TALLAHASSEE - After months of negative press and new rules that ended partnerships with a number of local tourism organizations, Visit Florida's president has started traveling the state to try to rebuild trust with industry officials.
Ken Lawson, the president and CEO of the public-private tourism agency, said late Wednesday on the corporate blog “Sunshine Matters” that he has started to “humbly” reach out to different groups across the state.
“I want to earn your trust and learn from you first hand,” Lawson wrote. “This has been a hard year for all of us.”
Visit Florida this year had to fight to keep its state funding from being cut by two-thirds. Also, it dropped the sponsorship of an auto racing team and recently did not continue sponsorship of the British football club Fulham.
The tourism-marketing agency ultimately avoided major funding cuts. But with lawmakers approving new disclosure rules tied to the state funding, the agency has lost partnerships with 12 local organizations: Visit Tampa Bay, Visit South Walton, Visit Orlando, the Amelia Island CVB, the Brevard County Tourism Office, Discover The Palm Beaches, Experience Kissimmee, the Florida Keys & Key West Tourist Development Council, the Franklin County TDC, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, Orlando North Seminole County Tourism and the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Office.
But that doesn't necessarily mean the regional organizations have severed ties with Visit Florida.
“We will continue to evaluate sales and marketing opportunities, on a case-by-case basis, for possible integration within our destination marketing plan,” Jorge Pesquera, president & CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches, said Thursday in a statement.
Calling for more transparency, lawmakers passed a measure (SB 2-A) during a June special session that requires tourism boards participating in the “Targeted Marketing Assistance Program” to make public local operating budgets; travel and entertainment expenses; and the details of salaries and benefits of staff and board members tied to public and private funds.
Even with the change, 46 tourism organizations have agreed to continue partnering with Visit Florida.
"Visit Florida is unequivocally committed to transparency, accountability and efficiency, and we have fully embraced the new measures that help us achieve those standards,” Visit Florida spokesman Stephen Lawson said in a statement Thursday. “Our partners will see new and affordable cooperative marketing programs unveiled in the coming weeks. We are continuing to work to aggressively market our state and meet our goal of attracting a record 120 million visitors this year."
Ken Lawson, who is not related to Stephen Lawson, acknowledged in the blog that the “battle” to maintain funding “was hard and messy.”
“It is now time to heal and come together,” Lawson wrote. “As part of this process, I am humbly reaching out to you to hear your story, learn about your challenges, and determine how Visit Florida can help with your future success.”
The changes were enacted as past tourism-marketing deals drew heavy headlines and criticism from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and other lawmakers.
There was an $11.6 million deal to sponsor a cooking show
hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Also, the state had a $2.875 million contract,about $1 million has yet to be paid with an auto racing team known as Visit Florida Racing.
When the auto deal was ended in June, Corcoran said the agency “heard us loud and clear and are beginning the process of cleaning up their act.”
The most notorious deal was a $1 million contract with Miami rapper Pitbull --- Armando Christian Perez --- from the 2015-2016 fiscal year. That deal was undisclosed until mid-December after the House took the agency to court.
Among the provisions in the contract, Perez would do promotional work through a New Year's Eve celebration in Miami; during at least one live appearance in South Florida; by appearing in a video series encouraging people to visit popular Florida spots; through foreign appearances; and through a video for the song "Sexy Beaches."
Corcoran said at the time people described the video to him as an “objectification of women.”
Ken Lawson's predecessor at Visit Florida, Will Seccombe said before being asked by Gov. Rick Scott to resign following the release of the contract, that VisitFlorida received $8.50 in media attention for every $1 invested in the Pitbull program.
Lawson was brought to Visit Florida after serving as secretary of the state Department of Business & Professional Regulation.
Last week, he was in South Florida, where he took steps such as making a presentation at the International Multicultural & Heritage Tourism Summit, attending a meeting with the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers and talking with Axel Roy Zeissig, the vice consul general of Germany.
“We discussed Germany's importance to Florida as part of our international efforts, and I gained valuable insight from him into areas of potential growth,” Lawson wrote.
In the next two weeks, Visit Florida will release estimates for the number of visitors to the state during the first half of this year.
Florida drew 31.1 million visitors during the first three months of the year, the highest number during any quarter in state history, according to the governor's office.
A year earlier, the state estimated 29.8 million visitors during the first three months.