Any time a country or region imposes any sort of visa stipulation - even if it’s a waiver - the travel industry sighs a collective groan, knowing the obstacles and headaches to come.
TORONTO — The number of Canadians travelling to Florida has decreased over the past 12 quarters but we’re still the state’s number one international market, and new Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson intends to keep it that way.
“The numbers don’t lie, Canadians are number one to Florida and Canada is an extremely important market for Florida,” said Lawson, in Toronto yesterday for a whirlwind schedule of meetings with travel industry reps, including Visit Florida’s top tour operator partners.
Back in 2011, more than 4 million Canadians headed to Florida for a visit. In 2016 that number was down to 3.2 million. ““I think what happened was, we had competition from California, Las Vegas, Hawaii. I think we took our eyes off the ball,” said Lawson. This year Visit Florida bumped up its spending in this market, in an effort to reverse the slide. “We’ve doubled-down [in Canada]. This past year we’ve increased our spend in Canada and now we’re going to see the results of that.”
He admits that Canada, always such a strong market for Florida, may have been neglected. “We saw a decrease in our numbers. I think we took this market for granted.”
Lawson said it’s important to recognize too that the Canadian market has changed. “We have the snowbirds with their Florida vacation homes. They’re kind of like ‘we’ve been there, done that’. We have new Canadians. And we have the Millennials, and they’re saying ‘we don’t want to do what our grandparents did’.
“Sure we have Disney, we have the beaches. But are we marketing the rest of Florida? We have craft breweries, bike trails, people can swim with a manatee, we have culture … these things matter, and they connect with Canadians.”
Lawson added that Visit Florida’s goal “is to make sure we’re diverse in our marketing, and that we’re connecting. That’s why I’m here.”
Lawson took up his post in January 2017 following a unanimous vote of the Visit Florida Board of Directors in Orlando. Lawson had been serving as the Secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR). He’s also a native Floridian and former U.S. Marine Corps Judge Advocate General.
In late December Visit Florida announced that a leadership transition plan was in the works following the resignation of three Visit Florida executives, including Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe, in the wake of the Pitbull scandal.
Florida Governor Rick Scott called for Seccombe to step down after Visit Florida refused to publicly disclose it paid rapper Pitbull US$1 million to promote the state. Visit Florida’s Chief Operating Office Vangie Fields and Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps also resigned.
Asked if the post-Pitbull shake-up was overdue, Lawson had this to say: “I think we had great results over the years but we needed to improve our processes. We’re putting 89.7% of our new budget into marketing. Because that’s what it’s about.”
The fallout from the scandal saw Visit Florida briefly lose its multi-million dollar budget, only to have it reinstated. Visit Florida’s full-year 2017-18 budget, pegged at US$76 million, was passed last month by the Florida legislature after a marathon three-day special session. “It was dead serious,” said Lawson. “We had great blockers who were out there advocating for our organization.”
How is 2017 looking? “Better,” says Lawson. Last year was a positive year overall internationally for the state, with 112.3 million visitors. While the Canadian market faltered, largely due to the weak dollar, other markets thrived. Visit Florida started 2017 with its best Q1 ever, with 31.3 million international visitors. Canada still has a ways to go “but with our additional spending in Canada, I think in the next 60 days with our extra resources, it’s going to drive those numbers up.”
The weak dollar continues to be a challenge. “One thing we’ve been communicating to our partners is ‘do something that adds value’.”
Travel agents are “very important” to Visit Florida, says Lawson. “We need to do a better job educating agents about Florida, about all of Florida,” he said.
Lawson said that Visit Florida will be looking to hire a trade relations rep for the Canadian market this fall, partly to serve as a liase with the retail trade.