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Pandemic slashes returns on Florida's tourism marketing campaign, report says

Sunbathers crowd Fort Lauderdale Beach on Feb. 28, 2024.
Tom Hudson
Sunbathers crowd Fort Lauderdale Beach on Feb. 28, 2024.

Visit Florida saw its return on investment fall to 58 cents for every $1 spent on marketing as COVID-19 slammed the doors on the state’s tourism industry, according to a new analysis by state economists.

But with tourists back at beaches, theme parks and other attractions, the analysis projects that Visit Florida’s economic return will rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

The analysis, released Tuesday by the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research, looked at the 2019-2020, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 fiscal years. The pandemic hit in early 2020, largely shutting down the tourism industry and having longer-lasting ramifications for issues such as international travel.

Visit Florida, a public-private agency, receives state money to lead tourism-marketing efforts. The report seeks to measure the economic benefit, or return on investment, for money that went to Visit Florida.

The analysis found that the return on investment during the three fiscal years fell dramatically from the prior three years, when it was $3.27 for every $1 spent.

Economists pinned the blame on the pandemic, as employment in the leisure and hospitality industry dropped and tourism numbers plummeted. As an example, visitor counts fell from a then-record 131.069 million in 2019 to 79.397 million in 2020.

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“The overall decline in ROI (return on investment) is exacerbated by the precipitous drop in FY 2021-22 to an ROI of 0.11,” the analysis said. “While the overall tourism count had rebounded to near pre-COVID levels by then … the composition was significantly different and still reeled from the effects of the pandemic shock.”

To revive the industry after initial shutdowns, Visit Florida first focused on getting Floridians to visit other parts of the state and luring Americans who would drive from other parts of the country. The agency subsequently tried to bring back international travelers.

Overall tourist counts grew to 121.838 million in 2021, 137.4 million in 2022 and 135.02 million last year. In 2023, numbers of overseas and Canadian travelers remained just below 2019 totals.

Tuesday’s analysis attributed the rebound to the state’s beaches and an increase in advertising by such things as theme parks.

“Based on its share of total tourism advertising spend, Visit Florida is responsible for approximately 3.45 (million), 4.66 (million), and 4.30 million visitors during the 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 fiscal years, respectively,” the analysis said. “The remaining marketing-influenced visitors are attributable to the efforts of the four other major marketing contributors (local public, local private, Visit Florida private, and theme parks).”

A spokeswoman for Visit Florida said Tuesday the agency was reviewing the report.

During the three-year period analyzed, Visit Florida received $50 million a year from the Legislature and additional matching money from private partners. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the agency received an additional $30 million in federal pandemic-related money.

The analysis estimated Disney, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld were responsible for $787.9 million in marketing during the review period, which “accounted for 33.5% of all major tourism marketing efforts in the state.”

In a measure of the impact of COVID-19, Disney saw its attendance go from 58.58 million at the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios in 2019 to 18.67 million in 2020, according to state figures. SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, which are owned by the same parent company, went from 8.82 million to 2.88 million. Universal properties in Florida went from 21.29 million to 8.1 million in the same time.

By 2022, Disney’s attendance was up to 47.06 million, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay hit 8.5 million, and Universal properties were at 21.7 million.

The estimated spending by the theme parks didn’t include dollars they provide to Visit Florida, local governments and direct-marketing organizations.

Lawmakers included $80 million for Visit Florida in the proposed budget for the 2024-2025 fiscal year, which will start July 1. The budget has not been sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, economists looked at a 10-year period and said “the current working ROI of 3.3% is more reflective of the Visit Florida program over a longer period of time and should be used for all forward-looking analyses.”

Jim Turner is a reporter for the News Service of Florida.
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