Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

The question of when to hit the gas pedal on the nation's top travel market looms large for Florida industry officials, including the board of the state's public-private tourism promotion agency, Visit Florida.

Visit Florida has $13 million available to coax travelers out of their homes and onto the road again to sample the state's attractions, lodgings and restaurants. That figure represents nearly all the money that would have been spent in this year's April-to-June quarter but was held back. It is now added to funding that was approved by the legislature as the agency's budget for fiscal 2020-21, which began on July 1.

Tourism is a linchpin of the Florida economy, and Visit Florida says the state attracts 18.2% of all domestic visitors, the highest of any state in the nation. But when is the right time to start asking those visitors to hit the road again?

"It is challenging to know when the perfect time is to launch," said Staci Mellman, the agency's chief marketing officer, at a meeting in which the Visit Florida board approved a marketing plan for the money.

Since March, when Visit Florida was in Phase 1 of its Covid Rebound Strategy, the agency has been doing minimal marketing just to keep the state "top of mind" with visitors. When Gov. Ron DeSantis began lifting most restrictions on businesses June 4, Visit Florida entered Phase 2 of its plan.

The agency currently is doing research on consumers' state of mind to decide when to ramp up spending. Visit Florida will be focusing mostly on marketing within the state, something it has never done before.

That is dictated by expected consumer preference for driving vacations, aversion to flying and desire to stay close to home. Mellman said the plan will take advantage by showing Floridians unique aspects of their home state that they've overlooked or never known about.

There will also be an emphasis on out-of-state drive markets such as Atlanta, Nashville and Washington.

Another part of the plan is a 1:1 co-op advertising program for suppliers and destinations that starts as low as $2,500 per ad.

Phases 3 and 4 of the rebound plan aren't expected to kick in until 2021. Visit Florida has budgeted $7.6 million for Phase 3, "the new normal," when consumers strongly consider travel again but remain uncertain about long-haul travel and border openings.

The "Covid-contained, travel-ready" Phase 4 would add $2.1 million to expand Visit Florida's existing "Winter" and "Families" marketing campaigns.

Of the $50 million in 2020-21 state funding for Visit Florida, $39.8 million has been earmarked for marketing, Visit Florida CEO Dana Young said. Agency officials are acutely aware of efforts in the Florida House over the past several years to do away with the agency and the need to spend the marketing dollars efficiently, she said.

Visit Florida's budget was $76 million as recently as 2018-19. Carol Dover, chair of Visit Florida's public affairs committee and head of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, lamented that $50 million is barely enough in a normal year.

"Now that we [are dealing with] Covid, we probably need twice that much to get the state back up on its feet," she said.

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