Tourism group backed VisitFlorida, now cuts ties with state agency

It wasn’t an oversight this week when Palm Beach County tourism officials skipped an annual travel conference organized by the governor and Visit Florida.

After vocally lobbying Tallahassee lawmakers this spring to set aside money for Visit Florida, Discover The Palm Beaches has chosen not to continue its partnership with the statewide industry group, officials said this week.

Discover, the non-profit group charged with marketing the county as a tourist destination is opting instead to focus on its own advertising efforts and possible collaborations with Brand USA, the country’s destination marketing organization, county officials said.

“At this point in time it was not worth the investment of being part of Visit Florida,” Glenn Jergensen, the executive director of the county’s Tourist Development Council, which oversees Discover’s use tourist tax money, said of the non-profit’s decision. “Some of the co-op (advertising) programs and the like were just not something they felt were really to the level that they wanted to participate.”

Discover is one of a dozen regional destination marketing groups from across the state to break ties with Visit Florida. Discover was also among a handful of groups that skipped the annual Florida Governor’s Conference on Tourism, a three-day event held in Broward County this week and organized by Visit Florida.

RELATED: PBC tourism head warns against Visit Florida cuts

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has taken aim at the groups, arguing they are trying to avoid new financial transparency and accountability rules that lawmakers placed on Visit Florida and its partners. The new rules were enacted after this year’s raucous budget battle in Tallahassee, where Visit Florida faced the possibility of losing the state money it receives for tourism promotion.

“Rather than follow Visit Florida’s lead and embrace the financial transparency and accountability measures currently in use by Visit Florida, Discover The Palm Beaches has instead opted to remove itself from partnership agreements with Visit Florida in a vain effort to hide taxpayer-financed activities from the public,” Corcoran wrote in an Aug. 25 letter to the Jergensen, who is a county employee.

The Florida Association of Destination Marketing Organizations, however, says the break has nothing to do with fiances, and instead points to major changes at Visit Florida.

MORE: Palm Beach County tourism group skips governor’s conference

“Local tourism marketing organizations already operate under multiple layers of transparency and accountability, and are happy to comply with these measures,” said Robert Skrob, executive director of the destination marketing association. “As responsible stewards of local tax dollars, every destination marketing organization has the obligation to ensure any dollars spent on tourism promotion will yield the best return on investment for their community.”

Discover is set to receive roughly $16 million in county tourism tax revenue next budget year. Under its agreement with the county, Discover must use the money for tourism marketing, including the creation of advertising campaigns and participation in national and international trade shows.

Before Discover is reimbursed by the county for any of its work, expenses are reviewed by a series of county employees and are audited by the clerk and comptroller’s office.

“We are absolutely totally transparent,” Jergensen said. “We have probably some of the toughest review processes.”

In a statement released Thursday, Discover’s president and CEO Jorge Pesquera said the group continues to review its relationship with Visit Florida.

“Discover The Palm Beaches has and continues to support the important work implemented by Visit, as evidenced by our active and significant lobbying efforts during the last legislative session,” Pesquera said. “We will evaluate Visit Florida’s sales and marketing opportunities when they become available, on a case-by-case basis, for possible integration within our destination marketing plan.”

Discover’s separation from Visit Florida comes just months after some of its staffers traveled to Tallahassee to urge lawmakers to continue to fund state tourism marketing efforts. Visit Florida’s budget was targeted by lawmakers last year after the organization refused to release details about its $1 million contact with preforming artist Pitbull.

After months of debate, the House and the Senate agreed to boost Visit Florida’s funding from $25 million to $76 million — the same amount the organization received last year. The legislature also created a series of new financial regulations for both Visit Florida and its partners.

Fallout from the financial dispute handicapped Visit Florida, which lost its CEO, its top marketing officer, the head of its global marketing efforts, and several other employees. Industry experts argue the funding debate and staff departures have also hindered Visit Florida’s marketing efforts for next year.

At the annual tourism conference, Visit Florida has historically released details about it’s annual marketing campaign — an announcement that in 2014 included a glitzy presentation detailing a partnership with National Geographic; an aggressive outreach effort at Fashion Week in São Paulo, Brazil; and a hospitality training program for the state’s tourism industry.

This year’s conference, however, was more subdued.

Visit Florida’s President and CEO Ken Lawson stressed the importance of “unity” within the industry, and the agency’s marketing officials highlighted opportunities for “co-op” advertising — programs where area attractions and destination marketing organizations can pay to be included in statewide market efforts. This year’s marketing push will include a weeks-long push to woo travelers in Toronto and in London.

“We want to make sure that the right visitors come, they stay long and they spend a lot,” Lawson told a room full of conference attendees Tuesday. “That is why Visit Florida has been focused on our international tourists.”

Other Palm Beach County tourism leaders, including representatives from the county’s film commission, tourist development council, and cultural council attended this year’s tourism conference. Jergensen said his agency, along with several of the county’s other tourism groups, have remained members of Visit Florida.

“We are just trying to make sure that we get the best bang for the buck and what money we do spend, it is transparent and compliant,” Jergensen said.

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