Controversial Legislation Makes Florida a Harder Sell for CVBs

Convention and visitor bureau chiefs steer clear of politics but aim to save meetings and events business.

Fort Lauderdale

What Do Florida's Laws Mean?
Understanding the controversial state legislation will drive more informed discussions. Here's a primer.

Destination marketing organizations are not political entities; their job is to attract and welcome visitors. Given that charter, nearly all try to keep hot topics out of their messaging. But when divisive legislation has some meeting and event planners wondering whether to avoid Florida, a number of DMOs are doing damage control.

The issues of concern stem from the state’s new laws on teaching Black history and sexuality, the removal of selected books from school shelves, a feud with Disney and a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. With staunch support as well as strong opposition to each of these policies, it follows that the job of selling Florida as a meeting and event destination has become… well, complicated. 

The state became a focus of the national debate about abortion rights last month, when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Other recent legislation has spurred the NAACP and several other civil rights organizations to call for travel boycotts of the state, citing risks to visitors and residents who are Black, LGBTQ+, immigrants and others who identify with marginalized groups.

Destination marketing executives might talk amongst themselves, but very few are willing to speak with the media about the impact of controversial legislation on group business. Still others assert Florida’s laws are a non-issue for groups. Visit St. Augustine, for example, hasn’t had any cancellations or even questions as a result of recent legislation, said William McBroom, director of conference sales for the DMO. Should questions arise, he said, the bureau would call clients directly and “clarify that we are welcoming.”

"We have lost potential future business with groups specifically citing the current political climate."
Casandra Matej
Visit Orlando

Executives responsible for marketing Orlando, which is now in the spotlight due to Disney’s ongoing feud with the governor, acknowledge there is a perception problem. “We are closely monitoring the situation,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “We have lost potential future business with groups specifically citing the current political climate,” she noted. Planners are asking questions, and Visit Orlando discusses legislation in detail with concerned clients, explained Matej. “We also share facts about how the weaponization of travel impacts destinations, often with unintended consequences, namely to travel and tourism workers whose livelihoods depend on visitation to our destination.”

Assessing the RFPs Not Sent

Unrealized business is hard to quantify. The fact that few groups have canceled does not mean the state hasn’t lost meetings business, pointed out Stacy Ritter, CEO of Visit Lauderdale. "California doesn’t let its government employees travel to Florida, and that certainly has an impact," she said. The problem, Ritter added, is that "state leadership isn't seeing the economic disadvantage of these bills, because Florida had record-setting tourism dollars last year."

Stacy Ritter Visit Lauderdale
Stacy Ritter, Visit Lauderdale Photo Credit: Graciela Valdes

An outspoken critic of the laws in question, Ritter spent 10 years in local government, first as Broward County’s mayor and then county commissioner. Fort Lauderdale, she said, is the "bluest of the blue" cities in a red state, yet shoulders the burden of decisions made at a state level. "I had a conversation a few weeks ago with the head of another Florida bureau," noted Ritter. "He was in Washington, D.C., at an industry event, and a number of meeting planners came up to him and said they are no longer sending RFPs to Florida."

Ritter is particularly frustrated that her counterparts across the state aren’t speaking out. Of about a dozen inquiries for this article, we received a few prepared statements from CVBs declaring that their destinations are welcoming and inclusive, yet without mentioning any policy issues. The majority did not reply to requests for comments.

One bureau leader told Ritter he wouldn’t discuss legislation because, "We don't want to be targeted." Ritter countered, "I do not think it is a heavy lift to say human rights are universal. I think we should all be saying it. If the entire tourism industry in all of Florida’s major cities were to speak with one voice and share the same message, I think it would finally resonate." She shared that Visit Lauderdale is working with Orlando, Kissimmee, St. Pete, Tampa and Miami to craft a unified message for convention and group business.

Civil Rights Organizations Push for Boycotts

The elimination of an advanced placement course on Black history and the banning of teaching critical race theory, among other changes to education policy, has led to meeting cancellations by groups opposed to Florida’s "whitewashing African American history," said Ritter. In the past few weeks, she said, the city lost business from 100 Black Men of America, a national mentoring organization. "They have indicated they won’t be sending RFPs to Florida at all," she added. In addition, "The Community Health Workers chose Denver over us because of anti-LGBTQ+ issues and issues related to African American studies. The Tom Joyner Foundation, which supports historically Black colleges and universities, had 10,000 people scheduled to come to Fort Lauderdale in June. They’ve put a pause on that."

Ritter tries hard to save convention business. "Our message is that when you don't come, you hurt the people who share your values. I have that conversation with meeting organizers. People in Broward County believe in teaching real history. We are opposed to dehumanizing and marginalizing people just because of how they identify or what their sexual orientation is or the color of their skin. The people who live here rely on tourism to feed their families."

"Our message is that when you don't come, you hurt the people who share your values."
Stacy Ritter
Visit Lauderdale

Organizations representing LGBTQ+ rights are speaking out, too. Equality Florida, which advocates for equal rights for the state’s LGBTQ+ community, issued an advisory last month warning of the "risks to health, safety and freedom" associated with visiting Florida. Similar advisories have been issued by the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights organization; and the Florida Immigrant Commission.

Claiming a risk to visitor safety is "a bit extreme," noted John Tanzella, president and CEO of the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA). "We do not agree entirely with that. I mean, yeah, the government's doing everything they can to make it difficult for our community, but I don't know that it's not safe."

Bureaus Want Visitors to Come and Express Their Views

While staying away from any polarizing topics, Florida’s CVBs are unified in denouncing boycotts and encouraging groups that oppose the state’s laws to come and make their point in person. That’s a hard sell, admits Ritter, who is particularly frustrated by the assumption that the whole state is of one mind. "All of Florida gets lumped together, all 20 million people who live here. People think we all agree with what our leaders are saying, but 20 million people don't share one opinion. We would hope that those people who share our values — and there are lots of them out there — would come here now."

At the same time, she added, "I understand when they don't want to, because ultimately the tax dollars end up in Tallahassee. I understand it, I just don't agree with it. And it disappoints me, because we saw during the pandemic what happens when people don’t come here: People lose their jobs. They don't get the dignity and respect that work allows them, and we don't want to see that, especially when it's people who believe in freedom and equality. We're not an intolerant destination. We don't care who you are, what you do, who you love, how you identify — it doesn't matter to us."

Is the Government Representative of Hospitality?

The hospitality industry tends to be more inclusive than the state’s lawmakers, John Tanzella suggests. "In Florida — maybe not all of Florida but most of Florida — the tourism offices are big advocates for diversity. The government of Florida is a different beast," he said. 

IGLTA has been fielding calls from planners wondering whether they should take their meetings to Florida. "We’re hearing a lot of that," said Tanzella, "and not just from LGBT organizations, but associations in general. They’re asking, 'What do we do with our LGBTQ attendees and allies? If they don't want to go to our convention in Florida, we're going to lose money.'"

Like the state’s CVBs, Tanzella encourages groups to come. "We tend to preach that boycotts don't necessarily help. By avoiding bringing your conference to a welcoming destination like St. Pete or Fort Lauderdale or Miami, you're directly hurting the community and the LGBTQ-owned businesses there."

"Our stance is that it's better to go and support LGBT-owned businesses."
John Tanzella
IGLTA

It’s a somewhat difficult argument, he acknowledged. "It's a very nuanced conversation. People will say 'I’m not going to go somewhere where they're targeting our community.' I get that. But our stance is that it’s better to go and support LGBT businesses."

Making Their Voice Heard

Many groups ensure their organizations’ perspectives are expressed when they’re in town, Tanzella explained. "A lot of organizations either have an extra day or half day set aside to meet with officials, or the organizers of the conference bring in officials to come and meet with the group. That's kind of common. It's just that when you're in South Florida, the governor's office isn't going to come down from Tallahassee, and in South Florida you're kind of preaching to the choir."

IGLTA’s 2021 annual conference was held in Atlanta, when voting rights were a hot topic. Members wanted the organization to move the event out of Georgia, says Tanzella, but to do so with just a few months lead time would have been challenging. "Instead, we organized volunteer activities that supported equal rights. It didn't have anything to do with LGBT in that situation; the concern was about Black people being pushed out of the voting process. So we were going to stand in by helping them vs. just not showing up."

Most importantly, it’s not the role of CVBs to support or oppose legislation, Fort Lauderdale’s Ritter emphasized, but rather to attract and support visitors. "Florida as a state is under the microscope," she said. "We need to be speaking with one voice. Every industry — retail, hotels, convention centers — needs to share the message that we are a welcoming, accepting destination. You'll see people who think like you do and some who don't, but it doesn't matter to us at the end of the day. We want you to come here."