Last updated: 10:30 AM ET, Tue May 05 2015

The Sunshine State Soars

Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe explains why Florida tourism is booming

Agent@Home | Destination & Tourism | Sara Perez Webber

The Sunshine State Soars

PHOTO: Florida has 825 miles of beaches, including Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin (above).

The sun is shining brightly on Florida tourism these days. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, says 97.3 million visitors traveled to Florida in 2014, an increase of 3.9 percent over the previous year. The state also reported 11.5 million overseas visitors and 3.8 million Canadians in 2014, both of which are record highs.

Indeed, this is the fourth consecutive record year for visitation to Florida. For 2015, Visit Florida now projects the state will welcome close to 100 million visitors, and by 2020, it forecasts the state will host 123 million visitors.

Florida also isn’t standing still in its efforts to make the state the number one destination in the world. Initiatives include launching marketing programs that tout the state’s less-well-known attractions and the purchase of Florida Huddle, the state’s annual travel trade show, including increasing attendance at the event. We spoke with Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, about the record visitor numbers and what the state is doing to make Florida the number one destination in the world.

Where do Florida’s record number of tourists come from?
We’ve seen increases from domestic markets and international overseas markets, as well as increases from our friends to the north in Canada. Over the course of the past four years, growth in visitation has exceeded the natural growth in travel, both domestically and internationally, so we’re definitely seeing that Florida is growing marketshare as well, which is very encouraging.

Seccombe: “We are blessed with the best tourism product in the world.”

What makes Florida such a great destination for domestic and international visitors?
That’s one of the “aha” moments about Florida — the state’s incredible diversity, including our state parks, our natural springs in the north and central parts of the state, the trail systems, the diversity of the residents, and the extraordinary history of the state, from Juan Ponce de Leon to St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. When you have the diversity of tourism product that we have in the state, there are so many options. You can’t find two more different beach experiences than St. George Island State Park in Northwest Florida and South Beach in Miami, for example.

Why are visitors flocking to Florida like never before?
For starters, we are blessed with the best tourism product in the world. There’s no place on earth that can boast the combination of 825 miles of the most beautiful beaches, along with being the theme park capital of world, the fishing capital of world, and the home of American golf. Combine that with the art and culture and history, and the incredible diversity of people and places that has made up the fabric of the state of Florida, and the product is extraordinary. We’ve been able to begin to expand what people consider when they think of the state. It’s not just beaches and theme parks, but award-winning state parks and incredible small towns, and arts and culture and history.

Are any regions of the U.S. sending more visitors to Florida than in years past?
Traditionally the major Northeast metro areas have been the largest feeder markets, and the Southeast drive markets have obviously been very important to the state. But we’re certainly seeing that more people from around the country are beginning to choose Florida. Visitation is growing in markets that hadn’t been traditional feeder markets, such as from west of the Mississippi, including Texas — even the numbers from California continue to grow.

Visit Florida’s goal is to establish Florida as the number one travel destination in the world. Can that be accomplished in the foreseeable future and what will it take to get there?
That is our vision and, yes, I think it is achievable. It’s a little like comparing apples to oranges, but Florida as a state will welcome about 100 million visitors in 2015. That’s only people from out of state or international visitors, so compare that, as an example, to France [the world’s most-visited country], which last year hosted more than 80-plus million visitors. California [the top state for domestic travel] reports 200 million visitors, but 75 percent of those are from in-state. We don’t have the in-state tourism numbers nearly to the scale of California, but if you look at it as people choosing to take their hard-earned money and their precious vacation time and going out of state, Florida is significantly higher.

So you’re saying that depending on the way you look at it, Florida could already be the number-one travel destination in the world?
It’s how you define the volume, I guess. We won’t in the foreseeable future get 80 million international visitors like France measures, but in terms of people choosing to go across state lines or international lines, I think that we are there.

What is the benefit of owning and operating Florida Huddle, and do you expect the annual event to continue to grow?
Florida Huddle has a very rich tradition in the state of Florida. We’re the only state that has anything like Florida Huddle, exclusively focused on one state. When Visit Florida acquired Florida Huddle two years ago, it really allowed us to take a very valuable program that connects suppliers and buyers of Florida travel and push it to the next level. We’ve expanded the supplier base, and we continue to grow the quality and the numbers of domestic and international travel buyers. The first year it was operated by Visit Florida it was a great success, and we were able to build on that this year. This year the show was sold out, attracting 668 attendees, including 221 suppliers.

What have been Visit Florida’s most successful marketing initiatives in the past year?
The first one is the initiative that we launched in partnership with Google when we mounted two Google Street View cameras on backpacks, and two teams of two walked the 740 miles of accessible Florida beaches and photographed them. We partnered with Google to stitch all those 360-degree images together, and now anybody around the world can go to or Google Maps and virtually walk our amazing beaches and see what it is that sets them apart from beaches around the world. Since we launched it this past summer, more than 75 million people have virtually experienced Florida’s beaches.

So if travel agents wants to show their clients different beaches, they would go to and look them up?
Yes, let’s say your client came in and said, “I’m looking for a laid back beach that’s family-friendly.” On the home page, click on “Florida Beach Finder,” then slide the markers to “Family Friendly” and “Laid Back.” One of the matches is St. George Island State Park, which many people might not have heard about. It tells you a little bit about the beach, and you can virtually walk the beach and get 360-degree views. It’s a fantastic tool for agents.

What marketing programs do you have planned for 2015, and how can travel agents incorporate them in their selling and marketing efforts?
We’re going to continue to provide more and more of those stories that highlight one-of-a-kind Florida experiences. We just launched a great partnership with National Geographic, where they’ve sent down their writers and photographers and really captured some extraordinary content. A new Florida hub on tells those stories and provides inspiration for travelers around the country and around the world.

That sounds like it would help grow ecotourism. Is that a growing niche in Florida?
It is and it continues to be an exciting kind of evolution of the conversation that we’ve had about off-the-beaten-path travel — the downtowns and small towns, the extraordinary trails around the state for hiking and biking, the wildlife in our state parks and the Everglades, bird watching and paddleboarding. They all allow travelers to really connect with nature. Or you can connect with nature on the golf course.

Do you have any tips for travel agents who want to sell more Florida travel?
If their customers come for a cruise, I would certainly encourage agents to recommend extending that trip for a few days to add on a unique Florida component. If they are in Tampa, they should spend a day exploring the St. Pete region or downtown Ybor City. If they are cruising out of Port Miami or Fort Lauderdale, they are leaving from one of the most international destinations in the world. They definitely should take the time to explore southeast Florida.

For customers who are driving, I would strongly encourage taking a lesser-known route through the state — get off the Interstate, add a day at a state park, or explore some of the incredible culture, history and natural destinations on the way to the beach. If customers are flying in, I would definitely recommend the big beach destination, but I would recommend a day to try something new.

For repeat visitors, add another destination to the package, because we all benefit when we expand on what people think of when they think of Florida. People become attached to the place that they go, and we love that, but there’s an opportunity to expand on that by adding a cultural, outdoor or historical experience when you visit your favorite Florida destination.

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Agent@Home Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the April 2015 issue of Agent@Home Magazine.