Marketing is required to keep Sunshine State tourism growing, Visit Florida chief says in Sarasota

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Dana Young, president and CEO of state marketing agency Visit Florida, came to Sarasota on Wednesday to discuss Sarasota’s opportunities and priorities for Visit Florida — including keeping the group alive.

SARASOTA — There are some who would say Florida sells itself. With well-known natural features like the beaches and the Everglades and some not-so-natural ones like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, there are many who think that choosing Florida as a vacation spot is a no-brainer.

But Dana Young, president and CEO of Visit Florida, has data to prove that’s not true.

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Last year, the state tourism agency decided to market specifically to adventure-seekers for the first time. The campaign, focused on highlighting the outdoors in Florida, generated more than 200 million national impressions and grew tourism from adventure seekers by 27%.

The family tourist segment hasn’t had much year-over-year growth in recent years, so Visit Florida embarked on a family centered campaign, which delivered more than 1.1 billion national impressions. When the data rolled in, they showed that family trips to Florida increased by 24%.

“If we aren’t targeting the segment and we aren’t targeting smartly and efficiently to the segment, we’re not going to see this level of growth. They’re going to go somewhere else,” Young said.

Young, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as the head of Visit Florida this year, was in Sarasota Wednesday morning to talk about the value of tourism in Florida and some of the work her organization is doing. Representatives from the Charlotte County, Manatee County and DeSoto County destination marketing organizations, as well as Visit Sarasota County, came to the Carlisle Inn in Sarasota’s Pinecraft community to hear Young speak.

Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, is also currently the chair of the Visit Florida board of directors.

Florida has had eight straight years of record gains in visitation, Young said. Last year, 127 million people came to Florida from out-of-state. Tourism has increased by 57% since 2009, she said.

The state’s economist calculated that for every dollar Visit Florida is allocated in its budget, the organization returns $2.15 to the state, Young said. And now that Visit Florida’s budget has been reduced by 33%, that return on investment is going to be even higher.

Florida’s tourism industry is worth about $86 billion, Young said, and about $3 billion of that is just plain sales tax revenue. One out of every six jobs in Florida is supported by the tourism industry, and every family in Florida saves more than $1,500 in taxes that they would otherwise have to pay themselves because of income generated by visitors, she said.

“I don’t have to tell you that does not happen by accident. Some will say, ‘They’ll come anyway,’ and I say, ‘You know what? Some will, of course.’ Some people will come anyway,” Young said. “But the people that think that Orlando is Ground Zero for red tide, the people that think a hurricane hits the Panhandle and Miami is destroyed — those people are not coming unless we’re out there actively marketing and keeping Florida top-of-mind.”

On the chopping block

Visit Florida was on the chopping block during this year’s state budget negotiations.

The state House of Representatives has been strongly against Visit Florida in recent years, citing questionable past contracts and skepticism about the agency’s effectiveness. This year, Visit Florida’s budget was cut by 33%, from $76 million to $50 million. That means it has to be more nimble with its spending, Young said, by taking advantage of cheaper advertising methods like digital and social media, rather than the more expensive TV ads.

Visit Florida is currently funded through June 30, 2020. Young said tourism industry professionals should consider setting up a meeting with their local legislators to talk about their concerns and to advocate for the need for Visit Florida.

The agency has about 13,500 business and government partners that it helps with public relations, marketing, leveraging bed tax dollars and much more. It works with everyone from paddleboard rental companies to Disney and with destination marketing agencies everywhere from Crystal River to Sarasota to Fort Lauderdale.

Priorities for the organization include growing visitor volume, increasing how much visitors spend and their lengths of stay, reaching out more to travelers of all interests and backgrounds and reducing Florida’s seasonality gap. Reaching out to domestic travelers seeking a one-of-a-kind cultural experience will be a priority going forward, something Young said she thinks Sarasota will fit into nicely.

On the international side Visit Florida is targeting travelers based in the United Kingdom based on the dates of school holidays. Parents in the United Kingdom get fined for taking their kids out of school, so marketing to travelers in ways that can accommodate that is important, Young said. International travelers generally stay longer and spend more money than those who come from within the U.S.

While other states like New York, Hawaii and Nevada have seen drops in their international visitation, Florida’s has actually increased, Young said, because of its marketing campaigns. In 2018, 14.3 million international visitors accounted for about 11% of Florida’s visitor volume.

She said that Visit Florida’s goal is to make the Sunshine State the No. 1 vacation destination in the world.

“We focus only on programs that impact and create added value for travelers, and we are laser-focused on our mission,” she said.

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