Visit Florida will emerge from the budget process next year a slimmer creature than it is today, I've resigned myself to that. But I hope it won't mean sacrificing Florida tourism's considerable muscle.
Tourist traffic is Florida's comfort food.
So, as fiscally conservative as I am naturally, I don't feel good about this new resolve to slash Visit Florida like it's a moldy apple, to economize in an area doing so much good for Floridians' No. 1 priority -- jobs and the economy. Tourism is surging and it's directly related to both.
OK, maybe concealing rapper Pitbull's contract and the cost of the Fulham (England) football sponsorship was arrogant and ill-advised. But I confess, I like the way the edgy, creative spirits at the agency think for a 21st Century market.
So, shoot me. I don't want to see legislators with a political agenda overreacting to micromanage Visit Florida.
A lot is made of the growth of Visit Florida's budget compared to the number of tourists generated and I can see why. Its budget is up from about $29 million in 2009 to more than $78 million today -- a 169 percent increase. Meanwhile, the number of tourists in Florida during the same period has grown from about 82 million to more than 106 million -- a 29 percent increase. The difference has left the office open to criticism.
On the other hand, Visit Florida can show that for every $1 invested in tourism, Florida gets more than $3 back.
I entirely agree with Will Seccombe, the Visit Florida president just fired over the Pitbull business. Seccombe told The Tampa Bay Times, "The Florida tourism industry has done a tremendous job marketing the state both domestically and internationally during challenging times. It also shows that we will have to work even harder as a state and an industry to maintain that growth going forward." I particularly agreed with the feeling Visit Florida has even more work to do.
Already British travel agencies are booking record numbers of tourists in package deals to Cuba. Cuba is cheap, safe, the beaches are clean and the people are falling all over themselves to provide a warm welcome. Visit Florida was incubating an idea to sell internationals on combination trips to Cuba and Florida. I'm not sure what will happen to that now.
Visit Florida's critics will tell you not to worry about international tourists, that Brand USA, a national marketing campaign to attract tourists from abroad, will receive almost $93 million in the next federal budget year to do that job for us. But that won't do much for Sunshine State tourism. Brand USA has no particular allegiance to Florida. We are only one of 50 states they have to hawk to international travelers.
I have to wonder how cutting $50 million off its budget will hamstring Visit Florida, and I hope legislators will, too.
Earlier this year, after Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew did a number on Florida -- and after the Treasure Coast's green algae had blanketed national television -- the state's tourism marketing agency came up with a "four-pronged marketing plan" to let the world know Florida was back in business.
Visit Florida's "Open for Business" campaign included a series of 32 time-stamped videos along with a supporting social media campaign and customized plans to support all damaged communities. Time-stamping was the key. Everything the audience saw was in real time. It was honest and it worked. It's still working.
"Open for Business" is the sort of initiative I worry could be cut back or cut out. Certainly it would be cheaper to dump the real-time photos and just release stock shots of attractions in top condition on a sunny Florida day. But as Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County and a Visit Florida board member said in October, "You need to make sure that these are time-dated photographs and make sure that when you're saying everything is fine, it is."
Are we going to be able to market tourism right after the new budget is done and dusted?
I understand and respect House Speaker Richard Corcoran's view of waste in government spending. But on this issue, I've been glad to see the success Visit Florida has generated getting a little respect from Senate President Joe Negron and Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala. It says to me the Senate might put Visit Florida on a strict diet, but it won't let it fade into oblivion.
Tourists will gravitate to Florida naturally, some of them anyway. But they won't flock here as we want and need -- as we've become used to -- if we don't market the best of ourselves. In spite of our dazzling assets, we really do have a lot of competition for the tourist dollar.
To me, a Visit Florida cut is going to be like operating a business thinking you can slash the budget for advertising. I guess if you can afford to lose customers and ultimately lay off a few employees, take a chance. Go ahead.
I know the cut is coming. I'm just hoping legislators won't come at it with crazy eyes and a knife between their teeth.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith