Visit Florida CEO strikes defiant, optimistic tone at local tourism event

Hospitality leaders praise efforts that helped St. Augustine recover from Hurricane Matthew, post record November, December

Wednesday’s state of the tourism event at the World Golf Village Renaissance hotel was a chance for those in the industry and local government to look back at their success at overcoming obstacles — and to look ahead cautiously.


The event was part celebration for a record 2016, despite Hurricane Matthew disrupting businesses and residents in October and beyond.

But it was also something of a warning about the immediate future as Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson spoke about budget problems for his office and possible “staff reductions.”

The budget passed by the state Legislature, but not yet signed by the governor, cuts the budget of the state’s tourism marketing agency from $76 million to $25 million.

Many media outlets have portrayed the budget battle as something of a power play between Gov. Rick Scott, who is a big advocate of Visit Florida, and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Also, Visit Florida became caught up in a public relations disaster when the agency paid Miami rapper Pitbull $1 million to promote Florida. The details of the deal were not immediately made public, and the scandal led to the resignation of CEO Will Seccombe.

Lawson, who replaced Seccombe in January, used his appearance in St. Johns County to criticize the decision of the Legislature. Many of those in the audience benefit directly from Visit Florida, and almost everyone in attendance benefits from tourism revenue. It’s estimated that 30,000 jobs in the county are tied to the tourism/hospitality industry.

“By virtue of actions that took place in the past, the Legislature decided to take hard actions that impact each and every one of us,” Lawson said.

As he did in a news release on Monday that touted the state’s overall tourism numbers for the first quarter of the year (more than 31 million visitors), Lawson said other states are looking to take advantage of Florida’s potential lack of action in attracting future visitors.

“We’ve heard the message that’s been sent,” Lawson said of the budget proposal. “We don’t accept what’s been said, but we are going to make sure that our legislators know that we have value to help our state’s economy.

“And we will make the changes necessary to make sure we get our money back because that money goes to helping each and every one of you.”

It’s unclear what the overall impact will be on the industry should the funding be reduced. Some local politicians, business owners and organizations, including the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, have spoken out against efforts to undercut Visit Florida.

Lori Pennington-Gray, director of the University of Florida’s Tourism Crisis Management Institute, was quoted in an article this month in Travel Weekly, warning that cutting marketing efforts can impact tourist arrivals.

“If there is significant impact to arrivals, then it’s going to hit all of us,” she said. “I’m an educator in a state university. We’ll be impacted. If the receipts from tourism are not coming in, then the whole economy will not do as well.”

Local officials like Richard Goldman, the CEO and president of the county visitors and convention bureau (VCB), focused more on the county’s rise from the damage — both physical and to the destination’s reputation — to post record levels of overnight visitors in November and December.

VCB board member Charles Cox, owner of the San Sebastian Winery, helped honor St. Augustine City Manager John Regan and others who helped the city salvage the annual Nights of Lights celebration that brings so many visitors to town in the winter.

Regan said immediately after the hurricane, the city was 15 to 20 workdays behind schedule in setting up the lights display. And there was the problem of replacing the electrical infrastructure in all of the flooded areas.

But there was never a doubt that the display would go forward. It was just too vital to the city, Regan said.

“We spent time thinking about, ‘We have to recover from Hurricane Matthew, but we have the opportunity to proactively prevent the secondary consequences of disaster, which has to do with people losing their jobs and losing their businesses,’” he said.

“It was very important because besides the economic issues, the criticality of taking our community and being able to have the psychology of putting the past behind you and looking forward and creating normalcy is paramount in disaster recovery.”

Cox said having the event go on as usual was a great lift to the city and its businesses.

“Not only did the event happen, it was incredibly successful, and I think it showed the entire world that St. Johns County is back in business,” Cox said. “It made for a nice holiday season after a very bad thing that happened.”

Even outsiders noticed the county’s quick rebound from the hurricane.

Peter Yesawich, a partner at research firm MMGY Global, also spoke Wednesday and said St. Johns County did a tremendous job of repositioning itself as a top destination after the natural disaster.

“The recovery of St. Augustine/Ponte Vedra and the county from Hurricane Matthew was nothing short of remarkable,” he said.