KISSIMMEE – Anytime someone stays at a timeshare in Osceola County, they pay a special tax for that privilege.
Known as the tourist development tax, it’s collected so counties can use the money to promote those timeshares, as well as any other resort, hotel, vacation home or attraction in the county.
“We have a great timeshare industry here,” said Mark Miller, the CEO and owner of Arabian Nights Dinner Show in Kissimmee. “All the timeshares in Osceola County are great. My mom came to see me eight years ago, and she’s used to staying in some pretty nice places when she travels, and she stayed in one of the local timeshares and loved it and thinks it’s one of the nicest places she’s ever stayed at. We have a fabulous product in Osceola County, and the purpose of the TDT was to allow counties to collect money for creative advertising.”
But there’s a concern now with the tourism industry that Osceola’s Board of County Commissioners are using too much of that money for something else.
“Across the state of Florida, in most counties, the percentage of tourism tax dollars that are spent in sales and marketing are around 75 percent,” said Kriss Titus. “In Osceola County, it’s about 35 percent. One of the things that’s really important in Osceola County is we don’t have a message out there. We’re the Heart of Florida, but what does that say? What’s the message? Are we the friendliest place in the world? Are we giving people a reason to choose us over Orlando or Disney? Who or what are we? How can we get our message out?”
The answer, she said, is obvious: convince Osceola County commissioners to spend more of the tourist development tax dollars on marketing the county’s tourism and hospitality industry, and not on other projects.
“You know what Orlando is,” she said. “I think it’s important to realize that Osceola County and (U.S.) 192 are at the doorstep of Disney. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.”
Titus is a registered lobbyist who has worked for years in the attractions industry, and she’s also one of the founding members of a new group called the Kissimmee Tourism Education Association. Their goal is to promote the tourism industry, with a particular emphasis on getting Osceola County to spend more money marketing the county’s attractions, from downtown Celebration to Old Town on U.S. 192, to Heritage State Park and the eco-ranch Forever Florida in Kissimmee.
“We need to make sure that even though we’re in a shrinking market, we need to get together as an organization to educate and advocate for tourism in Osceola County,” said Titus, the association’s executive director.
“Osceola County is one of the top tourist destinations in the nation,” said Miller, the chairman of the association. “The impact we’d like to have this year is to get people headed in the right direction. All of this stuff can take time. And what we mostly feel is there is not a voice of tourism that has been able to spend the time and effort into making people in the county understand what tourism needs to do to succeed. And that’s who we want to be. There’s just no one there to do it at this point.”
The association was formed several months ago, Titus said, out of growing concerns that Osceola’s commissioners were not spending the TDT revenue as effectively as they could.
“The tourist development tax was established here in 1978,” she said. “Since that inception, the county has collected hundreds of millions of dollars from visitors staying in hotels and timeshares and things like that.”
The tax applies to anyone who rents a room for less than six months in the county.
“Just in the last five years, the county collected over $210 million in revenue, and unfortunately, a lot of that money was spent on projects that haven’t helped in the promotion of marketing of this destination,” she said. “These businesses felt that was keeping the industry from holding a competitive edge in the tourism market. They were really concerned that the tourism industry was in jeopardy. It’s not that the county commission is not pro-tourism, but maybe the county commission needs to understand the needs of tourism better. We said, maybe we can get a group together to empower the voice of tourism, and the way we can do that is to build strong relationships through advocacy and education, where we can influence the county commission to take a pro-tourism approach.”
She said the association plans to work with other agencies that promote tourism – including the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce – to get the word out that Osceola County is a great place to spend a vacation.
“It’s important that we support the Kissimmee CVB and work with the community to support the reinvestment of the tourist development tax,” she said.
That tax money can’t be spent on general projects like roads or schools.
“It was put in place in the 1960s so the counties could reinvest that money in marketing and promotions for the destinations, so we could increase the opportunity for more bed taxes to be collected,” he said.
But in the past few decades, she said, state lawmakers have expanded the definition of how tourist tax money can be spent.
“As the years and years go by, every legislator has wanted to put their touch on the state statute,” she said. “Now the state statute includes spending the revenue on convention centers and museums and zoos and arts and culture and sports facilities, so there is a plethora of ways tourism taxes can be spent. But the whole idea of the TDT was to be able to spend it on marketing and promotion. And what’s happened over the years, specifically in Osceola County, is they’ve taken that money away from marketing and promotion, and they’ve put it into bricks and mortar and doing that has just added to the expense of trying to keep up with those bricks and mortar. This past year we collected almost $31 million in Osceola County, and only $12 million was spent on marketing and promotion. The rest all went to special projects.”
In addition to lobbying Osceola County commissioners to commit more TDT money to marketing, Titus said the association’s other goal this year is political.
“Ours is doing voter registration,” she said, “so we can have a majority on our board of county commissioners be supportive of tourism. I think their past voting record would make us question their support of tourism.”
“Unless the county commission is pretty well educated on these issues, it’s real easy for them to make a decision that is not the best decision to make,” Miller said. “There have been some decisions made in the past that have left us needing to make a whole bunch of right decisions in a row to get back to where we need to be, and that’s our number one priority, to get more money for CVB.”
They also want to educate the public that if the tourism industry isn’t successful in Osceola County, the economic impact will be devastating.
“Jobs and wages in this industry are $975 million to the county, and 40,000 people work in tourism jobs — and tourism generates taxes,” she said. “Those are amazing figures. The diversity of economic development is important. But really, tourism is the basis of what makes Osceola County tick, and we have to reinvest in that.”
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.