As the assistant personnel manager at one of Puerto Rico’s most prestigious hotels, Jorge Pesquera had the difficult task of telling hundreds of workers each summer that they no longer had a job — a symptom of the Caribbean island’s fluctuating tourism season.
Although tourists kept the oceanfront hotel full during the winter and spring, bookings dropped during the warm summer months. Fewer guests meant people had to be laid off.
It was called the “bumping process,” Pesquera recalled.
“At the end of the day, the people who would be told, ‘Business is down again, and you are unfortunately in the lineup,’ that responsibility fell on me,” Pesquera said. “It was a very painful process. Grown men and women would sit in front of me and burst into tears.”
Pesquera, now the head of Discover The Palm Beaches, Palm Beach County’s tourism marketing agency, has made it his mission to prevent seasonal layoffs here by keeping hotel rooms full all year long.
As part of its marketing plan, the tourism agency promotes an endless travel season by showcasing the area as a summertime getaway, while also increasing its effort to appeal to a more diverse group of travelers, including millennials, gays and lesbians, and minorities.
The county’s tourism industry eliminates roughly 8,000 jobs between April and August each year. The industry employees roughly 74,000 people in March, the height of the tourism season. By August, that number plummets to 66,000, according to county tourism officials.
“We have been in the State of Florida accustom and accepting of the fact that when business goes down after the season we are just going to have it happen,” Pesquera said. “We all have to kind of buckle up and tighten our belts and move forward … We don’t believe it is necessary.”
Discover’s push for summer travelers comes at a critical time for the state’s tourism industry.
State lawmakers, particularly House members led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, have sought to cut money for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing organization.
Gov. Rick Scott last week pressed the House and the Senate for $100 million in Visit Florida marketing dollars in next year’s budget. The House has allotted $24 million for next year. The Senate’s allocation is $76 million.
Pesquera said cuts to Visit Florida’s budget could have a devastating impact on tourism jobs in Palm Beach County and across the state.
“For a state like Florida to take a gamble, to make a bet that people are just going to continue to come if we stop advertising and promoting it, is a pretty dangerous approach,” Pesquera said.
In 1993, Colorado became the only state to do away with its tourism marketing agency, eliminating the organization’s $12 million budget. Within two years, Colorado’s share of domestic travelers had fallen by 30 percent, representing a loss of over $1.4 billion in tourism revenue annually, according to a 2009 study by Longwoods International, a market research consultancy.
“If what happened in Colorado were to happen in Florida, we could see visitation drop from 7 million to 4.5 million” people a year, Pesquera said. “That’s a lot of jobs lost.”
Tourism is one of the county’s largest industries, contributing more than $7 billion to the local economy. Since 2010, the number of tourists who travel to the county has grown by 65 percent.
A record-breaking 7.4 million visitors came here in 2016, a 5.8 increase over 2015’s level.
It marked the eighth consecutive year of tourism growth in the county.
There were 16,546 hotel rooms in Palm Beach County in 2016. By 2018, that number is expected to grow to 17,611.
Given the county’s location between the state’s two largest tourism hotspots, Orlando and Miami, Pesquera said there is “huge potential” for continued growth here.
As part of its push to win summer travelers, Discover has asked county tourism officials to pull $380,000 from its reserves to help boost its a seasonal marketing campaign.
Typically, the agency targets travelers within driving distance of the county during the warmer months. In the winter, it focuses its marketing efforts on cities outside of the state that have a large number of flights to Palm Beach International Airport as well as certain key international markets.
Tourism officials have also been working to boost the number of conventions and meetings that are held here each year. Large meetings and conferences can serve as a buoy for the tourism industry during economic downturns, since those events typically book meeting space years in advance and fill hotel rooms with large groups of travelers.
Ultimately, Pesquera says the goal is create and retain jobs.
“What has been my driving force has always been job creation,” he said. “I think jobs are ultimately the final role of all economic development efforts.”
Tourism leaders say there is a perception that industry jobs are typically low paying. Pesquera argues the industry gives workers a place to start and grow their skills.
“The travel industry provides that wonderful first step into the American dream,” Pesquera said, borrowing a quote from Roger Dow, head of the U.S. Travel Association.
“They gain the language skills and the communication skills to really move to other places,” Pesquera added.
John Parkinson, the general manager of the year-old Hilton West Palm Beach next to the county’s convention center, agrees.
Parkinson got his start in the industry working as a valet and hotel bellman. He moved quickly up the ranks, working at hotels across Florida before taking the job at the 400-room Hilton in West Palm Beach.
Many of the other senior managers at the hotel took a similar path, he adds.
“The great thing about the hospitality industry is there are a ton of opportunities,” Parkinson said. “You can grow very fast into a great position.”