Hospitality Leaders Bracing But Ready For Cuts

SB2

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY MAY 19, 2017

Tourism leaders in the region have braced for serious budget cuts to Visit Florida’s marketing budget, but remain confident the assets on the Gulf Coast will attract visitors from around the globe. At the most recent SB2 panel, Good People: The Tourist Economy, panelists spoke to the impact of cuts in the budget but also to ways the shortfall can be made up in the region.

Alfredo Gonzalez, vice president of International Sales and Market Development for Visit Florida, says budget cuts will make it more difficult to reach out to potential tourists around the world, but said the state’s de facto tourism bureau will maintain strong partnerships overseas and domestically to ensure destinations in the Sunshine State won’t be overlooked. “Last year we had a $75 million budget,” Gonzalez said about Visit Florida during a keynote address. “If things don’t go well over the next couple days, that $75 million will drop to about $25 million. That will make things very difficult for us, but nothing is over. In 2010 we had $31 million and we still broke records.”

The Florida Legislature, which just concluded its regular session earlier this month, budgeted just $25 million for Visit Florida after Gov. Rick Scott requested $100 million. Gonzalez noted a new budget won’t go into effect until July, and, so far, Florida has seen tremendous visitation, with about 30.2 million visitors recorded coming into the state in the first quarter of 2017.

Rick Piccolo, president and CEO of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, says the Gulf Coast in particular boasts improving infrastructure, something that may set the area apart from built-out destinations like Miami and Orlando. With the impending opening of a diverging diamond at Interstate-75 and University Parkway, the exit that connects the highway and the airport, traffic issues should ease up for visitors and make for a better impression of the region. “Our airport infrastructure is in excellent shape,” he says. “This is a boutique community, and I look at the airport as a boutique airport. I tell people we are Whole Foods to Tampa’s Publix and Punta Gorda’s Save-A-Lot.” 

Elliot Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, notes how local marketing efforts have worked to complement exactly what visitors expect in the region as a destination, which is an improvement over past years when surveys showed most couldn’t place Anna Maria relative to Tampa, Sanibel or Key West. “Our brand is now penetrating against competitors really well, and that’s with the second smallest budget on the West Coast of Florida aside from Port Charlotte," says Falcione.

Jeffrey Mayers, general manager for The Resort at Longboat Key Club, made an appeal to SB2 goers to contact lawmakers and state leaders and let them know how vital Visit Florida funding remains for the region. But even absent that, he stressed the Gulf Coast still benefits from a tremendous environment and world-class amenities. “We have such great bones here as far as the beaches,” Mayers says. “Those of us who live here know the arts and culture and restaurants and community. These great surroundings will never change as long as we don’t lose sight of who we are.”

Pictured: Alfredo Gonzalez. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

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