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 article appeared in The Northwest Florida Daily News Talking Tourism Column on Sunday, February 26.
There is trouble in Tallahassee. Some lawmakers wish to defund and close Visit Florida, the state’s Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) and tourism promoter. There are a large number of people who are opposed to this — to be honest, the whole of the tourism industry. I don’t wish to be political, but you know I’m unashamedly pro-tourism, and I thought you may like to know what the two sides are presenting.
In one corner is Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who feels that state tourism neither works nor is necessary. Not only is Corcoran proposing to defund Visit Florida, he’s proposing that local DMOs also be wound up. The argument is that tourists came before the state started marketing, and will continue to come regardless.
Opposing is the tourism industry — hoteliers, restaurants, theme parks, charter boat captains, attractions, guides, housekeepers, waiters and waitresses, taxi and Uber drivers — and anyone who does business with the tourism industry (in total, there are 1.4 million tourism job holders in Florida). This group believes that in the competitive tourism marketplace today (where Florida not only competes with New York, California and other states, but with the countries of the Caribbean, Europe, Australasia, the Middle East, India, Asia and South America) a public/private funding partnership is essential for continued growth and, indeed, just to maintain position.
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 ………
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This month’s newsletter is unashamedly aimed at my tourism colleagues in Florida. I’m not usually given to being political (This is not political on party lines) but recent proposals to discontinue State support for Visit Florida and local Destination Marketing Organizations is a major concern for anyone even remotely connected to the industry.
The proposals, by Speaker of the Florida House, go further than removing funding from Visit Florida but wish to dismantle and abolish the organization totally.
For those of you in other US States, and indeed in other countries, you should be aware of this issue as it could be coming to your area too. Many politicians, world wide, fail to recognize the benefits of tourism to both their economies and to the benefit of mankind generally. Not only does travel “broaden the mind” but tourism promotes understanding of cultures and enables peoples to just get on with each other.
But back to Florida.
In 2015 Florida welcomed 106.6 million out of state and international visitors. The international travelers came from 190 different countries. This means that one in five international visitors to the whole USA come to Florida.
Those visitor’s sending supported 1.4 million jobs in the state and every 76 visitors supports 1 job. They spent an average of $300 million per day in 2015 – a total of $108.8 billion, which in turn generated $11.3 billion in sales tax.
We have had six straight years of record tourism spending.
For every $1 that the state of Florida invests in tourism, $3.20 in tax revenue is generated. That’s a 320% return on investment. Where else could you legally generate that sort of return?
If the proposals to defund Visit Florida go ahead, then tourism figures will suffer. Just a 5% drop in visitors would mean a loss of $5.5 billion in revenue, $563 million in taxes and a loss of 70,000 jobs.
Local fishing and tourist related industries (which is virtually every business in Northwest Florida – Remember the effects of the Oil Spill?) would all suffer. The Destin fishing fleet alone brings in $173 million in after value dollars to Okaloosa and Walton counties and the city of Destin. 90% of those dollars come from out of state tourists.
Colorado tried this and they lost 40% of their leisure traveler market over three years and revenues declined by $134 million.
Without the state and local taxes generated by tourism, each Florida household would have to pay $1,535 just to maintain the current level of government services.
We would also have to have State Income Tax, which we avoid currently. Tourists pay over 24% of sales tax, which is the sole reason we don’t have a state income tax.
Pennsylvania cut their budget in 2009 from $30 million to $7 million. Every $1 cut from the tourism budget cost $3.60 in lost tax revenue. From 2009 to 2014 Pennsylvania lost more than $600 million.
Washington State cut their budget from $7 million to $0 in 2011. Their competing state, Montana grew their tourists 70% faster than Washington.
Colorado cut their $12 million budget to $0 in 1993 and lost $1.4 billion in traveler spending within one year. Tax receipts declined by $134 million from ’93 to ’97. 18 years later Colorado still hasn’t recovered their market share.
Increasing the tourism budget has increased travel spending in many states, for example –
California increased their budget $50.1 million and travel spending increased $32.4 billion.
Florida increased the budget $43.3 million and travel spending increased $30 billion.
Minnesota increased their budget $10.5 million and travel spending increased $3.5 billion.
New Mexico increased budget $4.6 million and travel spending increased $933 million.
(Figures from Roger Dow, Head of U.S. travel)
It is essential that the tourism industry in Florida – all members and all levels – get behind the action to save Visit Florida and indeed all the Destination Marketing Organizations. Failure to do so will result in critical loss of jobs, drastic loss of tax revenue, and severe hardship for tax payers in the State.
To cut funding to Visit Florida and other DMOs is bordering on insanity. No business person in their right mind would take this sort of action.
As a consultant to the tourism industry my advice – given free, gratis and for nothing – is to resist this move strenuously.
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.