Tourism & Cruises

Visit Florida fires CEO, picks Tallahassee insider to head tourism agency

New Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson.
New Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson. Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation

The political pressure around a previously secret $1 million marketing contract with Pitbull was too much to save the head of Florida’s besieged tourism marketing agency.

Even as board members praised Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe for his work in helping set tourism records four years in a row, they turned around and voted unanimously to fire him, overtly hoping it will save the agency as the Florida Legislature threatens deep budget cuts.

The board also voted unanimously to replace Seccombe with Ken Lawson, the former secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

The deal with Pitbull to promote Florida beaches and other multi-million dollar contracts to advertise with a car racing team and a British soccer team have brought scrutiny from the Legislature, which determines how much funding the agency will get. House Speaker Richard Corcoran sued Pitbull’s management company in December to force him to disclose terms of his contract with Visit Florida when Seccombe refused. That prompted Gov. Rick Scott to call on Seccombe to resign and Visit Florida to reform its rules on transparency.

Mr 305, aka the rapper Pitbull, is the star of ‘Sexy Beaches,’ a video for Visit Florida. But the main attraction is the sights.

While Visit Florida board chairman William Talbert III lauded Seccombe — who was not at the meeting at Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Hotel — for his work and sounded reluctant to part ways with him, he acknowledged that politically Visit Florida could not afford to lose any of Scott’s support for the agency as the political environment gets tougher in the Florida Legislature.

“That is a critical component because the governor recommends and fights for our budget,” said Talbert, the president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Board member Gene Prescott, of the Biltmore Hotel, was even more blunt, suggesting that board members could agree or disagree with the governor’s call to change leaders, but there is a political reality looming.

“We have the Speaker of the House who has said he wants to take away all of our funding,” Prescott said. “So we really have our work cut out to save our money.”

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said Visit Florida has evolved as its public funding has increased from a decade ago when the agency was more of a private entity than a governmental one. But as state funding has increased, Visit Florida has to change and acknowledge that it has to act more like a governmental entity than it is used to.

“If we are going to continue to survive in this process we have to also remember that we are more of a government entity than we are private,” said Dover, a Visit Florida board member. “We have to think more like a government entity and not always like the private sector as we have.”

Visit Florida is a quasi-governmental agency that receives more than $140 million a year from mostly private tourism-related business and about $78 million from state government. Scott cannot fire or hire the CEO — that is left to the board of directors.

Corcoran has questioned the roll Visit Florida has played in hitting tourism records. He said the agency’s funding has grown faster than the number of tourists.

Since 2009 Visit Florida’s public funding has grown from $29 million to $78 million.

While Lawson has no experience in tourism marketing, board members said he was a perfect fit because the governor has already given his endorsement of the move and Lawson has experience walking the halls of Tallahassee as a former agency head.

“He knows the process,” Talbert told board members.

Lawson said his mission is to instill a “cultural change” in Visit Florida to make transparency and accountability more of a part of the agency’s thinking.

“We need to makes sure that folks know clearly who we are and what we are doing,” Lawson said.

Unlike other traditional government agency appointments, Lawson’s selection does not have to be confirmed by the Florida Senate.

Seccombe, meanwhile, will only get a fraction of the $440,000 he could have received in severance pay. Talbert said through negotiations he was able to convince Seccombe to leave with just $73,000 — and that will all be paid through Visit Florida’s private funds.

Seccombe was not available for comment Tuesday, but in the past has defended the soccer, racing team and Pitbull deals as efforts to reach more foreign tourists who stay in Florida longer and spend more — and to compete against other states, like California, which have increased their tourism marketing and started to eat into Florida’s market share. He said on each of those deals, Florida got big returns on its investment and reached audiences that are increasingly hard to get to through traditional media advertising. However, Seccombe did say he would never do another deal like the one with Pitbull where he could not release details of the contract.

That, however, was not enough to help Seccombe to keep the job he has held since November 2012.