As Florida's worst case of red tide in a decade leaves lines of dead fish and miles of empty beaches along Florida's Gulf Coast, internal emails from Visit Florida show the state's partially taxpayer-funded tourism marketing group was slow to jump in and respond to the crisis.
"I wish VF (Visit Florida) would have been out in front of this long before it hit national news," wrote the owner of an Orlando-based entertainment company on August 9th, months after dead fish tales first started making headlines. The email was in response to a mass red tide email sent from Visit Florida's CEO, Ken Lawson, that went out to its members earlier that day after questions were raised about his lack of response to members of Visit Florida.
"I think this is very late to be addressing this issue," added Chris Cullison, owner of the Sandpiper Inn on Longboat Key where customers and profits dropped nearly two months ago when red tide moved in.
"The crisis was already there for a couple of weeks and a few months south of us before they sent out any information about what they were doing," she told us recently.
Visit Florida boasts it's Florida's official tourism source. Membership buys online marketing and promotion. For paying members of Visit Florida like Chris Cullison, communication is everything, especially during times of crisis like red tide.
"The communication we get from these folks is not worth it," she said.
Internal emails we obtained through a public records request also reveal members of Visit Florida's own board were also raising concerns about its silence over red tide.
"You didn't mention anything regarding arguably the biggest threat to our state's tourism industry since Hurricane Irma- red tide," wrote former board member Bill Lupfer to the CEO on August 3rd, one week before the mass email was sent out to members. Lupfer resigned from board in August, 2017. "As the national news media continues their reports, can you provide some specific details on how your PR team is responding to this disaster?" he wrote. Lupfer did not respond to our request for comment.
"Have you put out a statement on red tide?" also asked Maryann Ferenc, a current Visit Florida board member. Ferenc is also a Tampa restaurant owner.
"Nope," Visit Florida CEO Ken Lawson responded while adding his plans for an upcoming conference call and plans to create of a crisis plan.
"Please do, but you have to admit that will be late to the game," Ferenc responded. They are 'in it' already," she wrote back.
"That was simply me getting up to speed," Ferenc later explained to reporter Katie LaGrone.
When asked if her emails suggested that communication was not occurring properly, Ferenc responded, "No I think communication was occurring to the people who were affected. The communication may not have been going out to the entire board or the industry," she said. "I think they've done a good job," she added.
"I am very emotional," said Chris Cullison who tells us she's not renewing her $285 Visit Florida membership.
"It's a mess, it's sad, very sad," she said.
A mess forcing business owners and tourists to just wait it out.
In response to questions about the internal emails, a spokesperson from Visit Florida sent us the following statement:
"The idea that VISIT FLORIDA has “waited” to respond to red tide is 100 percent false.
While red tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon, this year it has particularly affected Southwest Florida's beaches. We are working with our partners in the area and state agencies to mitigate red tide's effects on our tourism industry, and we will be communicating with visitors just as soon as the beaches are clean and back to normal.
We remain in constant communication with our partners throughout the state regarding all issues that may impact travel to Florida, and regularly monitor consumer sentiment and trends as they relate to travel decisions to our state. Regarding red tide specifically, VISIT FLORIDA hosts biweekly calls with DMO partners in the impacted areas and representatives from Mote Marine Laboratory and various state agencies.
At the direction of Governor Rick Scott, VISIT FLORIDA worked to make funds available to support the impacted areas. On August 13, Governor Rick Scott issued Executive Order 18-221 [flgov.com] which included $500,000 for VISIT FLORIDA to establish an emergency grant program to help local communities continue to bring in the visitors that support so many Florida families and businesses, as well as direction to begin developing a marketing campaign to assist Southwest Florida communities that will start following this year’s red tide blooms.
Following Governor Rick Scott's emergency order, VISIT FLORIDA launched two programs to assist local tourism development boards in counties adversely affected by naturally occurring red tide and started developing the structure for a post-red tide marketing plan. The Tourism Recovery Grant Program for Red Tide [click.email-visitflorida.org] and Red Tide Recovery Marketing Program [click.email-visitflorida.org] are designed to assist each affected county with destination marketing once red tide has subsided. To get a jumpstart on the marketing plan, VISIT FLORIDA has contracted freelance writers and photographers to highlight impacted areas the moment red tide has gone.
Additionally, we are working with VISIT FLORIDA Partner, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association."