Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been crisscrossing his state, drumming up support for Visit Florida, its destination marketing organization (DMO), and the target of a bill passed by the Florida House that would defund it by 67%. The move came after six tumultuous months in which record-breaking visitor numbers were obscured by a scandal about a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull and questions about transparency. News editor Johanna Jainchill spoke to Scott about why the travel industry needs to defend its DMOs.Q: Destination marketers are worried that if this can happen in Florida, it can happen anywhere. Is there a disconnect in Florida about the return on tourism investment?
A: It's just politicians. I've been in business all my life. I ran for governor seven years ago, I've always been surprised about what politicians do, and this is just politicians being politicians. We know the return is staggering: It's one in six jobs in Florida. We know it pays a lot of taxes. We know that for every dollar we spend we get $3 back in tax revenues. What I tell people every day is talk to your House members, talk to your senators. You've got readers in Florida, I'd ask all your readers to call their representatives and senators in Florida and tell them that it's important to market our state because it impacts jobs, it pays our taxes, it's part of what builds a beautiful state.
When I came in, the state had been spending about $25 million a year, and we had about 80 million tourists a year. Now we've increased the budget to about $76 million, and we had almost 113 million tourists. So the numbers speak for themselves. But this is pure politics. I've been shocked by some of the things that come out of the legislature and how they just don't think. This is not reality; reality is, if something works you try to do more of it.
Q: I hear the House bill isn't likely to get a companion bill in the Senate. At this point are you mostly fighting to defend Visit Florida's budget?
A: First off, we're only in our third week of session so I want to make sure all the House members know the importance of Visit Florida. To show how Visit Florida works and operates every day, which they do very well, and to make sure they are fully funded. I asked for $76 million. The truth is we can spend $100 million well. The budget I asked for is $76 million, and I want to make sure it's fully funded.
Q: Is there validity to the arguments that changes need to be made at Visit Florida to be more transparent, etc.?
A: It's very important that if you're using state dollars it has to be transparent and that is what Visit Florida has done. They are more transparent. They put their salaries online, things like that, because it's taxpayer money. Absolutely. And I brought in new leadership.
But here's what you don't do in business: When something goes wrong, you don't say, 'Oh, I'll just shut my doors.' You say, 'I need to fix that.' You might bring in new talent, but you go forward and try to be better. In this case you wouldn't shut it down. You'd say, 'Let's make sure there is more transparency,' which I completely support, and we already brought in new leadership. But you don't shut it down.
Q: What can the greater travel industry do to avoid these situations going forward?
A: We know the lessons. We know that when Colorado cut its marketing budget out 20 years ago they saw their market share for tourism go down. It took a long time for it to come back. We saw what happened in Pennsylvania in 2009 when they cut their marketing budget from $30 million to $7 million. The next year they lost $600 million just in revenues. It's unbelievable how many jobs they lost over that. We know what happens.
Everybody who is involved in the travel industry has got to talk to their House members and their senators. This is very significant to our country. Because we're not just competing to get people to go to our state vs. another state, we're competing with people coming to Florida or going to Ireland or Japan or Dubai, all over the world.