After massive funding cuts, Visit Florida lays off 34 percent of staff

The agency was heavily criticized for spending $1 million on a Pitbull contract.

After massive funding cuts, Visit Florida lays off 34 percent of staff
Screengrab via Pitbull/YouTube

Visit Florida cut one-third of its staff Thursday, slashing its payroll after the state Legislature cut funding for the tourism agency by 34 percent.

With a Leon County Sheriff’s Office patrol car parked outside its Tallahassee headquarters on Thursday afternoon, Visit Florida fired 44 of the agency’s 135 workers. The move cut $3.65 million from an overall payroll of $12.1 million.

“The decision to downsize staff proportionate to the budget reduction was extremely difficult, but with less funding, there is simply no way Visit Florida could maintain the level of staffing we once had,” Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young said in a press release.

The names of individuals who received pink slips were not announced.

Early on Thursday, Visit Florida’s staff page was no longer available on the agency’s website. Instead of bios of top employees, messages stated, “Page not found.” Another message read: “Uh-oh! It seems like the page you were looking for isn't here. Please choose an option from the menu or return to the homepage.”

The employee cuts were part of an overall strategy by the public-private tourism agency that emerged from a three-day executive leadership meeting recently held to address the state funding reduction, which was driven by Republican House leaders who sought to eliminate the agency during the legislative session that ended earlier this month.

The House has maintained a hardline stance against the agency in recent years, pointing to questionable past contracts --- including $2.875 million to sponsor an auto-racing team known as "Visit Florida Racing" and $1 million for Miami rapper Pitbull to promote the state --- and skepticism about the effectiveness of tourism-marketing efforts, despite record visitor counts for the past eight consecutive years.

With Gov. Ron DeSantis urging the House to keep the agency around for at least one more year, lawmakers finally approved $50 million for Visit Florida. DeSantis had requested $76 million, the same level of funding as in the current year.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told reporters he accepted DeSantis’ request “so that he would have the opportunity to make an assessment of his own of how unnecessary it is.”

The staff cuts were expected, with Visit Florida employees waiting anxiously to learn if they would still have a job after the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

On May 15, the Visit Florida Board of Directors agreed to reducing the payroll, along with scaling back strategic marketing by $17.8 million, reducing agency production costs by $811,000, and dropping spending on promotional items for giveaways and sales events by $43,000.

The cuts to marketing will mostly affect television spots seeking to attract winter and family travelers and will force the agency to rely more on digital advertising and social media to lure visitors to the Sunshine State.

Events that won’t be funded in the next year include sales missions to China and Mexico.

On Tuesday, employees were advised not to report Thursday for normal working hours. Instead, workers were told they would be given times to come into the office on Thursday, with those in Tallahassee advised to “bring all Visit Florida issued property with them to the meeting.”

With the reductions, the public-private agency’s anticipated revenue for the upcoming fiscal year will be $112.1 million, down $61.3 million from the current year, which ends June 30. The total includes state and private funds.

“Our ultimate responsibility is to manage the tax dollars invested in our organization as effectively as possible while still working every day to promote and support Florida’s tourism industry and the revenue that it generates,” Young, a former state senator from Tampa, said in the release. “While this reduced budget will require significant changes in our marketing approach, we are confident that we can continue to deliver a great value for Floridians with the funding provided.”

Follow @cl_tampabay on Twitter to get the most up-to-date news + views. Subscribe to our newsletter, too.

Scroll to read more Florida News articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.