TAMPA (FOX 13) - Visit Florida strikes marketing deals to drive up tourism, and says its investments pay off for taxpayers. But government watchdogs say there is a lack of transparency in much of the spending, and Governor Scott has ordered a financial review.
Visit Florida is a public-private agency that will receive $78-million state funding in the upcoming budget year. It combines contributions from the state and private industry to compete with other tourist destinations. It uses those resources to launch and maintain promotional campaigns that include deals in which celebrities plug the state for undisclosed compensation.
A series of reports from the Orlando Sentinel over the secrecy of those contracts, involving rapper Pitbull and others, raised questions and concerns from lawmakers and activists. The agency also does not publish its own staff salaries. Integrity Florida and the Florida Consumer Action network have both said there needs to be more transparency and oversight.
"It's an enormous amount of money that's shrouded in secrecy and given to benefit giant corporations," said Florida Consumer Action Deputy Director Bill Newton. "There were legislators on the board but they took them off the board."
Meanwhile, leaders within the tourism industry strongly defend the agency, and its decision to enter into confidential contracts with organizations and entertainers like Pitbull.
"We have to adhere to and respect his wishes to not have his trade secrets disclosed to the general public," said TradeWinds Island Resorts President Keith Overton, a former board member of Visit Florida.
He said the state's marketing efforts improved after the state relied on expertise from the industry. "Early on, the marketing agency was run by state and it wasn't very effective…We really felt like we needed to get the expertise at the helm, we needed and it needed to be industry led, not government-led."
Hillsborough State Senator Arthenia Joyner is pressing for more oversight, and she wants a forum with no connections to Visit Florida and the Scott administration to lead a new financial audit.
"It is absolutely absurd that we would allow a…partnership and not know what our end of the deal is," she said. "We need an independent, unbiased firm that has no political ties if we really want to know how the people's money in the state of Florida is being spent for tourism."
Visit Florida cites exemptions in public records laws that allow information containing trade secrets to stay confidential. Visit Florida reports to another public-private agency, Enterprise Florida. The governor's review of that agency recommended $6-million in cuts, and also recommended transferring control of Visit Florida to another state agency.
Visit Florida has celebrated record tourism in recent years and its spokesman said his CEO will discuss the governor's financial review after it is released.
Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, addressed the state's surge in tourism last week. He said, "Given the challenges our industry is facing -- the strong dollar's impact on Canada and issues in Brazil -- this record quarter for Florida tourism is even more exciting. It's further proof that tourism marketing works. Our strategy of showcasing both the familiar and off-the-beaten-path travel opportunities remind potential visitors that, while Florida is filled with destinations they know and can trust, there is always more to discover."