Even among the many U.S. destinations with record visitation during the pandemic, Florida stands out: Its 118 million domestic visitors in 2021 was its most ever. During this year's IPW conference in Orlando, Visit Florida CEO Dana Young talked to news editor Johanna Jainchill about Florida's decision to market when most states were closed, why culinary travel is Florida's next frontier and how inflation and fuel prices might impact visitation.
Q: What accounts for Florida's pandemic tourism surge?
A: We were given the opportunity very early by our governor to start marketing in August of 2020. We knew that even if people were not ready to travel yet, we wanted to be top of mind when they were ready. When most other states were locked down, we were not, so we decided to start with our own state and encourage people to support the businesses in our industry and the destinations. That ballooned into a 700-mile drive market campaign that we launched in October of 2020, and in December we went national with one of the largest campaigns ever. We started marketing on the West Coast, which we'd never done before, looking to pull market share from California, Oregon and Washington, which we did.
We started hitting the virtual ground in all of our international markets and continued to push domestically as our share went up and up and up. We had about seven months where we were the only state marketing at all outside their borders. We built on that and have continued to take the share that we've built, and now we are looking to grow it and to defend against all comers. We don't want to squander the tremendous strategic advantage we have been able to build because of our open policies throughout the pandemic.
Q: Has the pandemic changed how you market Florida?
A: What we're marketing and highlighting has evolved. During the pandemic people discovered that being outside was not only healthy but really fun. And Florida has evolved our marketing to show off these one-of-a-kind natural experiences that you can only find in Florida, like swimming with manatees. We have so many wide-open spaces, and that is really what we're seeing a shift toward with a lot of visitors, so we've been able to take something that is so prevalent in Florida, which is nature and lots and lots of space, and put more emphasis on that. We're able to say, "Hey, you can go to Orlando, and then go on a Lake Kissimmee airboat and see alligators and waterlilies and bald eagles, as well."
Q: Why are you focusing on culinary for the first time?
A: The Michelin Guide announced its first Florida collection: 15 restaurants in Miami, Orlando and Tampa [in early June], so we partnered with them on marketing content, and we're also putting additional funds outside of Michelin to market the culinary scene in Florida as a whole. That is something that we believe is going to resonate strongly with our domestic visitors as well as international. Culinary is hot. And Michelin is partnering with Tampa, Orlando and Miami, so it just made sense to us to build that relationship into something much broader.
Q: Have global staff shortages impacted Florida?
A: We had the same staffing shortages that everybody had when they first opened back up. But our hotels never closed. We've been staffed up for a while, so we're ready to host meetings, like [the IPW conference, attended by 4,800]. A lot of other states are going have those growth pains, and the workforce is a real issue that they're going have to cope with. Everybody's seeing workforce issues, but Florida is way ahead of everybody else. And just the ramping up that is required, we didn't have that. We were able to just keep going.
Q: Are inflation and high gas prices having an impact on the domestic market?
A: We're finding people are willing to drive, even with the gas prices high. Our research shows people are still getting here. They might drive instead of fly. They might book a vacation rental or a limited-service hotel as opposed to a higher-end resort. So they're cutting in places they can, but they're still going, which is wonderful. They're still wanting to come to Florida.