Business - August 30, 2017

Orange mayor seeks more transparency for Visit Orlando

Five days after state House Speaker Richard Corcoran vowed a crackdown on Visit Orlando and other tourism agencies, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs is calling for the group to disclose details of major sponsorship agreements when its contract with the county is renewed in 2018.

In addition, Jacobs wants the U.S. Tennis Association’s controversial multiyear deal with Visit Orlando to be released, saying she will ask the USTA to waive the confidentiality agreement that Visit Orlando says prevents it from making it public.

Corcoran warned Friday that he will demand the same transparency the state has mandated for its own tourism agency, Visit Florida, from all local tourism boards.

Visit Orlando, a public-private agency that received about $51 million in county hotel taxes last year to promote tourism, was one of 12 local agencies to sever ties with Visit Florida once the new state rules were in place, including requirements to post all contracts online.

Jacobs, who in the past has deferred comment on Visit Orlando contracts because of the confidentiality agreements, said in a letter to Visit Orlando President George Aguel on Tuesday that without knowing marketing costs, “the return on investment is impossible to determine.”

“Even though [tourism development tax] revenues are generated through hotel taxes paid by visitors, not sales tax or property taxes paid by local residents, I have always supported a high level of transparency while also recognizing that Visit Orlando operates in a highly competitive worldwide market — one that does not operate in sunshine,” she wrote.

The letter is a change from last week, when Jacobs said “it’s not appropriate — it’s probably not legal if I did know” about the contract with the USTA.

The County Commission in August extended its contract with Visit Orlando for one year until September 2018, spokeswoman Doreen Overstreet said.

Jacobs said two changes she will seek in the next contract extension are a full listing of vendors in the public check registry and that any corporate sponsorship agreements worth more than $500,000 per year “will be recognized in Visit Orlando’s quarterly reporting process to Orange County.”

Jacobs couldn’t be reached for comment later Tuesday to say how she came up with the $500,000 standard.

Aguel, in a statement, did not address the question of whether Visit Orlando would agree to the new terms.

“Visit Orlando proudly operates with the highest level of accountability and oversight of any similarly structured organization in the country,’’ he said.

The USTA did not respond to requests for comment.

Visit Orlando has routinely been vague about marketing expenses — such as the June 2014 sponsorship deal with the USTA, which includes hosting receptions at the U.S. Open in New York City. The creation of the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona was announced the next year.

Beginning that year, records forwarded to the county included payments labeled only as “marketing cooperative” and “marketing relationship” that by 2017 had totaled more than $7 million.

It is unclear how much of that spending was part of the USTA deal. Visit Orlando has refused to release information on other sponsorships, including a Halloween promotion and soccer tournament last year. It’s also unclear if any of those deals would have met the $500,000 standard that would trigger public reporting.

Jacobs distanced herself from the USTA deal in her letter, saying neither she nor any of the Orange County staff that serves on the Visit Orlando board participated in the vote to enter into that agreement. She said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s delegate was present and voted in favor of the deal but added Dyer was also now in favor of transparency.

Spokeswoman Heather Fagan said Dyer “agrees this information should be public, as he views it like an economic development agreement, which can be exempt from public record until the agreement is finalized.”

While Dyer did not recall the exact dollar amount of the USTA deal, “this was part of the agreement for USTA National Campus locating here in Orlando,” Fagan said. “This is an economic benefit beyond the sponsorship of the U.S. Open.”

As part of its new transparency rules, Visit Florida has disclosed that it has ceased all its sponsorship agreements, including its part in the USTA deal.

Jacobs still stressed the importance of tourism to Orlando, saying “clearly we have a winning formula.”, 407-418-5920 or @stevelemongello

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