“If you build it, he will come.” So begins the iconic film, Field of Dreams. This otherworldly exhortation causes lead actor Kevin Costner to build something so inviting that the mere creation of the “it” will bring visitors by the tens of thousands to a small town in Iowa. Encouraged by writer Terrance Mann, played by the incomparable James Earl Jones, he built it and they came.
Some call that a great movie but inapplicable to real life. I disagree. The Spanish built St. Augustine and they came. Henry Flagler built a railroad to nowhere and they came. And a man from Missouri named Walt built in the middle of Florida and they came by the millions.
Florida is the “it” that people want to come see. And there are plenty of private and government marketing efforts underway everyday.
Recognition that marketing works and at the same time questioning the necessity and efficacy of VISIT Florida are not incongruous.
I think it important to begin by examining exactly how much money VISIT Florida uses to market our state.
Over the last three years VISIT Florida spent about 55 to 58% of its total operating budget on media production and operations directly targeting potential tourists. The remaining dollars are spent on salaries and benefits, fees and services, and things like travel, telephone, and office space.
This ratio means that, at best, VISIT Florida could bring $30 million to the tourism marketing arena.
So we are left to ask ourselves the following question. If VISIT Florida went away tomorrow what is the impact of losing – at worst - $30 million in taxpayer funded marketing? If the answer is, a significant impact, that would force us to rethink our position on the agency. However if the answer is negligible to nothing, that would force us to rethink whether funding is necessary at all and what other state priorities could use that $30 million annually. Children and Families? Medicaid? Veterans?
But, some editorials imply, that $30 million is all that stands between us and financial ruin. Not so fast.
Most people don’t know that nearly all of the 67 counties collect the “local option tourist tax” and County agencies like Tourism Development Councils (TDCs) spend that money on tourism marketing and other activities to draw visitors.
In 2019 Florida’s counties collected over $1 billion in revenue. You read that right, that’s 1 billion with a B.
Most people are genuinely surprised to read that. But the consequence of that information is important to our discussion here. Because if VISIT Florida went away, the loss of $30 million in advertising and marketing would amount to 3% of just what Florida counties have available to market. None of this takes into account the billions Disney and Universal, individual businesses and trade associations spend each year.
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Some counties like Pinellas, Hillsborough, Lee, Miami, Orange, Broward and a few others actually realize greater “local option tourist tax” revenue than the entire VISIT Florida budget.
So if $30 million went away, is that the end for tourism in Florida? Hardly.
The loss of, at most, $30 million in what is at least a multibillion dollar marketing effort benefitting Florida annually is by no means the Vesuvian Doomsday that recent editorials made it out to be.
There are plenty of other misconceptions we could tackle. Like the fact that tourism numbers tend to run countercyclical to VISIT Florida’s budget. Demonstrating conclusively that there is no correlation between dollars to VISIT Florida and number of tourists visiting. We could rehash the Pitbull fiasco and the lavish junkets on taxpayer dollars that were standard operating procedure for years.
We could, but we won’t.
Instead we will hope and pray that editorial boards and others in our state will, like many in the movie, have their eyes opened to all the players on the field that they somehow never knew were there.
Jose Oliva is the speaker of the Florida House.