State eyes county tourism spend­ing

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Sweeney Staff writer See TOURISM, 5A

It wasn’t just sun and sand that brought Garth Brooks to Broward County for a se­ries of con­certs in Jan­uary 2016. It­was $45,000 fromthe lo­cal tourism board. That pay­ment is shown in records sub­mit­ted to a state leg­is­la­tor in aw ide-rang­ing de­bate about tourism mar­ket­ing in Florida.

Con­ser­va­tive state leg­is­la­tors think Visit Florida, the state’s tourism mar­ket­ing agency, is a waste of money, and now they’ve also turned their at­ten­tion to lo­cal agen­cies such as the Greater Fort Lau A derdale Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Bureau.

When House Speaker Richard Cor­co­ran, R-Land O’Lakes, de­manded to see the rev­enues and ex­penses of county tourism boards, the Bro ward bureau was the first to com­ply, sev­eral days be­fore the Feb. 1 dead­line, ac­cord­ing to ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Stacy Rit­ter.

Those records re­vealed that the bureau gave $45,000 to Brooks in an in­cen­tive pro­gram to draw the coun­try singer to South Florida. It also spent $100,000 on the 2016 Tor­tuga Mu­sic Fes­ti­val as a spon­sor for the con­cert event, along with thou­sands of dol­lars to other events and or­ga­ni­za­tions in lesser amounts.

The Sun Sentinel’s re­quests for sim­i­lar records from Dis­cover the Palm Beaches, the tourism mar­ket­ing cor­po­ra­tion for Palm Beach County, were not an­swered.

Rit­ter says the money is an in­vest­ment in the county’s No. 1 busi­ness: tourism.

As a re­sult of the Tor­tuga Mu­si­cal Fes­ti­val—a week­end­coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val on Fort Laud­erdale Beach each April — Rit­ter says the ho­tel in­dus­try in Fort Laud­erdale can count on ex­tend­ing the tourist sea­son.

“Ninety thou­sand peo­ple fill those ho­tel rooms in what is the shoul­der sea­son,” Rit­ter said, re­fer­ring to the mid­dle ground be­tween the packed win­ter months and the empty ho­tels of sum­mer. “Ninety thou­sand peo­ple come here, and the ma­jor­ity come from some­place else. They spend on the ho­tel rooms, they eat out at the restau­rants, they ride in the taxis. Tourists aren’t go­ing to come here just be­cause.”

The num­ber of vis­i­tors has in­creased along with state tourism mar­ket­ing bud­gets, but it’s tough to draw a def­i­nite con­clu­sion that one causes the other.

Florida had al­most 113 mil­lion vis­i­tors in 2016, a sixth con­sec­u­tive record year and 6 mil­lion more than in 2015. Boost­ers of tourism mar­ket­ing, which in­clude peo­ple on both sides of the aisle from for­mer Demo­cratic County Com­mis­sioner Rit­ter to Repub­li­can Gov. Rick Scott, say the slow but steady in­crease in Visit Florida’s bud­get has trans­lated to greater num­bers of vis­i­tors, which in turn trans­lates to more money in the econ­omy.

But bud­get-con­scious con­ser­va­tives in the Florida House don’t see it that way. Cor­co­ran’s scru­tiny of county tourism agen­cies came af­ter Visit Florida re­fused to re­veal the de­tails of a con­tract with rap­per Pit­bull, say­ing the con­tract­was a trade se­cret.

When Cor­co­ran threat­ened to sue, Pit­bull him­self re­leased the de­tails, which re­vealed that the agency had given him $1 mil­lion to pro­mote the state through his videos and songs.

To Cor­co­ran and many other House con­ser­va­tives, that money is a waste. They be­lieve pri­vate in­dus­try will mar­ket it­self if the state gets out of the­way.

With that spend­ing in mind, Cor­co­ran switched fo­cus to county boards, un­der the as­sump­tion that more give­aways to the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try could be found there.

Right now, lawyers are re­view­ing the sub­mis­sions from county tourism boards to make sure noth­ing in them is ex­empt from pub­lic records. Ac­cord­ing to Cor­co­ran spokesman Fred Pic­colo, the speaker’s of­fice will re­lease all of the in­for­ma­tion once it has been re­viewed. Cor­co­ran “is ea­ger to do so. Very,” he said.

Rit­ter wor­ries that pay­ments such as the one to Garth Brooks will be held up to the pub­lic without con­text, mak­ing it seem as though tourism mar­ket­ing means tax­payer money flow­ing out to the wealthy and fa­mous with noth­ing to showin re­turn.

“That’s the big­gest fear is that they’re go­ing to pick it apart and use it as a head­line,” she said. “I’m hop­ing that if the time comes we’re asked to ex­plain, we’re al­lowed to put things in con­text.… It’s like telling Tar­get to stop ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing be­cause ev­ery­body knows about Tar­get. When you’re do­ing well, that’s when you need to keep mar­ket­ing .”

The tourism bureau is a pub­lic en­tity so, un­like the pub­lic-pri­vate Visit Florida, its records are eas­ier to ob­tain. It had a $27 mil­lion bud­get in 2016, with the money com­ing en­tirely from taxes on ho­tel rooms.

Gov. Scott has asked for a $76 mil­lion bud­get for Visit Florida this year, but the House has a bill that would kill the agency en­tirely and a com­pro­mise ver­sion that would in­crease over­sight of the agency and fund it at $25 mil­lion — less than the tourism mar­ket­ing bud­get for the Broward County agency.

And the lo­cal bureau main­tains that the re­turn on in­vest­ment, es­pe­cially in an area as tourist heavy as Broward, is sig­nif­i­cant. Last year, the agency paid out al­most $4 mil­lion in in­cen­tives to bring 27 events to the Broward County Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. But it es­ti­mates that the eco­nomic im­pact of those events, which in­clude the Su­per Con comic book con­ven­tion and the Fort Laud­erdale In­ter­na­tional Boat Show, meant more than $220 mil­lion in­jected into the Broward County econ­omy. Some $168 mil­lion of that came from the boat show alone.

And the tourism agency would like tosee an in­crease in mar­ket­ing, not a down­turn. Last year marked the first di­rect flights from Fort Laud­erdale to Dubai in the United Arab Emi­rates. Ac­cord­ing to Rit­ter, the air­port will have di­rect flights to the United King­dom and Barcelona, Spain, in the com­ing year. And that means the vis­i­tors bureau needs to start spend­ing in those coun­tries aswell, she said.

“No more go­ing to Mi­ami for these in­ter­na­tional flights,” Rit­ter said. “We’ve just opened up a whole new mar­ket in the Mid­dle East, and we need to be do­ing more, not less. We need to be in Ger­many. Ger­mans love it here!”

In fact, even the dis­so­lu­tion of Visit Florida will hit Broward’s agency, ac­cord­ing to Rit­ter, with the state agency’s match­ing dol­lars al­low­ing the lo­cal bureau to travel to trade shows in farflung lo­ca­tions to pro­mote Broward County.

“There’ll be trade shows we won’t be able to at­tend,” she said. “Face to face is still the best way to mar­ket, and if we can’t go to travel agents in other ar­eas to tell them our story, we will lose busi­ness to those who do.”

MICHAEL LAUGH­LIN/STAFF PHOTO

lo­cal tourism board gave $45,000 to Garth Brooks to draw the coun­try singer to South Florida.

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