Government leaders want to reinvent tourism. Hotel owners running the visitors bureau want to fill rooms. The loser in their turf war is the tourism economy, running in place for the past 15 years.
Tourism on a Treadmill
First place winner, Business reporting, Division B, Florida Society of Newspaper Editors 2004 awards
Published in The Daytona Beach News-Journal on April 27, 2003
On Daytona Beach's premier tourism avenue, there's a dilapidated 1960s-era phone booth. You'll see it on the sidewalk next to the Sahara Motel, a short walk north of the multimillion-dollar Ocean Walk Village.
There's no glass, no phone book, and the phone itself is caked with the dirt of a thousand fingers. But lift the receiver, and there's a dial tone.
And that, evidently, is good enough to justify leaving it there.
Across the street from the Ocean Walk resort and shops, there's a man who doesn't smile working at an ice cream shop. Ask for a sample and he'll grimace as he complies. Ask for a cup for your melting ice cream cone, and he'll ask if you know how much money he would lose if he gave cups to everyone who asked for them.
Similar attitudes and deterioration are easy to find along Atlantic Avenue. A few rays of sunshine -- new and redeveloped hotel and condominium properties with helpful, courteous employees -- fail to block out weeds that flourish with an almost hostile stub bornness:
Dreary paint jobs. Faded signs that haven't been replaced since the 1960s. Cracked concrete and stucco. An aged, gaudy Boardwalk. Huge asphalt parking lots devoid of landscaping. Grumbling, disinterested workers.
Whose job is it to clean up this mess? Who's pushing the concept that clean surroundings and customer service are vital to tourism growth?
The answer to both questions: No one.
In the diverse, multifaceted Daytona Beach area tourism community, there's no one in charge of getting rid of the blight, no customer-service campaign, no master plan for the future, and no one telling businesses and residents how they can help make Daytona Beach a classier, higher-quality resort.
In competing resort communities with growing tourism economies, those roles are increasingly being assumed, with celebrated results, by directors of local tourism marketing agencies.
But the Daytona Beach area has a tourism promotion agency dominated by hoteliers relying on marketing themes that date back to the 1950s.
A tourism promotion agency that lines up with business owners to resist citizens' efforts to tone down intrusive special events.
A tourism promotion agency that barely communicates with elected city leaders.
The Daytona Beach area has a 3-cents-per-dollar resort tax collected from hotel guests that, unlike every other county in the state, can only be used for tourism promotion. Other counties use resort taxes to fund beach cleanup, landscaping, off-beach parking, and other improvements that would enhance the community for tourists and locals alike.
And unlike Myrtle Beach, Panama City, the Fort Myers area and other growing destinations, Daytona Beach also has a visitor base that has remained flat for 15 years -- since the local tourism agency was created in 1988 -- despite that agency spending $55 million in resort tax revenues to promote the area.
HOTEL OWNERS CONTROL TOURISM MESSAGE
The Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has always been under the tight control of a small group of hoteliers. Daytona Beach is the only resort area in the state where hotel owners by law control resort tax spending, and Sharon Mock, the bureau's executive director, serves at their pleasure.
The Legislature set up the area's unusual system with a special law in 1984 that gave hotel owners a majority vote on the board that controls and directs tourism promotion spending. The law also limited resort tax spending to tourism marketing.
The 3-cent resort tax is separate from the recently increased levy that funds the Ocean Center and its expansion. Together, they will total 6 cents per dollar with the increase.
Hotel owners pushed for the special law 19 years ago to counter the Orlando tourism boom, and they've had the final say on how Daytona Beach is marketed to the rest of the country ever since.
The 11-member board of the Halifax Area Advertising Authority oversees all bureau operations, including creation and placement of all advertising funded by the resort tax. The authority enforces policies requiring the bureau to focus all activities on putting "heads in beds."
Authority members offer little patience for criticism of their spending priorities, according to a former and current member from outside the hotel industry who contend they were placed on the board to appease critics. Because the money is collected from hotel guests, it's not really tax dollars, authority members contend.
Dan Ryan, former Web site producer for the bureau, said that while the bureau does a good job, work flow is sometimes interrupted by advertising authority members and other hoteliers looking to fine-tune marketing materials for the benefit of their individual properties.
"A lot of hoteliers think it's their money," he said. "They think they can come in and run day-to-day operations."
Beachside merchant Paul Politis, former president of the Beachside Merchants Association, called Ryan's statement "valid."
"Basically Sharon works for the desire of the hoteliers and the HAAA board," he said. "Her hands are pretty much tied if they demand (the bureau) go in a certain direction."
And that direction has been strikingly similar for decades.
Multimillion-dollar ad campaigns in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Woman's Day drive home the same message as 50 years ago: Families can have fun on the beach. "Big Beach, Big Fun," goes the decade-old slogan printed across the top of nearly every piece of literature that leaves the bureau's Orange Avenue offices.
Other resorts strive to broaden their appeal. "The beaches are our No. 1 attraction," says D.T. Minich, Mock's counterpart in Southwest Florida's Lee County. "But we really wanted to show that we're more than a beach destination. We're giving people ideas on how to set up days: children's (activities), ecological, fishing, birding, all kinds of itineraries."
Under Mock, the bureau has a narrow set of responsibilities. They include approving print, radio and television ads aimed at potential hotel customers; marketing the area to meeting and convention planners; promoting hotels to golfers; maintaining the area's Web site; and spreading news about attractions and special events to news organizations in feeder markets.
Those efforts haven't translated into more visitors, according to bureau-funded research.
NO GROWTH IN TOURISTS DESPITE MORE SPENDING
The bureau's funding source tripled in 15 years, from 1 to 3 cents for every dollar spent on lodging. Its budget swelled from $1.6 million to $6.4 million. Its staff grew from 11 to 26. And Mock's salary jumped from $44,000 to $105,000.
Daytona Beach area hotel occupancy rates, meanwhile, remained flat between 1990 and 2002. Except during bureau-sponsored Biketoberfest, off-season visitor rates have shown no sustained improvement. Resort tax collections increased just 3.4 percent, after adjusting for inflation and two tax hikes. The average daily room rate failed to keep pace with inflation between 1990 and 1998, but has climbed to $92 in 2002.
Mock, the bureau's executive director since 1988, said the tourism industry suffered numerous setbacks beyond the bureau's control over the past decade. The recession of the early 1990s cut into families' travel budgets. The 1998 wildfires killed that summer's tourism season. The state coastal setback line, enacted in the 1980s, prevented hotel owners from upgrading their properties. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hurt the travel industry worldwide.
The conversion of more than 3,000 hotel rooms to time-shared units may have brought the occupancy rate down, too, said bureau researcher Evelyn Fine, but its effect is unknown because the bureau doesn't study time share occupancy.
Without the bureau, said Fine, the resort area would have lost visitors since 1987 to other Florida resorts with shiny, multimillion-dollar accommodations, pristine natural amenities and aggressive marketing efforts. Most business and political leaders interviewed for this report agree the bureau has done a credible job considering its mission has been to promote a resort area that hasn't kept pace with the competition.
The competition is precisely the point, critics say. In a growing number of resort areas, elected officials and tourism leaders work together to set a course for the future and improve the present. The numbers offer evidence the approach is working. Galveston, Texas, Myrtle Beach, S.C., Panama City and Lee County in Southwest Florida all experienced significant growth in visitors during the 1990s.
In the Daytona Beach area, visitors fluctuated between 8 and 8.5 million annually over the last decade. In recent years, major redevelopment projects representing the tourism industry's best hope for renewal -- the Ocean Walk resort and retail shops, expansion of the Adam's Mark, a parking garage, Adventure Landing and the upcoming Ocean Center expansion and Atlantic Avenue streetscape -- owe little or nothing to bureau efforts.
Private investors and city leaders continue to go one way while hotel owners and the tourism bureau go another.
SPECIAL EVENTS STRAIN CITY-BUREAU RELATIONSHIP
Last spring, the Halifax Area Advertising Authority board directed Mock to produce a public relations campaign to educate residents about the "true value of tourism," after heated debate about the costs and impacts of special events on city residents. A consultant hired by the city concluded that special events cost city taxpayers up to $2 million annually for cleanup and public services such as police and fire protection.
Beachside business owners and advertising authority board members hoped the campaign would squelch calls by some residents and city officials to force the tourism industry to pick up more of the costs, either with new taxes on services or earmarking a portion of the bed tax money.
Relations between the bureau and beachside city commissioners crumbled last year after criticism of special events costs, rowdy Spring Break behavior and excessive Bike Week noise.
Commissioners Mike Shallow and Darlene Yordon, who represent zones that include the core resort area, complained of getting anonymous phone messages from the bureau warning they would be defeated in their next elections.
Mock acknowledged the calls but refused to criticize them, saying bureau employees have a right to use office phones to express political opinions as long as they're on break.
Potshots continued at a meeting last summer of the bureau-sponsored Biketoberfest Task Force when Main Street and Beach Street merchants used sharp language to denounce commissioners trying to reduce outdoor vending during the biker events.
Bureau assistant director Janet Kersey, moderating the meeting, suggested forming a public relations committee to tout benefits of biker events and "start turning the tide the other way."
Meanwhile, at a May meeting of city and county officials, Mock rebuffed calls for the bureau to help keep special events from growing too large and unruly.
"We are in the marketing business," she told them. "We leave the managing of events to each city and municipality."
The disagreements further alienated Shallow and Yordon from the bureau and prompted criticism from Rick Shiver, the city's only other beachside zone commissioner.
Shallow said the authority and bureau "remain singular in focus -- bringing in money without regard to quality of life" of residents. He said he has little contact with the authority or bureau.
"When you're dealing with people who are predisposed, trying to convince them otherwise is not fruitful," he said.
City Manager Richard Quigley said communication between the bureau and city administration "is on the low side." Bureau leaders rarely seek input from city officials on promotional plans, he said.
Mock said critics fail to understand that special events are "such a little thing to us." This year's marketing budget, she said, devotes just $135,000 to promote Bike Week, Spring Break and Biketoberfest.
"I guess when we give any attention to special events, they get that perception," Mock said. "While we feel they're extremely important to the economy, they're not a major function of the bureau."
Advertising authority chairwoman Blaine Lansberry, whose family owns the Bahama House hotel, said, "I think the (bureau and authority) make every effort to communicate and ask for communication back. Meetings are open. We invite and welcome their input."
UNIFIED TOURISM FUTURE JUST TALK FOR NOW
As criticism mounts over the area's reliance on special events, some stakeholders want to rethink the bureau's role in shaping the tourism economy.
They'll get an opportunity to voice their views soon, when Volusia County Economic Development Director Rick Michael convenes a strategic planning process for countywide tourism development. Michael hopes to enlist 25 or more community members to set strategies for the next decade.
Whether the process will breach the wall separating Daytona Beach's elected leaders and the tourism industry remains to be seen.
Shallow, Yordon, Shiver, and others critical of special events say it's time to make the bureau more accountable to the overall community, instead of just to hoteliers and the tourism industry.
They suggest opening representation on the advertising authority board to more elected officials and residents unconnected to tourism.
Tourism industry officials are best suited to manage the bureau budget, counters Larry Fornari, a longtime advertising authority member and motel owner.
"When you have a majority of people doing it on the inside day in and day out, they're going to be the ones with the most insight into the customer base," he said.
Opening board membership outside the tourism industry would require an act of the Legislature. Whether laws controlling resort tax spending and board membership should be changed is an issue that could be explored in the upcoming county tourism planning process, said Michael.
Meanwhile, Volusia County Council Chairman Frank Bruno and at-large member Pat Northey support merging the Halifax Area Advertising Authority with smaller taxing authorities in Southeast and West Volusia. The combined entity would promote Daytona Beach alongside the smaller, quaint New Smyrna Beach resort area, West Volusia's rivers and springs and DeLand's historic downtown.
Would more citizen oversight and a wider bureau mission help upgrade the core resort area and get rid of eyesores such as that bombed-out phone booth on Atlantic Avenue? Maybe, but only if everyone takes responsibility, according to John E. Evans, a former advertising authority board member who now directs public relations for Halifax-Fish Community Health.
"Our problem is we still haven't decided where we are going to be and where we want to go," he said. "It would be real easy to blame it on the visitor bureau ... But if we do that, then we're saying that we don't have any part of this -- that those of us who profess to be community leaders ... absolve ourselves of any responsibility."
Quigley hopes for the day the community agrees on a direction, but he's not holding his breath.
"There's got to be some breakthrough at some point where we work more closely together and serve the interests of businesses and residents," he said. "It's a tough issue. It will probably be here long after I'm gone."
Copyright, 2003, The News-Journal Corporation