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Fresh off the heels of inquiry into a secretive deal with the rapper Pitbull, VISIT FLORIDA is once again under scrutiny from local government officials and taxpayers alike. As the state’s tourism agency, VISIT FLORIDA paid $9.1 million in taxpayer money to Brand USA federal partnership, as well as $11.6 million for Emeril Lagasse’s program Emeril’s Florida, agreements lawmakers desire to put under the microscope for multiple reasons. Both deals were signed off on during Will Seccombe’s tenure as head of the tourism agency, between his hiring in 2008 and his resignation in January 2017; when Governor Rick Scott requested that he step down due to lack of transparency in a $1 million deal with Miami-based entertainer Pitbull. Seccombe had been initially hired by Christopher L. Thompson, who headed VISIT FLORIDA before moving on to manage the previously mentioned Brand USA. Seccombe gave his former employer’s company contracts for international advertising, as well as signing five separate contracts with a Tallahassee-based company for Emeril’s show with production charges increasing as much as 450 percent between two contracts. Although VISIT FLORIDA was intended as an equal public-private partnership it turns out that an entire 86 percent of its budget actually comes from taxpayers, according to financial summaries released by the agency themselves upon request. Taxpayer support of the agency has grown from $54 million in 2012 to $76 million this year, while private contribution has remained around $2.2 million only. This means that these arrangements made by VISIT FLORIDA bring up serious questions about transparency and management that directly affect Florida taxpayers.

While VISIT FLORIDA has made the claim that their spending helped the economy despite its secretive nature, House Speaker Richard Corcoran will review the numbers. Of the information on the Brand USA and Emeril deals, obtained by the Naples Daily News, he stated, “It’s more proof that the House is correct about Florida having a spending problem. We need dramatic cuts and we need them now.” VISIT FLORIDA released more than 600 vendor contracts, prompted by Governor Scott’s demands for transparency, but any information on the Brand USA and Emeril agreements was only obtained after public records requests from the Naples Daily News.

Citing confidentiality, VISIT FLORIDA refused to release any details of their $9.1 million Brand USA contracts other than three similar letters from Brand USA declaring an advertising partnership. The first agreement was for $2.7 million, signed by Seccombe in 2014. The two subsequent agreements, both from 2015, were for $2.9 million in March and $3.5 million in December. Brand USA categorizes the payments from VISIT FLORIDA as “cash contributions”  that would be paired with money from public and private partners for advertisements aimed at international travelers. Brand USA is actually under no contractual obligation to use the money for those purposes, leaving VISIT FLORIDA with limited control as to how its investment was spent.

Anne Madison, spokeswoman for Brand USA, justified the VISIT FLORIDA/Brand USA partnership using two previous VISIT FLORIDA campaigns as examples. The first, a partnership to promote Southwest Florida with Air Berlin, saw a 37 percent increase in ticket sales from Germany to the state according to the airline. The second, a promotional campaign in China, in which VISIT FLORIDA invested $112,368; for which Madison claims they received a value of $447,000. Given Brand USA’s secretive nature considering the details of their arrangement with VISIT FLORIDA, the cost effectiveness of these promotional campaigns is the subject of much debate.

Visit Florida’s payments to MAT Media, the company who handled the negotiations with Emeril’s Florida parent company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, are also under scrutiny. The show, which hosts cooking segments around the state, has run for five seasons on the Food Network and Cooking Channel. The first contract signed in 2012 required VISIT FLORIDA to pay $750,00 in sponsorship, which includes $40,000 for production and initial airing of each episode. By 2015 the cost per episode increased from to $105,000. The most expensive year for VISIT FLORIDA was 2014, totaling $119,115 per episode. Additional fees for potential advertising revenue changed from year to year, ranging from $0 to $1.2 million. With such a large expenditure, which appears well above industry standards, there does not seem to be much tangible evidence of value to justify it.

With taxpayers bearing the brunt of these expenditures, how VISIT FLORIDA is managing investments and why they continue to remain secretive is cause for concern. While Governor Scott is opposed to cutting VISIT FLORIDA’s budget for the time being, he is still calling for more transparency from the agency, stating, “It’s very important that VISIT FLORIDA, and other agencies, remain transparent, and we ought to be reviewing those things. Anybody that doesn’t understand you have to market to get tourists to come to your state doesn’t understand how business works.”

Source: Naples Daily News

Image: VISIT FLORIDA

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