Mott Emphasizes Agents' Role, Challenges Facing Industry

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NAPLES - During a wide-ranging interview here, Austin Mott III, president and chief executive officer of Visit Florida, the state's public-private partnership responsible for tourism promotion, spoke about the role of travel agents, the recent wildfires and his organization's goals for the rest of the current fiscal year.

In a rapidly changing and increasingly complicated world, travel agents are more important than ever, Mott said.

"Our parents and our grandparents were loyal. They would always go somewhere for three weeks such as the Grand Canyon," he said.

"Today, people take 10 trips a year. Maybe those trips are only a few days, but travel agents are extremely important in deciding where they go," he said.

Mott, who took part in the recent Governor's Conference on Tourism at the Registry Resort here, said that "travel agents are involved in all aspects of travel" and that Visit Florida works closely with them whenever possible as "major partners" in their efforts.

"It's getting to be a larger world, and people are looking for more and more varied adventures," Mott said.

The wildfires that raged through Central Florida recently should have no lasting impact on tourism statewide, according to Mott, although Daytona Beach remains affected. "The fires definitely had an impact on specific areas from St. Augustine to Daytona Beach down to the Space Coast," he said.

"The hotel folks in Daytona Beach tell me they generally should be running around 70% to 80% occupancy. They were down to 20% to 30%. They're maybe up to 50% occupancy now. So it has had a high impact on their business," he said.

Visit Florida officials said it was too early to assess the fires' economic damage to tourism.

Mott said that special advertising and public relations efforts of his group during and after the worst of the wildfires should have blunted any long-range impact.

Future advertising will not address the fires, but Visit Florida this fiscal year (as of July 1) plans an increased budget of $10.5 million, or $1 million more than the previous year. Up to $16 million in anticipated matching funds from co-op partners of Visit Florida is expected and will be spent as well on a year-around basis.

Objectives of Visit Florida include attempts to flatten seasonality, which differs depending on state regions; to increase visitor spending by attracting more affluent arrivals such as Brazilians; to boost in-state tourism marketing; to reverse a downward trend in auto visitors, and to implement marketing strategies to protect peak season demand.

Although Florida tourism got off to a good start this year, there were also some reversals, Mott said, all beyond humans' control.

"We started with the rains in the winter," he said, while the winter up north was relatively mild [depressing vacation demand]. Then some tornadoes roared across Central Florida," he said. "Then we had the drought and then the fires. All we need now is a damn hurricane!" he said.

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