Ken Lawson, formerly Florida's secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, became CEO of Visit Florida last year after revelations of opaque contracts, including one with the rapper Pitbull, almost led to the marketing group's demise. Lawson spoke with news editor Johanna Jainchill at the IPW conference in Denver last month about how a much more transparent Visit Florida is helping travel agents and tour operators sell more of the Sunshine State. Q: Have the added rules and regulations and transparency made it more difficult for Visit Florida to do its job?
A: Bottom line, it hasn't. We've had to change our processes, but we've had record numbers in the past year: 116.5 million out-of-state tourists. Every quarter in 2017 was an advance over the previous quarter.
One thing we did was look at our processes and stopped spending in ways that we shouldn't and went into markets that matter for us. Before I came in, I found that we lost 1 million Canadians; the number went down for 15 quarters. I sat down with the counsel general of Canada, and she told me what we were doing incorrectly. So I put money and effort into an integrative marketing program in Canada, and last year saw 4% growth. In Q3 alone I saw 13.3% growth over the previous quarter. What I've learned from this past year being in Visit Florida is that regardless of some changes in the law, we're able to market more aggressively, have better programs and serve our partners. Period.
Q: What were some areas where you realized money wasn't being spent well?
A: We had $12 million in sponsorships, and I looked at them and said, "Do they matter and drive the needle?" I found that they did not. So I reallocated those funds into marketing. With international, instead of spending money in every country in the world, I looked at our top drivers, like Canada and Brazil, where we're also going to put more money to show the importance of the Brazilian tourist. By focusing our funds and focusing our marketing efforts, we've seen results.
Q: The U.S. overall has lost share of international travelers. How is Florida performing, and how much impact is Brazil having on those numbers?
A: From 2012 to this past year we've seen an increase in share [of international visitors to the U.S.], from 22.1% to 25.4% last year. Absolute numbers are down, but share is up. Brazil had their issues, but we've seen stability there. We had a million Brazilians come to Florida this past year; that's why we're integrating our campaign and increasing what we're doing. Our market share of Brazilian visitors to the U.S. is 56%; it's huge.
Overall, we've been more focused. I personally went to the U.K. to show the importance of the U.K. market for us. I went to Brazil. We just had a team go to China and do a four-city tour. I've committed more money to our marketing campaigns this coming year than ever before. It's about being smarter, more targeted and understanding the market in a better sense. And that's why we're yielding results.
Q: What's behind the relaunch of your online educational program for agents and operators, Visit Florida Travel Pro?
A: We have a lot to offer as a state, but we realize that some people get stuck in what they know, and if we're not providing the tools to help the tour operators and travel agents understand the full offerings of Florida, shame on us. That's why we went back to the drawing board, revamped the program we had before and made it more integrated and comprehensive. It's a positive thing for all our partners who rely on us. We are showing what we have: nature trails, culture, restaurants. Those off-the-beaten-path locations so people can have a broader experience than just going to the same places every year. Folks know the theme parks and beaches, which are very important to us. We have a huge state. ... So with my partners, from the Panhandle to the Keys, we have to offer beyond just the usual locations.