Florida clocked more than 100 million visits in 2015, passing that tourism touchstone for the first time ever. Now Paul Phipps, Visit Florida’s chief marketing officer, wants to get the most out of travelers both from overseas and within the United States. Phipps provided the keynote address at a recent installment of the SB2 forum series, The Tourist Agenda: Making the Most of a Travel Economy. Afterward, he sat down exclusively with SRQ to discuss what can be done to boost tourism on the Gulf Coast. 

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

SRQ: You spoke about making sure visitors provide more for Florida than another click of the turnstile counter. What is Visit Florida doing to make sure we get the highest yield from tourists? Phipps: We look at income levels and origin markets and we really get a sense of who has the potetial and the desire to travel. You have to have a wanderlust  in you. A good percentage of the market won’t ever go more than 200 miles from home. It’s not just understanding the income levels and lifestyles of people, but if they have a sense of adventure—if they want to explore and try new things. Is leisure travel an important part of persona? For a long time, we focused on getting people to Florida. They came to Florida, we rang the bell and said “there’s a win.” Then it occurred to us in the last few years: one of the things in getting them to spend more is to engage people while they are here—saying there’s a strawberry festival or a jazz festival. What digital platforms do for you is in listening and segmentation. You book for three days at the Hotel Indigo? We know who you are, why you are coming, your origin market and your interests. Immediately we target you and say, “Florida can’t wait for you to get here and, to let you know, the last day you are here, there is this craft beer festival.” You love to experience new things and craft beer is an interest of yours. We may partner with Indigo and others and offer 20 percent off your fourth night. Or we work with JetBlue so people could also change their ticket without any change fees.

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

PHOTO COURTESY OF VISIT FLORIDA

While many view international travel as the Holy Grail of tourism, you have focused on making sure domestic is just as valuable. Why? We have to. [Domestic] is 90 million of 105 million visits. But I will tell you this: international makes 30 percent of our spend. It’s a big yield play, but it’s tough to get out five years and know where you are going to be. Who could guess the current worth of the dollar versus the Canadian dollar or what’s happened with the strength of the euro? Or what’s happened in Brazil with the political and economic climate? Venezuela right now is on verge of collapse. How do you know how markets will be maturing and developing? That’s why we have a foundation five: Canada, the UK, Germany, Mexico and Brazil. We really focus on that contiguous Canada and Mexico because we can get a little more on the horizon. That European, UK and German traveler to the US, we’d love to grow it more. We know 21 percent of all international inbound traffic to the United States comes to Florida. But we have to be real about that space and know there is volatility. That’s why we focus on domestic and go for higher discretionary incomes and segmentation. People think of Florida as a family destination, which it is, but 60 percent of people coming are couples. The romantic getaway: we own that category. We better stay focused on that. It’s what’s driving the tourism economy. 

Photo courtesy of Visit Florida

PHOTO COURTESY OF VISIT FLORIDA

Many hospitality leaders here remain skeptical Brazil would benefit the industry outside Miami. Where is the future with Brazil now that their economy is declining? Their volume is down for a lot of different reasons. Last year, it was not just the economics of it; it was the World Cup. In countries where the World Cup is held, people don’t travel. But the biggest growth with Brazilians has been to Central Florida. It’s been Orlando. Over time, they will find Tampa, St. Pete and the Sarasotas of the world. We are going strong into Mexico. Last year, we had 435,000 Mexicans come to Florida. We think we can get to over 1.2 million over the next two years. Southwest Air is building seven new gates in Fort Lauderdale with customs, and with the equipment they have, the only place they can haul out of is Mexico and Latin America. Soon, we will make some big moves in Mexico City, Monterey, Guadalajara. Hopefully, we can get some lift into here.

Are you working with airlines to serve smaller airports like Sarasota? We have what we call Air Team Florida. It’s all about new business. We do a lot with the low-cost carriers—Allegiant, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier—just as we do with American, Delta, United and Southwest. We worked with Allegiant and they now have five origin cities going to Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport. We’ve got Air Canada going into Jacksonville now. To continue to grow, we need destination diversity. We need to tell the whole geographic story of Florida. We work with these secondary airports on a daily basis on both domestic lift and international. There is an opportunity to get a European origin flight in Sarasota. That’s important for this area; it might be a twice a week, and if we do it right it could be four times a week. 

You tell hoteliers it’s important to stay booked near capacity rather than growing infrastructure. Why? What you want is controlled growth. Focus on taking the seasonality out. I would imagine that here, March is highest occupancy month and September is the lowest. It probably has a 20 percent swing in occupancy. Focus on taking that from 20 to 10. You haven’t done anything to infrastructure. You just say, “March is my bell cow, and make everything else look as much like March as I can. If I do that, I don’t need any more roads or any more hotels.” Would that be a game changer? Absolutely. When people say we have this shoulder season or it’s soft, I say, “No, stop it. Every day is a great day to be in Florida.”