ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As marketing groups like Visit Florida contend with the perennial slashing of their budgets, Brand USA, the national marketing arm, is emerging as an ever more important tool to promote U.S. destinations abroad.

But this year, Brand USA's existence is just as vulnerable as that of any other destination marketing organization (DMO).

Speaking here at IPW, the U.S. Travel Association's annual conference, association CEO Roger Dow reiterated that Brand USA's reauthorization this year is "critical."

Nor did he mince words when asked about Visit Florida's loss of one-third of its budget.

"I think it's a huge mistake," Dow said. "I know what will happen. Next year, they'll say, 'See, it didn't make any difference.' It will take two or three years. We've seen it all over the country -- in Pennsylvania, the state of Washington, Colorado. They cut the budget, and a few years later tourism drops."

The Travel Promotion Act prohibits Brand USA from lobbying for itself, so U.S. Travel has made lobbying for it a top priority. But there is also a nationwide chorus of voices attesting that without Brand USA, they wouldn't have the reach they do in important and lucrative markets. 

David Lorenz, vice president of Pure Michigan, said that China became the DMO's top overseas market after working on that market for three years. Pure Michigan has its own Chinese-language website, which it launched with Brand USA. 

"Brand USA gives us reach around the world," he said. "A state like Michigan could never afford to be in Australia, Korea, China. We could never do consumer marketing there. How do you afford that? You can't, unless you work with the massive promotional marketing engine known as Brand USA."

Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, said he hears over and over from destinations around the country how important the co-op marketing platforms and programs are. 

"If we're no longer around, then that disappears," he said. 

As to whether he thinks Brand USA will be reauthorized, Thompson said: "I'm very confident."

Visit Florida's 'surgical' approach

With Visit Florida's budget this year cut from $76 million to $50 million, its new chief marketing officer, Gerardo Llanes, whose past experience includes five years with the now-defunct Mexico Tourism Board, has his work cut out for him. 

Only one month into the job, Llanes said he is working on making the DMO's strategies and executions "more surgical."

"We have to be a lot more creative in how to use those funds," he said. "We'll really target where we'll have the biggest impact for the efforts we make. It's difficult, but at the end, that's what we have. We believe we can deliver the numbers anyway."

Visit Florida is no stranger to having to deal with budget slashing and existential threats. It was only two years ago that members of the Florida legislature tried to zero out its budget. Llanes said the DMO will simply have to make some sacrifices, such as doing away with advertising on network television, and will increase its trade partnerships with destinations in order to expand its budget.

"Brand USA will be very important," he said. "The reality is we need to find a way of getting more resources coming in for our marketing efforts, and those are co-ops, partnerships, maybe nontraditional tourist partnerships that will allow us to get more media value and media exposure." 

And just as Visit Florida needs Brand USA, the many smaller destinations in Florida that don't have the marketing budgets of an Orlando or a Miami need Visit Florida. 

"One of the roles we have is to help those smaller destinations to be able to access that tourism market that by themselves they wouldn't be able to reach," Llanes said. "The smaller ones really say, 'The Visit Florida platform allows me to have exposure I'd never have.'"

Llanes said those smaller destinations are "very concerned" and are individually and collectively working to get out the message that they need Visit Florida. 

"A lot of local businesses live or die from tourism," he said. "To me, it's bigger because they can't feed their families. It becomes a personal element."

Visit Florida, like Brand USA, will have to be reauthorized next year. And then its budget will have to be decided upon. Llanes is hoping this won't be a perennial issue going forward. 

"I'm starting to propose a different funding model so we can have more certainty in the money that comes in," he said. "There are different models that work around the world. We need to find the one that works for Florida."


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