Will Visit Florida budget cuts help other states win tourists?

The Midwestern state of Michigan boasts fresh water beaches, hundreds of public golf courses, a mild summer climate — and soon, tourism officials in that state say, it may also enjoy an influx of travelers that it is competing with Florida to get.

The Florida legislature’s decision to slash $50 million from the state’s tourism marketing budget could make it easier for other vacation destinations, like Michigan, to snag summer tourists on the hunt for a new getaway spot, according to David Lorenz, Vice President of Travel Michigan, that state’s tourism marketing agency.

"I think that Florida is opening themselves up to a real potential loss of business."
— David Lorenz, Vice President of Travel Michigan

Michigan is one of a handful of states running robust summer marketing advertisements on cable channels across the country. The budget cuts leave less money for Florida to compete with those ad campaigns.

RELATED: Tourists continue to visit Florida in record numbers

“I think these budget cuts that Florida is about to go through are going to leave some opportunities for states like Michigan,” Lorenz said. “…I think that Florida is opening themselves up to a real potential loss of business.”

Without competition from Florida, Lorenz said it will be easier for other states to reach travelers.

“There are people who might have otherwise gone to Florida, who are going to be looking for a place to go,” Lorenz said this week. “They are going to see those messages and they are going to be pulled here. We are going to make sure they have a great time, and they are going to be pulled back.”

MORE: Loss of Visit Florida dollars means locals must do more

It’s an argument Gov. Rick Scott has been vocally insisting for months as he traveled the state lobbying for public support for tourism marketing dollars. But to little avail.

The Florida legislature this month approved an $83 billion budget that sets aside just $25 million for the state’s tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida — a $50 million cut from the agency’s 2016 spending plan. Scott had sought $100 million for statewide tourism marketing.

Although a record-breaking 31.1 million tourists visited Florida during the first quarter of 2017, an increase of 2.5 percent over 2016’s level, Scott has continued to warn that cuts to the state’s tourism marketing budget threaten the industry and could cost jobs throughout the state.

As the legislative session entered its final weeks last month, Scott pointed to ads running in Florida for tourism destinations in Michigan and California, as well as Utah’s “Big Five” national parks, as proof that other states are ramping up their sales pitches for visitors.

“We’re seeing nice ads from Utah, Michigan and California,” Scott said last month, as lawmakers prepared to vote on the state’s budget. “These are nice ads that make you interested in going to those states.”

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Tourism officials in Utah, Michigan and California, all say they haven’t changed their marketing campaigns as a result of the Visit Florida cuts. Television ads airing on cable networks are part of national campaigns, and are not aimed at Florida residents, they say.

“It doesn’t have a specific Florida target,” Emily Moench, Visit Utah’s Public Relations Manager , said of the agency’s television ad campaign.

Jorge Pesquera, President and CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches, the non-profit charged with marketing Palm Beach County as a tourism destination, said a growing number of cities, counties and states are turning to tourism promotion as an economic driver.

“They are realizing the value of tourism marketing,” he said.

In the wake of the Visit Florida cuts, county tourism officials have said they will look for more ways to partner with industry businesses, attractions and local government groups to showcase the area as an international vacation and meetings destination. Without the state’s aid, the county’s tourism industry will have to work more closely to leverage its advertising dollars, they say.

Visit Florida’s budget came under fire last year after the agency refused to release details about its $1 million marketing contract with Miami rapper Pitbull. The controversy led to the resignation of the organization’s longtime president and CEO, Will Seccombe, who stepped down in December at the governor’s request.

Ken Lawson, Visit Florida’s new CEO, has vowed to make the agency more transparent. In March, the tourism group approved new procedures that include posting contracts online.

In a letter to state lawmakers before this month budget vote, Lawson said the cuts to Visit Florida would result in a 29 percent drop in the number of tourists who travel to the state each year. For every 10 percent drop in visitation, 150,000 tourism-related jobs would be put at risk, he added.

And without money to promote the state, new hotels could have a difficult time keeping rooms booked, he said. Roughly 35,000 new hotel rooms are set to open in the state by the end of 2018, and Lawson said it’s “Visit Florida’s job to fill them.”

“Funding Visit Florida at $25 million would have a dire effect on the families who work in the tourism industry and rely on us to bring people to our state,” Lawson wrote in the May 2 letter to state lawmakers.

In Michigan, Lorenz said he doesn’t want to see Florida’s tourism industry suffer.

“I wish them the best,” Lorenz said. “But we are going to take advantage of that lull in the marketplace.”

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