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Threatened with Shutdown, Visit Florida Survives the Fight for Another Season

17 May, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

After allegations of funding improprieties cast it in the worst possible light, Visit Florida, the state’s CVB, has lived to fight another day, or more accurately, to fight legislators for budget allocations. And while it received only a fraction of what it requested, that is still a victory, considering lawmakers had threatened to defund and dismantle it entirely.

Sports planners first became aware of the issue in late February, when Visit Florida was put on the hot seat after documents surfaced, showing the organization had spent upwards of $1 million on a publicity campaign featuring rapper Pitbull, whose hit, “Sexy Beaches,” was used as the soundtrack for commercials. Will Seccombe, the CEO of Visit Florida resigned in the wake of the disclosure, and Governor Rick Scott tried to run defense for the CVB, as well as its business development counterpart, Enterprise Florida.

Interesting side note: It was Miami-born Pitbull himself (real name: Armando Christian Perez) who posted his 2015 contract with the state on Twitter, revealing he was paid that $1 million in taxpayer dollars to promote Florida in social media posts, at his concerts and in the “Sexy Beaches” music video.

Legislators moved to eliminate the two organizations, sending Scott into a months-long campaign to drum up support. Scott traipsed across the state, meeting with lawmakers and residents and making statements to the media, emphasizing the impact the tourism industry has on the state (one in six jobs is either indirectly or directly related to hospitality and travel, he noted) in an effort to gain support and keep Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida alive.

However, according to an article in Travel Weekly, the Florida legislature stated that the House and Senate had reached a budget deal that would allot $25 million – only a quarter of the $100 million Scott had requested for Visit Florida, and just 33 percent of its 2016 budget of $75 million. 

Florida House speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican, was the one who originally had called for axing the group, but the final bill that passed the House kept Visit Florida alive – with several new transparency rules and the reduced budget.

"Lawmakers cannot be shortsighted at the expense of Florida families by cutting funds for tourism marketing and economic development," Scott said in a statement.

Visit Florida's fate has been unclear since February when the state's House of Representatives decided, in lieu of eliminating the organization, to cut its budget by 67 percent. Scott’s aggressive campaigning pointed out the fact that the state had set record visitation numbers for the past five years, and in 2015 it became the first U.S. state to welcome more than 100 million visitors in a single year.

The fight isn’t over until it’s over, though. Travel Weekly notes, “Scott has the ability to veto the entire state budget, or specific parts of it, potentially setting up a showdown with both chambers this summer.”

Travel Weekly notes: The legislature's decision to cut tourism marketing could lead to a drastic reduction in visitor spending to our local businesses and revenue to our state," Scott said in a statement responding to the budget. "I am beginning to review the budget and I have the option of vetoing the entire budget or vetoing the items that circumvented the transparent process and do not have an acceptable return on investment for hardworking taxpayers. Just like I do every year, I will make my decisions based on what's best for our families because my job is to wake up every day and fight for Floridians."

The Sunshine State is a magnet for sports tourism throughout the year, hosting everything from golf (fun fact: more than 45 million rounds are played there annually) to fishing to triathlons as well as a plethora of team sports, including soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and softball. In addition, it receives an influx of visitors and media attention in late winter from the presence of Major League spring training.

In 2014, a report on the Enterprise Florida website showed Florida’s 26 statewide sports commissions hosted over 2,500 events attracting over 3.1 million sports tourists.  On the professional sports front, the state of Florida had nearly 1,800 events annually, generating $3.1 billion in economic impact. The report, compiled by the University of West Florida’s Haas Center, showed the sports and recreation industry supports over 431,000 jobs and contributes more than $16 billion in labor income to Floridians. The 2014 survey showed an increase of $8 billion from the previous survey compiled by the Florida Sports Foundation in 2005.

Gil Langley,  chairman of the Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations, said in a statement that the slashed budget "hinders Visit Florida's ability to do its job," and believes the lowered budget will severely damage the state's ability to continue these efforts. "With only $25 million dedicated to promoting our state, there's no way Florida can stay on the same playing field as states like California," he notes, "not to mention, Visit Florida's efforts are what keeps tourists from flying over Florida to Mexico, the Bahamas and now Cuba."

Langley wasn't the only one upset about the cuts. Read reaction from other destinations and officials in Florida here.

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