New Visit Florida chief says travels heating up

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 Davis.

Q:What is the state of the tourism industry in Florida as you take over? 

A: 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?

A: 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? 

A: Id say we are really close. On average, I think hotels and motels are at the 2000 level. There are, of course, always exceptions.

Q:What is the hotel occupancy in the state for 2004? 

A: Statewide, the first-quarter figures are approximately 75% to 80% occupancy.

Q:What have you learned as a hotel owner that will be most useful in building tourism for the state?

A: 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 tourism?

A: 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 sector.

Q:What is the states tourism budget? How does it compare with previous years?

A: 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 sector.

Q:What are the states greatest needs in its tourism infrastructure? 

A: 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 port? 

A: 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?

A: 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 folklore.

Q:Do you have any ideas for implementation of new programs?

A: 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].

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