Last updated: 08:46 PM ET, Tue April 12 2016

Q&A: Susan Costello Explains What's Behind Florida's Hot Streak

Visit Florida's vice president, global-brand talks about what is pushing people toward the Sunshine State in record numbers.

Vacation Agent | Destination & Tourism | Sara Perez Webber

Q&A: Susan Costello Explains What's Behind Florida's Hot Streak

The sun seems to be shining a little bit brighter on Florida’s tourism industry.

That’s because the state welcomed a record-breaking 105 million visitors in 2015 – a 6.6 percent increase over 2014, and the fifth consecutive record-breaking year for visitation. As Susannah Costello, vice president-global brand for Visit Florida – the state’s tourism marketing arm – points out, the record-breaking number doesn’t even include in-state resident travel, but solely visitors from other states and countries who stay overnight.

Costello, an eight-year veteran of Visit Florida, last year was named one of the Top 25 Most Extraordinary Minds in Sales & Marketing by the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International. She spoke with Vacation Agent about Florida’s marketing outreach, its most popular destinations, and why clients can always discover something new in the state, no matter how many times they’ve visited.    

Why is Florida tourism on such a roll?

It’s a combination of things. Florida has been building its marketing momentum for decades. We at Visit Florida have a very effective marketing machine, which is amplified because we have the collaboration and investment of thousands of Florida tourism businesses. The Florida tourism industry rocks, and 105 million visitors isn’t achieved just by a marketing organization – it’s achieved by everyone in the hospitality industry, including travel agents.

Who is the typical Florida visitor, and is that profile changing?

With 105 million visitors, we have a lot of different types, but we can talk about averages. In the summer, the typical Florida visitor comes from the South. In the winter, the typical Florida visitor comes from the Northeast, and, generally speaking, the majority of Florida’s visitors come from east of the Mississippi. Just looking at averages, the average [visitor profile] would be a couple staying 4.3 nights at a hotel, but we are one of the strongest, if not the strongest, family destinations in the country, and families tend to stay much longer.

What new markets is Visit Florida targeting?

We have an interesting program targeting the domestic Hispanic family [through] a partnership with “La Voz Kids” [a Spanish version of “The Voice” singing competition featuring kids as contestants, which airs on Telemundo, in which we identify a couple of young singers who are runners-up on that show who are from Florida, and they become Florida ambassadors.

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We’re also in the market right now with a program of specific interest to African Americans. We created 60-second spots that air on BET nationwide in which a local African American spokesperson starts out by acknowledging an iconic Florida destination. For example, we have the former president of SeaWorld Orlando [Terry Prather], and he speaks about the honor he had leading that organization. And then he talks about Eatonville [one of the first self-governing all-black municipalities in the U.S.]. So we’re now pairing lesser-known, culturally relevant destinations with well-known iconic Florida destinations.   

What destinations in Florida are particularly hot right now?

Orlando and Miami are always hot, but in addition to that, Tampa-St. Pete is on the rise. We’re seeing increasing interest in the beaches of north Florida, especially the northwest coast. St. Augustine has made major gains in the past couple of years, and the Keys rank right up there with Orlando and Miami. Palm Beach is seeing growth and interest, especially out of the U.K. Generally speaking, the entire state is hot.

What tips do you have for travel agents who want to sell more Florida travel, either to firsttime visitors or to clients who’ve traveled to the state before?

For clients who have been here before, the important takeaway is [that] you may think you know Florida, but it is changing and growing all the time [with] new resorts, new attractions, new rides within the attractions, new restaurants, new celebrity chefs and new activities. So I would encourage repeat visitors to add in the Florida they don’t know to their iconic trip.

For first-time visitors, if the travel agent communicates that this will be a destination they’ll return to again and again, the travel agent will be able to continue working with that visitor on future trips. That benefits the travel agent, that benefits the Florida tourism industry, and that benefits the traveler.

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the April 2016 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.