Revoke the death sentence for statewide tourism marketing
Last year Florida visitors fell 34% as Covid-19 battered tourism starting in March. This year, tourism will struggle all 12 months in the shadow of the coronavirus. The Legislature needs to help.
In Miami-Dade, events and meetings plummeted, air arrivals fizzled, foreign visits slowed to a trickle, cruise ships anchored. So hospitality jobs plunged 16.3% in December from December 2019, when the county employed a record 147,300 in the visitor industry.
The Legislature, which began meeting Tuesday, now is being asked to cut the noose from around the neck of tourism marketers who must bring more visitors into Florida while our largest industry flounders as never before.
Caring for a sick Florida tourism climate is the economic equivalent of getting Covid-19 vaccine to our residents. How can anyone doubt that the Legislature will rush to help?
Unfortunately, while maximum funding for Visit Florida’s marketing is vital to our economy, saving the goose that has been laying Florida’s golden eggs is no sure thing.
In recent years some legislators tried to strip tourism marketing of all funds. They slashed the total and embedded in state law a repeal of the agency’s function on Oct. 1, 2023. You have to wonder what state these folks think they represent, since tourism is pivotal everywhere in Florida.
Those misguided legislators have argued that the world knows all about Florida’s wonders and visitors will keep flowing in automatically. No promotion is needed, they claim, for tourism to improve every year – it just happens.
In fact, they nearly stripped Visit Florida of its remaining $50 million state funding last year. At the last minute, as tourist events began to disappear when coronavirus became tangible, the legislature gave up on canceling that $50 million as well as $27 million for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, which markets visits to our area.
Now 12 months of coronavirus proves that visitors will not forever flock to Florida. Our state has been hammered. And as vaccines spread and people begin to again travel, there’s no guarantee the visitor flow we lost will automatically return.
A post-pandemic world won’t be identical to a year ago. Some people will work from home. Large gatherings won’t be common. Many meetings will stay on Zoom. Social habits have changed.
As we pull out of the pandemic, tourism gains here also won’t be automatic – in fact, they never were. That’s why the state is honeycombed with local marketing teams and Visit Florida serves the state as a whole.
Just as the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau has a larger job than ever locally, so does Visit Florida statewide. If we don’t try new marketing patterns, we’ll face big trouble.
Some marketing will be in our backyard, asking Floridians to visit their own regions as the virus abates and they venture out. Some will be outside the box: Visit Florida has begun to promote in California, Oregon and Washington after months of targeting East Coast areas within an easy drive.
Travel patterns will change, and Visit Florida and others in the tourist world need the budget to reach out.
They won’t always succeed. Not all marketing works. And it will take years to bring the industry back. Visit Florida and state economists are looking to 2024 – maybe, if everything works right, late in 2023.
A bill in the state Senate aims to commute Visit Florida’s death sentence. If the agency is ticketed to expire in 2023, any rebound by 2024 will lack bounce. The bill would also loosen rules on how the agency spends its vastly-reduced funds, letting it carry over unused money year to year so it can plan future campaigns.
Tourism marketing has long been vastly underfunded on both the state and local levels, partly due to the misapprehension that visitor gains are always effortless. Florida’s visitor industry competitors have always had vastly more to spend. And while Florida’s natural attractions may be greater, advertising and marketing sway minds.
Now, more than ever, we must compete, to show vacation safety in Florida. We have to cut into the 34% visitor decline that cost our state 197,000 leisure and hospitality jobs in the past year.
It would be wiser if the state were planning to spend more on marketing to get those jobs back. It’s not. The legislation on the table would merely keep Visit Florida alive without a formal death sentence.
In these economic times, that merits a unanimous yes vote in Florida – with a rising marketing fund as well, because state studies show every $1 spent marketing to visitors returns $3 and up. It’s not an added cost, but added revenues and vital restored jobs.