This column was published in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday March 2, 2017.
I’ve been asked a number of times to explain how bed tax, or Tourist Development Tax, is used. There also have been some letters suggesting that it be used for items or services that aren’t currently covered, so I thought a brief explanation might be useful. Please bear in mind that I’m not a lawyer, but it would appear that even some lawyers can’t agree on the interpretation of some bed tax clauses, so I’ve gone with what the TDCs, tax collectors and others usually use.
You may remember that bed tax was set up to be charged on short-term rentals in designated tax areas. Some counties implement across the whole county (Escambia for example) while others have specified tax areas (e.g. Okaloosa and Walton). The tax is collected by the rental companies and hotels, and paid to the tax-collecting body of the county. Owners can pay direct to the county, too.
This column appeared in the Northwest Florida Daily News on Sunday March 25, 2017
A few weeks ago I wrote about the challenges to Visit Florida that are taking place in the Florida House of Representatives. Here’s an update.
Rep. Paul Renner (R – Palm Coast) sponsored the bill, initially proposing to abolish Visit Florida. After massive protests from the tourism industry, supported by Gov. Rick Scott, the bill was changed for the continuance of Visit Florida but with a much reduced budget (down from $76 million to $25 million) and the imposition of very strict rules that in effect would stop Visit Florida competing against other U.S. states or foreign countries.
For those not on our mailing list, here’s the March newsletter!
Last month, we discussed how some politicians in Tallahassee, the Florida State capital, were playing politics with the future of Visit Florida, the State’s destination marketing organization. That fight isn’t over as we’ll report.
This month other politicians both here in the USA and in other parts of the world are having influences on tourism in ways they cannot predict.
Good news however is that Culinary Tourism is booming. Read on….
The move by Speaker Corcoran to de-fund Visit Florida continues, although he has indicated that he no longer wants to close the organization down, merely to limit its ability to operate and drastically reduce its budget. Governor Scott is fiercely fighting this along with the Tourism Industry and it would appear, members of the Senate. The fight is not over and if you’re involved in the industry in Florida, I urge you to a) contact your representatives to support Visit Florida and b) attend Tourism Day in Tallahassee this month to lobby in person. Please contact me if you need details of how to attend Tourism Day.
In what promises to be a difficult year for international tourism, further obstacles are being dreamt up by politicians on either side of the Atlantic.
The strong US dollar has the potential for discouraging European tourists in particular from visiting the USA this year. Some of those European economies are not strong currently and the USA could be expensive for them.
We now have the three year-old dispute between the EU and the USA over visas. The EU parliament consider that the countries of the community should be considered as one (that has resulted in the UK wanting ‘out’ with their Brexit vote), although the US still recognizes individual states. The US has refused to allow some EU states access to the Visa Waiver Program which allows visa free travel into the US. Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus don’t meet the US security requirements. The EU has said that either the US accept these countries or all US Citizens will require visas to visit any EU country.
This is an old dispute and has now reached the ‘Who blinks first’ stage. Despite the strong dollar which makes overseas travel attractive, American tourists would be very discouraged if they were required to get a visa. Europe needs those US dollars after a lackluster 2016 tourist season following terrorist attacks, and although advance demand has been strong, it wouldn’t take much to scupper that.
Traveling the other way – east to west – is also potentially threatened. I mentioned the strength of the dollar being a hazard, but what has been called the ‘Trump Effect’ is apparently causing a softening of travel demand. I’m not making any political points, just reporting on figures coming from sources in the tourism industry.
It appears that first announcements of a travel ban had a detrimental effect on European tourists plans to visit the US. I’ve been asked why, say, a German tourist would feel threatened by a ban on travelers from certain middle east countries. I can’t answer that easily, but believe me they are worried. Even the UK tourists who believe they are part of a ‘special relationship’ with the US, are as a group being cautious. Suffice to say that enquiries for flights to the US are down an average of 22%. Tourism research firms are projecting a loss of 6.3 million visitors ($10.8 billion in lost revenue). The tourism board of New York City has predicted that 300,000 fewer tourists will visit than did in 2016. Previously New York was predicting an increase of 400,000. Philadelphia has already lost one conference worth an estimated $7m as a result of the proposed travel ban.
Even the Canadian market is seeing a drop in the number of tourists intending to travel below the 49th.
That’s International tourism of course and it’s been suggested that it won’t affect US destinations that don’t cater for Internationals (like Northwest Florida, where only 1% of tourists are from outside the US). That may be true, but of course the markets that attract overseas travelers are hardly likely to sit and do nothing. They will want to find domestic tourists to replace the foreigners and they are not averse to creating marketing campaigns and making offers to lure those domestic guests away from places like the Northern Gulf Coast.
As the old Chinese curse says “May you live in interesting times”.
It’s not all bad news though…..
95% of travelers have said that they engage in unique and memorable food or beverage experiences while traveling, according to the World Food Travel Association ( I guess that they would say that!). Another research organization, Destination Analysts, claim that 50.7% of Millennials won’t visit a destination that doesn’t have good restaurants – although they don’t define what makes a good restaurant.
Before you state that Millennials are just children, remember that the first Millennials turn 35 this year! Also important is that the Centennial Generation (Generation Z or ‘Post Millennials’) are now just beginning to enter the workforce, so are beginning to effect the market.
Certainly the younger generations are having a strong influence on their parents and grandparents when it comes to food. A recent report by the HAAS Center (part of the University of West Florida) was created to examine tourism trends in Okaloosa County (home to Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island). They found that although tourist spending in restaurants in the county increased in 2015 more than 15% over 2011, its revenue per seat had grown only 12%, where peer and competing counties had grown by 28%. The competing counties are where most (but certainly not all) of the new and more creative restaurants are found. Interestingly, the area has seen an increase in the number of up-scale grocery stores (Whole Food Market, Fresh Market and Publix). Whereas in 2011 tourists spent twice as much in restaurants as they did in grocery stores, it’s likely that 2016 will see tourists spend more in grocery stores than in restaurants for the first time.
The take away (sorry!) is that those tourists are seeking culinary experiences, and finding them.
Which brings me to the really good news for my home area. I recently attended the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s annual awards ceremony for the North West Florida region. The display of talent at that event was stunning. The quality of the areas chefs, wait staff and managers was exceptional and their depth of knowledge, experience and creativity was at least a match for more recognized tourist areas. A similar level of expertise was evident in the hotel, resort and accommodation sector.
That Culinary Tourism is growing makes really good news for the industry as a whole. It’s also great for The Northern Gulf Coast of Florida. The Tourism Industry worldwide is going for Culinary Tourism in a big way from the traditional destinations of Europe to the New World and areas like Australasia. Even Costa Rica getting in on the act. Don’t underestimate the Cruise lines either.
We just spent a long weekend in New Orleans, which is one of my favorite cities. It’s totally unique. I was first introduced to NOLA in 1972 as a young travel agent on a U.S. tour (seven cities in 10 days!). Being taken to Bourbon Street as a 20-year-old was quite an eye-opener. Luckily my wife lived in New Orleans for quite awhile and really is “local,” so we’re not exactly tourists when we visit at least four times a year.
The city is a real case study for tourism, joining an historic center with a mix of cultures plus being a living, thriving business hub. It has nearly year-round tourism, although the local businesses are only too aware when they have fewer tourists. The Crescent City is known world over for Mardi Gras (or Carnival, as the locals term it) which is both a blessing and a curse as it attracts enormous numbers of tourists. Those tourists tend to consider partying an Olympic sport, which adds a whole new level to tourist management. Natural events like Hurricane Katrina also have put an added strain on the city, and its recovery from a tourism point of view has been nothing short of remarkable.
The great thing about NOLA ………
I’m not one for making resolutions, mostly because I change my mind so much! If you want to change something, better to just to get on with it than wait for some arbitrary date to start. That’s my excuse anyway. Similarly, looking backwards doesn’t help because we can’t change what has past – although as numerous people (apparently) are quoted as saying – if you don’t remember past mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them!
So, in the interests of progress, let’s look forward.
I’ve read two articles over the end of the year break that I felt were right on point. I’ve attached links to these so you can read them yourself.
The first was by anti-aging & sports medicine pioneer, and futurist, Dr Robert Goldman (http://ow.ly/Akd9307C9Bt). Dr Goldman pointed out some of the changes that society will be subjected to over the next few years. What is most striking is the speed at which these changes will take place. I remember talking to a scientist with British Telcom back in the early ‘90s who said that they knew absolutely what developments would arrive within 5 years; they had a pretty good idea what would happen in the next 10 years but beyond that they were ‘wishing and hoping’! as Dr Goldman suggests we are now in the exponential age, where changes occur at an ever increasing rate. In many cases these changes happen faster than most businesses can adapt. If you read the article you’ll see that many developments will directly affect the Travel and Tourism Industry.
The second piece was by Christopher Elliott in the Washington Post (http://ow.ly/Hrvl307C9Ob). Chris is suggesting that 2017 is the year many people, especially Americans, won’t be traveling on vacation. He cites many reasons and offers suggestions of how as a tourist you can benefit (please go and read it!) but for those of us in the industry there are three main takeaways. That tourist will be looking for alternative accommodations, authenticity and satisfying their needs for instant gratification.
I’ve talked to many travel and tourism professionals over the past year and we’ve discussed the inevitable changes that are happening and I can’t think of anyone who has disagreed. After all, the signs are really clear – very ‘in your face’ as it were. However, many are not willing to accept the speed of changes.
Take ‘alternative accommodation’ – Airbnb in particular. Home sharing has expanded incredibly rapidly. Airbnb are now the largest accommodation provider in the world with over 2.5million homes (incidentally, they own no hotel rooms!) yet most of the vacation rental companies here in Northwest Florida’s Northern Gulf Coast seem to think think they are not a serious threat to their business model.
The past year the 1.5 million guest arrivals to Florida via Airbnb represent 114 percent year-over-year growth. This comes as Floridians increasingly embrace the home sharing platform as an opportunity to earn supplemental income and make ends meet. The Airbnb Florida host community grew 74 percent in 2016 to a total of 32,000 hosts.
Yes, the local industry says, but it’s in cities, not here.
This is the total supplemental income earned by Airbnb hosts in our local counties:
Bay County $4.9 million
Walton County $3.3 million
Okaloosa County $2.9 million
Escambia County $1.8 million
Santa Rosa County $683,000
That’s a total of nearly $13.6 million. True, it’s only 10% of the income from Miami-Dade alone, but its still remarkably significant.
People love the idea of either staying with a local host, or staying in the home of a host which they perceive differently than the relatively anonymous experience of a cookie cutter condo or a ‘standard’ hotel room.
This contributes to the ‘authenticity experience’ that comes from home sharing, boutique hotels and the like.
Chis Elliott also refers to ‘Instant Gratification’. I know I’m always talking about the attitudes of Millennials and younger Boomers but they do have have a seemingly out of proportion effect on our industry. Their behavior appears to affect the other sectors of our audience too. The ubiquity of smartphones and the ability to access information from wherever you are, makes the almost impulse decision to book a vacation all too easy.
You’ve bought things on Amazon. How many times have you been tempted by the ‘people who bought this also bought this’ suggestion?
Think what will happen when someone suggest “How about we go to The Gulf of Mexico next weekend?”. You look at your phone and up pops the local CVB websites – you see what events are happening, and guess what? You can book the Airbnb accommodation right there, and the concert tickets, and the Uber from the airport. Of course there was link to book flights too but you’ll probably want to do that with the airline because you get your miles there – and suddenly Delta Air Lines are offering 1 mile for every $1 you spend with Airbnb if booked through them – oh, and Uber credits too.
We have a change to the whole vacation booking experience, which is not taking 5 or 10 years to develop but is happening as we speak.
Put a note in your calendar to contact me at the end of 2017 and tell me if there have been no changes to your tourism business during the year. To be frank, I don’t think you’d be able to do that by June!
Whatever happens is going to be exciting. The evolution of the world’s biggest industry has always been fascinating and the near future won’t disappoint I’m sure.
Please follow the Owen Organization blog on www.owenorganization.com, sign up for the newsletter and follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OwenOrganization. Lastly, check out the weekly ‘Talking Tourism’ column in the Northwest Florida Daily News every Sunday.
A tourist was driving through the beautiful Irish countryside and obviously lost. He he saw a local sitting by the side of the road and stopped to ask directions. ‘Excuse me’ said the tourist. ‘Can you give me directions of how to get to Dublin?’. The local considered for a while, and said ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here’.
That probably is exactly the situation many destination marketing organizations (DMOs) find themselves in today.
In the USA and probably many other countries, DMOs grew out of the the local chamber of commerce – the result of concerned local businesses wanting to grow tourist visitation. Eventually, they decided that the skills needed were beyond the chamber and local government were persuaded to take over the role and formed a Convention and Visitor’s Bureau or local tourist board. To fund this they either committed an element of their budget derived from local taxation, or they collected a tourist or bed tax from visitors. Either way, the DMO is now normally administered by a group of interested and knowledgable local citizens, and ultimately controlled by local politicians – City Councilors, County Commissioners or a whole host of other titles, depending on where you’re located.
In an ideal world, you’d set up this organization before any tourists arrived, and before any infrastructure had been built. Your group of advisors and Councilors would all have significant knowledge of tourism, marketing, commercial and environmental issues – and common sense (the least common element in the Universe!) Then you could influence decisions like ‘no buildings to exceed the height of a palm tree’, ‘visitors must not leave items on the beach overnight’, ‘create sufficient car parking to anticipate demand in 20 years’ – you know the sort of thing.
But it’s not an ideal world.
For a start the infrastructure wasn’t planned. Like Topsy it just ‘grewed’. No one really planned much further ahead than next season. The one big hotel in town became the dominant commercial interest and was then bought out by a Chain.
In the ski resort, the lift system was already 30 years old.
To cap it all, the city elected representatives are all retired hydraulic engineers (I have nothing but admiration for hydraulic engineers, the occupation just randomly flew into my mind!) or lawyers. No knowledge of tourism, commercial imperatives, associated technology or marketing, no matter what their other undoubted qualifications may be.
Add to this toxic mix the speed of change in travel technology, emergence of social media, the rise of peer reviews, changing tourist demographics and worldwide political changes and you have, to over cliché this particular pudding, a perfect storm.
In our part of the world (Northwest Florida) this has been highlighted by a couple of recent events.
One is the emergence of Airbnb which has put a strain on how and if Tourist Development Tax (Bed Tax for want of a better name) is collected. This article (http://ow.ly/7QMp302ESAv) demonstrates how Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties are trying to cope. It’s almost as if the Airbnb concept has suddenly appeared. Uber has had the same effect on taxi regulation around the world.
The other issue revolved around the running of a country music event in Okaloosa County. The idea was suggested that the county should run the event as a trial to provide business for the local convention center. If nothing else, they would break-even and learn lessons for future events.
The lessons learned were that the county were hamstrung by their (possibly understandable) complex and long winded purchasing and contract writing system; that having to refer everything to two committees including the Board of County Commissioners slowed the whole system to a snails pace; and that really they should leave such things to people who knew what they were doing.
Oh, and they made a staggering loss on the event.
The latter example resulted in the sensible decision that in future, such events should be outsourced to the private sector. A good lesson learned and kudos to the people involved for acknowledging this.
So, how do we move forward?
Speed and agility are the watchwords for tourism today. DMOs must be able to turn on a dime (or sixpence, depending on your location) to react to changes, developments and opportunities.
The nature of government is that it’s unlikely (though not impossible) to have the knowledge, awareness and nimbleness to recognize and react in a timely manner.
A local government agency that I know has taken a year to create a new website, and it hasn’t been implemented yet. They’re in tourism and have lost a whole season, possibly two. At the same time a private company has created a state of the art website, with different versions for smartphones and tablets; included video, web cams and on-line booking; acquired partners; and all in two months from pulling the trigger. The site will go live on schedule and on budget.
True, some private companies are as slow as government (An accommodation provider has taken 4 years to change a website and no mobile version. Hello?), and not all local government is unresponsive. But you get my point.
The suggestion is that government run DMOs should at least partner with private companies if not outsource the whole business. Visit Florida is a great example of a public/private partnership, although some politicians do want to be more involved which is a questionable move.
It’s a conversation well worth having between the politicos and private enterprise. Locals need to get involved too.
We probably shouldn’t have started the journey here, but that’s the where we are. We just need to get our directions, decide on our route and follow it – fast.
I live in a tourist town. It’s a great feeling actually living somewhere that people save up their cash and time to visit on vacation. Well most of the time! I do sympathize with other locals who find their lives disrupted during ‘the season’ by what they perceive as traffic gridlock, full restaurants, and sometimes inflated prices, but I have a slightly different view, brought on by my lifetime obsession with tourism and the fact that my income is directly dependent on it.
Growing up, I lived near London and just ten miles from Windsor Castle and a host of other tourist centers. At one time it was common for residents to wear button badges saying ‘I’m not a tourist – I live here’. I must confess that when you’re trying to get to a business appointment, or just grabbing a lunchtime sandwich and you’re held up by a bunch of visitors with no perception of time, personal space or local customs it can get a mite, shall we say, irritating!
Having it pointed out to me that if it wasn’t for the tourists, I probably wouldn’t have a job, or the local amenities I enjoyed, didn’t initially help, but gradually I got the message and came to be tolerant and then respect (I think love may be going too far!) the visitors.
So, living in a tourist area has its challenges but what can those of us in the industry do to convince our fellow residents, who may have no immediate connection to tourism, that it’s a good thing to be in a place that others want to visit?
Destination Marketing Organizations have a duty to promote their areas to tourists. It’s their whole raison d’etre, but it’s my feeling that education of the locals is also a duty. DMOs do need to firstly let their residents know how they are promoting, what they’re promoting and importantly, why. Many residents think that visitors know an area exists and therefore promotion isn’t needed. It’s a fair point, but obviously incorrect to those of us involved.
It’s pretty pointless running ads in local media if you’re trying to attract visitors into a market, but you should at least share the ads you’re running out of market so that your locals know and understand what’s happening.
It’s also no bad thing to tell your locals why tourism is so important. Here in Florida there is no state income tax. That’s because 24% of sales tax is paid by tourists, so for locals that’s a very good thing and something of which they should be aware and not forget. It also matters that for someone who doesn’t think they work in tourism, that they see how their income is invariably linked to the success of local tourism, however indirectly. Nobody but the DMO is in a position to share that information.
A wise hospitality professional once referred to a line of visitors cars clogging a road as ‘every one being a credit card on wheels’
Lastly, there’s room to involve the locals in helping tourists. Who but a resident knows the best restaurants, or best attractions? Who else would know the history of a place, or indeed where to avoid!
Perhaps the DMO should issue button badges that say ‘I’m a local – ask me’!
*’Grockle’ is an informal and often slightly derogatory term for a tourist. It was first popularized because of its use by the characters in the film The System (1964), which is set in the Devon resort of Torquay during the summer season. Some older dictionaries suggested that it might be an English West Country dialect word.