DAVENPORT – In one part of State Rep. Mike Horner’s district, in Osceola County, he has plenty of hotels, restaurants and gifts shops, hoping to lure away the visitors who come here to see the theme parks.
Horner, a St. Cloud Republican serving his first term, also represents parts of Polk County, and in the northeast corner of the county is a booming vacation home industry, bringing to the area families looking for more room than a hotel offers.
It was a very easy decision, Horner said, to use his position on the House Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee to push fellow lawmakers to increase funding for one state agency — a move he viewed as an economy development tool more than anything else.
“I know that tourism brings in over $4 billion to the state coffers every year,” Horner said. “I think it’s wise to invest in getting folks back to work and recharging our economy.”
Fellow lawmakers agreed, and in this past legislative session adopted Horner’s bill to increase funding for VISIT Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing agency, by 55 percent. The total allocation for VISIT Florida will rise to $54 million during the fiscal year that starts on July 1, compared to the current budget of $34.9 million.
As Horner noted, this is more than about making sure that people keep coming to Florida to spend their vacation dollars here. For a lawmaker who represents Polk and Osceola counties, this is equally about job creation, he added.
“First of all, the hospitality industry is our state’s leading industry,” he said. “It is our leading job creator and job producer. We have seen over a million Floridians work in the hospitality industry. We saw an increase last year of just under 5 percent in tourism employment.”
As Horner noted, a solid percentage of Florida’s sales tax revenue, at least 23 percent, comes from tourism – and from the 86.5 million visitors who came to Florida in 2011. VISIT Florida has estimated that the economic impact of those visits to be more than $67.2 billion in revenue.
The increase is funding is going to enable the agency to move forward with an aggressive marketing campaign this year, said Will Seccombe, VISIT Florida’s chief marketing manager.
“The leadership of the Legislature is going to allow VISIT Florida to be much more competitive promoting the largest vacation destination in the world,” Seccombe said, “just by virtue of the fact that we know we are fortunate to be in a position to be selling this, the number one travel destination.”
That kind of marketing is needed, Horner and Seccombe said, because the state can’t simply assume that tourists know all about Florida’s theme parks, beaches and warm winters.
“It’s important to recognize how competitive the travel industry is,” Seccombe said. “We need this just to be able to maintain our market share and grow our market share. That won’t happen on its own.”
With additional funding, “We also have incredible opportunities to broaden our Florida products,” he said. “We feel the diversity and density of our tourist products, from 825 miles of beaches to being the fishing and golfing capital of the nation, is important to market as well.”
Horner agreed, noting that the agency’s Web site, www.VISITFLORIDA.com, is the No. 1 trafficked state destination marketing organization website in the nation.
“I challenge the premise that everybody already knows what Florida has to offer,” Horner said. “The reason they know about our beaches and theme parks and resorts is that’s good marketing. We need to make sure that when folks make that decision on where to travel, that they remember Florida. It’s not a stand-alone effort. These dollars are highly leveraged. The idea that we can rest on our laurels is a mistake.”
This helps counties like Polk, he added, which have places to get out and fish or play rounds of golf at resorts like Southern Dunes in Haines City or nearby ChampionsGate.
“More importantly, when folks are getting ready to make that decision on where to spend their vacation, we need to remind them there are opportunities here to fish, and the great night life and excitement we have in Florida,” Horner said. “There’s a reason why we are the nation’s Number 1 tourism destination here in Florida, but sometimes you need to remind folks and maybe stoke that memory.”
The money will also prove to be very helpful in Central Florida, particularly Polk and Osceola counties, Horner said, by using VISIT Florida’s marketing expertise to direct more tourists here.
“I think that clearly in my district, we are tourism-dependent,” he said. “It’s an easy decision for my district, but my object was not to be parochial. This is important to the state. Central Florida is a tax donor. We generate the sales taxes that funds programs throughout the state. So there are great advantages to Polk and Osceola counties, unquestionably, by the funding increase. VISIT Florida is absolutely making sure we are showing off all we have to offer.”
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