On July 1, Walter Banks became the new
chairman of Visit Florida, the marketing arm of the Florida
Commission on Tourism. Banks, who serves as vice chairman of the
commission and is the owner of Lago Mar Resort & Club, Fort
Lauderdale, spoke with TravelWeekly.com contributing writer Sandra
Q:What is the state of the tourism industry in Florida as you
There has been a dramatic increase [in visitors] in the first
quarter of 2004, and we need to maintain that momentum.
Q:How do the 2004 visitor numbers compare to those of 2003? To
2002 and 2001?
In the first quarter of 2004, Florida welcomed an estimated 25
million visitors; we are actually up by 12.4% -- in 2003, the
number was 20 million. In 2002, there
were an estimated 75.5 million visitors and in 2001 an estimated
69.8 million -- which was a decrease of 4% from the year before --
not surprising as the decline showed in the fourth quarter,
reflecting the full impact of the terrorist attacks in September
and the national economic downturn.
Q:Has Florida fully recovered from 9/11?
Id say we are really close. On average, I think hotels and motels
are at the 2000 level. There are, of course, always
Q:What is the hotel occupancy in the state for
Statewide, the first-quarter figures are approximately 75% to 80%
Q:What have you learned as a hotel owner that will be most useful
in building tourism for the state?
There are great similarities in hotel promotions and the state --
on a far larger basis, of course. In operating an independent hotel
and competing with the chains, I have a clear understanding of the
needs of our state. Not only do we compete with every state in the
U.S., we also compete in the world market.
I have spent my
life dealing with advertising programs, public relations, direct
mail, fulfillment, sales and, most important, operations, where it
comes to pleasing the visitor to entice them to return. I also have
worked hard in my community to make it a better place to work and
live and a better place for folks to visit. You have to sell your
community and your state in order to be successful.
Q:How does Visit Florida plan to boost
Through the many programs that are supported by the committees that
are in place. Also, through co-op advertising with car rental
firms, hotels, restaurants, attractions and the private
Q:What is the states tourism budget? How does it compare with
There has not been a budget increase in several years. [The budget
is] $75 million to $80 million. Tourism in Florida produces an
economic impact of more than $50 million annually and employs more
than 850,000 Floridians, making it the states No. 1 economic
Q:What are the states greatest needs in its tourism
Expanding and improving our roads and airports to a more efficient
and super-safe level would be a great start.
Q:Is Florida maintaining its leadership as a cruise
Absolutely. We have convenient airports, a natural feeder to our
magnificent seaports. Folks feel more comfortable in traveling and
are taking advantage of the great promotions that the various
cruise lines are offering.
Q:What are the latest attractions?
This summer, Sea World, Orlando launched Mystify, a spectacular
fireworks display enhanced by fire, light and 100-foot-tall
fountains. Visitors can enjoy the 20-minute extravaganza every
evening through Labor Day [Sept. 6] from the shores of the
Waterfront Seaport Village [at Sea World]. KaTonga: Musical Tales
From the Jungle at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay takes you on a journey
to the heart of Africa in a 35-minute musical celebration of animal
Q:Do you have any ideas for implementation of new
We have a New Product Development Council, which is promoting
Floridas cultural heritage. Visitors today have a hunger for
nostalgia, so this additional department of Visit Florida is
developing nature travel and rural-based -- Main Streets and Small
Towns -- tourism sites. Terrific examples would be the historic,
village-like towns of Fernandina Beach and Mount Dora.
Visit Florida is
based in Tallahassee. For information, call (850) 488-5607 or go
online to www.visitflorida.org.
To contact the
reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].