Florida has long been a leading U.S. tourist destination. But even by the Sunshine State's lofty standards, things have gone well lately, with 2015 expected to be the fifth consecutive year in which Florida set a visitation record. As head of marketing for Visit Florida, Paul Phipps, a former general manager for the NBA's Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, is responsible for keeping that momentum going. He sat down with Florida editor Robert Silk at the Huddle tourism conference in Tampa in late January to discuss Visit Florida's strategy for 2016 and beyond.
Q: It's no secret that the Florida tourism industry is hot. Will that continue in 2016?
A: In 2010, we welcomed 80 million visitors to Florida. We'll soon announce that in 2015 we welcomed more than 100 million. It's being felt across the state, from Pensacola to Key West and Miami to Jacksonville. Everybody has benefitted from an additional 20-plus million visitors to Florida.
Q: With what market sectors do you feel there is the most room for improvement? For example, is Florida viewed as hip enough for millennials?
A: Millennials are important to us because they are the biggest segment in the U.S. So some of what we are doing is investment spending to tell them the story of Florida that they don't really know. And that's why we use influencers like Pitbull. He has over a billion social-media impressions per month.
Q: You signed that deal with Pitbull in late summer. How has it worked out?
A: We are tickled with it. He is making us relevant in a space where they are not going to listen to us. And he's doing it because he's Mr. 305. We've got some big things planned for the next six months that we think will drive a high level of engagement.
Q: Such as?
A: He's going to release a music single, "Sexy Beaches." It's a song and a music video set in Florida, something we could never do on our own. He can do it because of who he is.
Q: Key Latin America markets, most notably Brazil, are struggling economically. Is that a concern?
A: We don't focus on what we can't control. Exchange rates change, nothing we can do about it. Like Canada, for 2015 visitors are down 8% into the U.S., but they are down 1.5% in Florida. We're not pulling investments out of Brazil. In many cases we're going to double down to keep us top of mind, because these economic trends are cyclical. You cannot say, "I'm not going to invest in that market."
Q: Visit Florida has established a China Coalition to try to draw more Chinese tourists. Are economic problems in Latin America one reason you are taking this proactive step?
A: The reason we are looking at China is because the forecast tells us there is going to be more and more young Chinese traveling around the world, and we want our share of that.
Q: Have you developed any new technological platforms that will be helpful to agents and tour operators?
A: We have our Beach Finder, which is on the Google platform: people have opened it and looked up a beach in Florida 260 million times in the 18 months since we launched. Next we're going to open an Attraction Finder. That's going to launch in February.