The Disney theme parks learned that hard way in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it decided that it could take a cheaper approach to developing its theme parks. Rather than creating immersive attractions and thoroughly decorated lands, such as those it built decades earlier for Disneyland and Epcot, Disney built California Adventure and Walt Disney Studios in Paris with lightly modified off-the-shelf rides and an overall design that put the focus more on retail than crafting a unique visitor experience. In its established parks, Disney eliminated lead cast members, cheapened costuming standards, replaced restaurant operations with cheaper outdoor vending, and deferred maintenance on both ride systems and decor.
Later, in an effort to hold down costs, Walt Disney Imagineering adopted an Integrated Project Delivery development process that minimized design change expenses at the cost of slowing project development to a crawl when compared with the lightning speed that competitor Universal was able to build new attractions using a more traditional bid process.
Eventually, in the late 2000s, as customer complaints soared, per-guest spending stalled and Universal secured the theme park rights to the Harry Potter franchise — which would allow Universal to start narrowing Disney's attendance lead in the industry — Disney began to wake up. But that meant spending billions of dollars to remake California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland, an Walt Disney Studios Paris, plus green-lighting ambitious — and expensive — new lands based on Avatar and Star Wars.
Disney bet that its brand equity was strong enough that it could afford to stop investing in that brand and still maintain its lead over the competition. And Disney could... for a while. But, inevitably, market leaders that do not invest in maintaining and expanding their leads will lose them to competitors who are not afraid to spend to advance.
Disney's board forced a change in leadership, from Michael Eisner to Bob Iger, which then led to changes in management and philosophy within the Disney Parks and Resorts division of the company. Disney learned, and has had to spend billions to catch up with the vital brand-equity investments that it ultimately just deferred.
The State of Florida is now poised to make the same mistake that Disney made in the 1990s. The Legislature is considering a massive cut in its funding for Visit Florida, the state's official tourism commission.
Why does that matter? Doesn't Disney, Universal, and every other major destination in the state spend millions of dollars promoting themselves to potential visitors around America and the world? Why should Florida taxpayers contribute anything toward helping those private companies?
Because it's a damned good investment for Florida taxpayers, that's why. Tourism is the state's biggest industry, generating billions of dollars of tax revenue that helps allow the state to remain one of the few that do not levy an income tax to its residents. A recent external audit of Visit Florida found "an extremely sound operation with a robust accounting system and mature internal control structure."
Visit Florida does more than just run ad campaigns promoting the state as a tourist destination. It's a PR agency that brings journalists to the state and works to provide information and sources to travel writers around the world, generating countless newspaper, magazine, television, radio, and online stories about the state and its attractions. It analyzes trends and the efficacy of campaigns, helping attractions in the state to optimize their own promotional efforts. A 2015 Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research study reported that every dollar the state spends on Visit Florida returns $3.20 in tax revenue to the state. That's an amazing deal for taxpayers.
Remember, every ad slot that Visit Florida buys, every story that it places about the state, is one that rival destinations don't get. As such, Visit Florida plays a defensive role that supports and expands the effectiveness of individual destinations' promotional efforts. If the Legislature cuts tens of millions of dollars from Visit Florida's budget, that will make countless ad slots and stories available to Florida's competitors, including other U.S. states as well as international destinations such as Mexico, Spain, and Dubai. Those destinations want a piece of Florida's market share. They need the additional media attention that Visit Florida's campaigns now help keep away from them.
So why on Earth is the Florida Legislature wanting to cut Visit Florida? For someone who was a political science major in college and who worked professional as a newspaper editorial writer for several years, I try very hard to keep politics off Theme Park Insider. (At least explicitly.) But allow me to point out that many people who are talking about fiscal responsibility when it comes to Visit Florida never seem to have a problem with that when it comes to approving sweetheart deals for real estate developers or investment bankers. And that some of the people opposing Visit Florida might find it to their political advantage if fewer "outsiders" visited, relocated to, and became registered voters in the state. Or maybe they're just punitive jerks who want to get a "win" by denying Florida Governor Rick Scott something he wants.
I don't know. And I don't care. It doesn't matter "why" — just that the Florida Legislature is thinking about throwing away one of its best investments.
Florida owns amazing brand equity as a tourist destination. But that value wasn't given. It wasn't found. It was bought and earned. Brand equity is not a commodity. It is consumable. If Florida wants to continue to own that brand equity, it must continue to buy and earn it. If the state won't do that, no one in Florida ought to be surprised a few years down the line if the value of the state's tourism dominance begins to slip.Tweet
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