State eyes county tourism spending
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.”
local tourism board gave $45,000 to Garth Brooks to draw the country singer to South Florida.