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  1. Florida Politics

Tampa, Miami, Orlando tourism boards cut ties with Visit Florida

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, looks on as Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran speaks during a June stop in Tampa to announce their 2017 legislative successes, including a deal that left Visit Florida intact. But the restrictions that Scott agreed to in exchange for the agency's $76 million budget has resulted in many local tourism boards with ending their relationship with Visit Florida. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Aug. 4, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's vaunted tourism marketing program is in disarray, weeks after Gov. Rick Scott brokered a back-room compromise with House Speaker Richard Corcoran to salvage tourism money for one more year.

Visit Florida, which relies on tax dollars to promote the state to visitors worldwide, kept its $76 million budget for another year — but it came at a very steep price.

Concerned about possible liability under a sweeping new disclosure law, a dozen county tourism groups, including Visit Tampa Bay and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, have broken off co-op advertising partnerships with Visit Florida.

"We have not renewed our partnership as we often would do," said Visit Tampa Bay spokesman Patrick Harrison. "We still don't have a clear idea as to quite what the new regulations mean. We're kind of in a wait-and-see pattern."

Harrison said Visit Tampa Bay interprets a new law to require local tourism board members, who serve without pay but who also have full-time jobs in the private sector, to disclose their income.

The new law requires disclosure of "employee and board member salary and benefit details from public and private funds."

"That is one of the concerns," Harrison said.

Other local tourism programs that have cut ties with Visit Florida are Amelia Island, Brevard County, Discover the Palm Beaches, Experience Kissimmee, Florida Keys & Key West, Franklin County, Orlando North/Seminole County, Santa Rosa County, Visit Orlando and Visit South Walton.

That's a lot of Florida, and the breaking of those marketing partnerships means an end, for now at least, to advertising that promotes local destinations, especially in overseas markets. But around the state, 46 local tourism partners remain with Visit Florida.

To get that $76 million, Scott and Visit Florida were forced to accept passage of a new law that includes broad restrictions on contracts, staff salaries, travel, even the consumption of food and drinks at events.

Job turnover is another serious problem.

Tormented by fiscal uncertainty during the legislative session, several high-level Visit Florida officials quit and moved on to other jobs.

That's forcing Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson to reorganize his operation as he scrambles to fill key jobs, including a senior contracts manager, an international campaign manager, North America campaign manager and social media producer.

Tourism is booming in Florida, and Scott said a record 120 million visitors came to the state in the past year. But behind the scenes, there is turmoil.

Scott, who appointed Lawson, sealed Visit Florida's fate.

First he demanded the ouster of former CEO Will Seccombe last December. On June 26, he signed House Bill 1A, a major overhaul of Visit Florida.

Across the state, tourism officials are grumbling privately that Scott capitulated to the demands of Corcoran, who dragged a reluctant Visit Florida into the spotlight by exposing an undisclosed $1 million contract with the rapper Pitbull that cost Seccombe his job.

Corcoran is considering running for governor in 2018.

While the agency survived, tourism people are just now discovering a "sunset" provision in the new law, which means Visit Florida goes out of business in 2019 if it's not renewed by the Legislature. That means more political battles lie ahead.

The turmoil continued Thursday as a statewide tourism leader abruptly resigned from the Visit Florida board of directors.

Bill Lupfer, CEO of the Florida Attractions Association, said he can be more effective promoting tourism "free of government restrictions, bureaucratic governance and political games."

Lupfer's resignation letter hinted at frustration felt by other tourism leaders at the way Scott and the Legislature turned a team of marketing professionals into just another government bureaucracy, bound by excessive rules and regulations.

But as Corcoran and other lawmakers repeatedly emphasized in the 2017 session, Visit Florida's lack of transparency and flouting of fiscal conventions had to end, and it did.

Visit Florida's vice president of government relations, Stephen Lawson, said in a statement that the agency "is unequivocally committed to transparency, accountability and efficiency, and we have fully embraced the new measures that help us achieve those standards. Our partners will see new and affordable cooperative marketing programs unveiled in the coming weeks."

CEO Ken Lawson (no relation to Stephen) said this in a memo to "industry partners," framing the challenges ahead: "I came in as an outsider and fought by your side. Thanks to Governor Scott and each of you, we were able to achieve full funding. … Nevertheless, the battle was hard and messy. It is now time to heal and come together."

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

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