during Thursday's meeting.

"We're still not New York, Las Vegas or Chicago," Corrada said. "We don't have that name recognition … they don't have to work as hard as we do."

That's why Corrada encouraged the meeting's attendees to call their elected representatives and ask them to support Visit Florida.

Last year, Visit Tampa Bay's budget was about $14.5 million, including some donation dollars. Across the bay, Pinellas County is spending nearly that much on advertising alone.

"Our marketing, sales and public relations dollars go much farther because of that partnership and Visit Florida's presence," said Tim Ramsberger, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater's chief operating officer.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater said it received one grant from Visit Florida last year for $86,000. But smaller counties such as Flagler and Hernando rely heavily on Visit Florida's help, Corrada said.

Hillsborough County could soon collect 6 percent per overnight stay, a penny increase from the current tax. The County Commission has to approve the hike and then allocate the added tax revenue.

Visit Tampa Bay's chief marketing officer Patrick Harrison said the agency plans to ask for a slice of the new money. He had hoped it would go to beef up advertising dollars, bringing the agency's budget more on par with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

Now, it looks more likely any new money would go toward the international marketing campaigns that Visit Florida helps to fund.

Unless the current legislation changes before session ends next week, Visit Florida's funding will dry up by Sept. 30.

Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.