Florida Bets Pitbull Will Amp Up Record Visitor Numbers

The Marketplace at the Florida Tourism Conference
The Marketplace at the Florida Tourism Conference // All photos by John Stone

Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation, welcomed more than 1,100 delegates this week to the 48th Florida Governor’s Conference on Tourism at the Tampa Convention Center. John Tomlin, chair of the Visit Florida Board of Directors, and J. William Seccombe, the president and CEO, celebrated Florida’s record of 101.7 million visitors in the past 12 months. But they challenged the state’s tourism partners to work even harder to achieve Visit Florida’s “2020 Strategic Plan” targeting $100 billion in annual visitor spending by 2020. Seccombe said reaching the goal would result in 300,000 more tourism industry jobs for the state of Florida.

Visit Florida unveiled its five-year tourism marketing plan with the news, announced by Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps, that it has signed the Cuban-American rock star and rap singer Pitbull as Florida’s new celebrity spokesman. The 34-year-old singer, a native of the Little Havana section of Miami, will appear this New Year’s Eve, as he did last year, in a Fox network concert special from Miami’s Bayfront Park.  

Part of the strategy is to position Miami as the “new New Year’s destination” while featuring TV cutaways to New Year’s celebrations in Key West, Panama City and elsewhere in Florida. Pitbull will release a new Florida theme song globally this October called “Sexy Beaches” with a music video to follow featuring the star on 12 to 14 beach destinations in Florida, according to Phipps. Visit Florida officials said they are targeting a younger demographic, especially the Millennial generation born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, as well as the Hispanic-American market.


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“A lot of young people think Florida is only where their grandparents go to retire,” said Phipps. “…Pitbull is our ambassador. He is a great guy and is fully engaged in this.”  

Phipps noted that young people want “excitement and experiences” in their travels and the new singing ambassador is expected to deliver the message that Florida has both. Pitbull, who is highly visible internationally, was the singer of a theme song for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Visit Florida President and CEO J. William Seccombe
Visit Florida President and CEO J. William Seccombe

Record Florida Visitors

Seccombe noted that Florida has enjoyed four consecutive record years of visitor arrivals and has already welcomed 54 million visitors through the first six months of 2015. The state is on track to reach a record-setting total of more than 100 million this calendar year. The state had 98.8 million visitors in 2014, and 93.3 million in 2013, according to a Visit Florida spokesperson. Governor Rick Scott, who could not attend his Florida tourism conference in order to remain at his Tallahassee office to monitor the remnants of the weakened Tropical Storm Erika, was given much credit for Florida’s record success. 

“We have a governor who totally recognizes the economic value of tourism,” said Seccombe. “And we have a legislature willing to invest because they recognize the return on investment of tourism. It’s about raising the tide [on which] we will all benefit.”

In a recorded message Scott congratulated the delegates on reaching 100 million annual visitors and urged them to push for 110 million in the next five years.

Visit Florida’s Board of Directors approved a five-year plan to stay ahead of the competition by setting a target of $100 billion in annual tourism spending in Florida by 2020. Currently visitors spend $80 billion annually in Florida. Seccombe warned conference delegates that while Florida is increasing its investment in tourism, so are competitors across the globe.

“We want to be the number one travel destination in the world,” said the Visit Florida president. “We are competing with every other U.S. destination and with CVBs around the globe in an incredibly competitive environment.”

Visit Florida Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps
Visit Florida Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps

Engaging Guests, Extending Stays

Phipps delivered a marketing message on day two of the Florida conference closely in sync with the opening session remarks of Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. Dow, who noted that $600 billion of the $900 billion U.S. travel industry is tied to leisure travel, urged delegates to adopt the 2015 Project Time Off” initiative launched by USTA earlier this year

“People don’t take their vacation days,” Dow told the Florida delegates. “Project Time Off is about getting people to take one more day off because it is better for your health, better for your memories and better for your relationships.”

USTA research has determined that 429 million unused vacation days by Americans each year results in a loss of $160 million in potential travel spending.

Phipps noted that Florida’s strategy is to keep Florida “top of mind” with consumers and add incremental growth that will deliver the greatest economic impact. A key move is to “engage” travelers seeking experiences while on vacation.

“People on vacation are more spontaneous,” said Phipps. “What is their engagement? They will increase spending and increase their length of stay….Don’t just chase volume. Chase experiences.”

Florida Governor's Tourism Conference General Session
Florida Governor's Tourism Conference General Session

Florida Embraces Social Media

Susannah Costello, Visit Florida’s vice president global brand, presented conference delegates with an update on Florida’s accelerating efforts to use social media to reach a diverse online audience. She said Visit Florida is now the number one state destination management organization for engaging travelers on Twitter. It hosts 15,000 people on monthly Twitter chats about Florida, according to Costello, and 20 million people per month search for something about Florida on Trip Advisor. A hashtag for the Governor’s Tourism Conference, #GC15, was used for dozens of tweets during each session by both delegates attending the conference and partners around the state tweeting reactions.

Visit Florida has done four-season promotions in the last two years, targeting families in summer and snowbirds in winter. In the fall Florida is now promoting child-free travel to couples suggesting they extend their vacation time into the weeks after Labor Day. A Twitter promotion aimed at Florida residents and their dogs called #DogsLoveFL has gained strong response, Costello said. And YouTube videos about Florida starring Hispanic child singer Sophia Grace, a star of social media with millions of viewers, has helped Visit Florida increase its draw from the domestic Latino-American market.

The selection of Visit Florida’s new celebrity ambassador Pitbull, who has 85 million unique followers on social media according to Phipps, is strongly motivated by the state’s conviction that social media and big data are about to overtake traditional media as primary information sources for Florida’s current and future visitors. That conviction was underscored at the tourism conference by a parade of techno-savvy futurists who took the stages at both general and breakout sessions. In a variety of social media-heavy presentations, the speakers advised and warned Florida delegates of the need to hone new social communications skills quickly to capture mobile, 21st-century consumers relying on the explosive expansion of instant digital information to drive their travel decisions. More information about those presentations will follow on www.travelagentcentral.com in a related roundup of travel partners’ news from the Florida Governor’s Tourism Conference.