Escambia County is once again debating what to do with its tourism development tax revenue. The Board of County Commissioners, at the request of the hotel owners, have agreed to move governance of the $5.5 million out from under the Greater Pensacola Chamber and into a new corporation that they have formed, Visit Pensacola, Inc.
Why should the hotel owners control these millions? They argue that since they and the condominiums collect the tourism tax when guests check into their units, they are in the best position to know how to market to tourists. After all, they argue, the bed taxes, the nickname given to the tourism development taxes, are to be used to “put heads in beds.” Their beds, specifically.
There is a problem with this train of thought. The Florida statute that created the tourism development tax doesn’t mention anything about putting heads in beds. It doesn’t mention that it should be controlled by hotel and condo owners. There is no sentence about helping hotels and condos rent their rooms.
According to the law, the tax is to promote tourism, and promotion is defined as “marketing or advertising designed to increase tourist-related business activities.”
Yes, a portion of a hotel’s business is related to tourism, but not all. Festivals, sporting events, museums, reunions, conventions and conferences also qualify as tourist-related business activities.
The hoteliers want us to measure the success of tourism marketing by the number of their hotel rooms they fill. This works for them because they are the ones directly profiting from the marketing. However, tourists don’t necessarily stay in hotels and condominiums when they visit.
Tourists can stay with friends and family and spend as much at local shops, restaurants and bars as those renting a condo on Perdido Key or Pensacola Beach. Tourists can be day visitors who come to our area to attend a festival or Pensacola Symphony performance, canoe on our rivers or tour our historic areas. They, too, spend money.
Because tourism is much broader than simply renting a hotel room, I believe that the make-up of the Visit Pensacola board needs to include more than chambers and bed tax collectors. Yes, self-interest can be a powerful motivator in marketing this area, and the bed tax collectors have profit as motivation. However, their definition of tourism is too narrow.
Having those outside the “heads in beds” industry on the board will open up the tourism marketing to other opportunities.