Orlando’s tourism marketing agency spent more than $670,000 to attend the 2016 U.S. Travel Association’s IPW convention in New Orleans. Another $205,160 was spent on booth expenses for the three-day IMEX America Trade Show last year in Las Vegas.
These expenditures are just the latest revelations in a campaign by House Speaker Richard Corcoran to end taxpayer subsidies to boost Florida’s tourism industry. The Republican has opposed Gov. Rick Scott’s support of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, an economic development agency for the state.
Visit Orlando seems to be his next target.
Visit Orlando receives 63 percent of its $80.6 million budget, or $51 million, from Orange County tourist development taxes. And while Visit Florida and Visit Orlando are not connected, they both have the same goal – to bring more tourists to the region.
Corcoran requested Visit Orlando outline its expenses. In a March 24 letter of response to the Speaker, Visit Orlando’s COO/CFO Larry Henrichs defended the expenditures and asked that they be kept from the public.
“Given the global competitive scale on which Orlando competes, we hope you recognize that the particulars of some of this information could be harmful to our efforts to generate the level of demand that supports the hospitality employees that represent one in every three jobs in our tourism-dominated economy,” Henrichs wrote in the letter.
Fred Piccolo, Corcoran’s spokesman, released the information to the media this week and said that Corcoran has not yet been briefed on the Visit Orlando information.
The report revealed that Visit Orlando CEO George Aguel’s gross pay was $607,395 last year. That’s almost double what Visit Florida paid CEO Will Seccombe. He made $291,152 in salary and $30,211 in benefits, some of which came from private sources. Seccombe was forced to resign by Gov. Rick Scott last year after rapper Pitbull told the public Visit Florida paid him $1 million to market the state with a new rendition of his “Sexy Beaches” song.
Visit Florida’s current CEO, Kenneth Lawson, was hired in January at a salary of $175,000 –less than a third of what Aguel is paid.
“Our compensation is benchmarked against our competitive set of other leading city destinations,” said Becca Bides, spokeswoman for Visit Orlando.
Visit Orlando has contracted with Orange County since 1983 to brand, market and sell the Orlando area globally as a leisure, convention and business destination. The agency pointed to a record 66 million visitors in 2015 as an example of their successful marketing efforts.
Last year, Visit Orlando spent $4.7 million sending staffers to nearly 300 events, which were paid for with the agency’s private funds. Thirty seven percent of Visit Orlando’s budget, or $29.5 million, is generated through private dollars. The revenue is raised from ticket sales, membership dues and services to conventions.
The event expenditures include at least $673,000 spent on the IPW conference, which Visit Orlando describes as the travel industry’s “premier international marketplace,” attended by 6,000 delegates from 73 countries, including 1,300 international and domestic tour operators.
Here’s how Visit Orlando says it spent the bulk of that money: $410,650 for booth expenses, and $52,535 on registration, and $145,000 on marketing and sponsorship agreements. The Visit Orlando representatives spent $9,121 to fly themselves and their wares to New Orleans, $6,245 on ground transportation, $21,154 on lodging, $2,281 on meals, and $730 on entertainment. More was spent on other items like promotional items, event production, audio-visual, and telephone.
No other event came close to the overall cost of the IPW conference, though Visit Orlando did spend more, $57,983, on registration for the Arabian Travel Market Trade Show, and spent more than $100,000 on booth expenses for two other shows, the IMEX Of the Americas Annual Trade Show, and the World Travel Market Trade Show.
Visit Orlando sent 27 people to the IMEX show, including Visit Orlando staff and representatives of 16 other member businesses that contributed to the cost.
“This (IMEX) is the premiere convention trade show in the industry that drives future room nights and spending to our destination,” Bides said. “We met with 528 meeting planners who represent $584 million in future value to the destination.”
The booth cost included traditional exhibition costs including $81,000 to rent the show space, plus costs such as freight, handling, assembly labor, and utilities, she said.
“Visit Orlando is charged with marketing and selling one of the world’s leading vacation and convention destinations on a highly competitive global scale and, because of this, our programs must be more robust than other cities in Florida, and most of the country,” said Bides, vice president of communications at Visit Orlando.
Bides added that all of Visit Orlando’s travel, entertainment and event costs are funded by private member contributed revenue. No tourist development funds or any public dollars are used for any of these activities.
Visit Orlando also spent $29,000 to bring 70 meeting planners to site visits in Orlando. To attend the Arabian Travel Market Trade Show, Visit Orlando representatives spent $25,413 on airfare, and $12,964 on hotels. Travel to the United States Tennis Association events cost $19,698 in airfare, and $19,418 in lodging. They also spent $3,000 on flowers for the tennis events.
The tourist bureau corporation also spent at least $155,000 bringing journalists to Orlando, a practice that most mainstream American media considers to be unethical for the journalists. At least 11 American journalists came, letting Visit Orlando foot the bills, while others included 19 Brazilians, 11 Canadians, 10 Brits, and a handful of others from China, Colombia, India and Mexico. Visit Orlando paid at least $50,900 for their airfare, $20,900 for the hotels, $36,000 for their ground transportation, $977 for their food, and nothing on flowers.
Correspondent Scott Powers contributed to this story.