It came out after the Florida legislature—called together in a special session by Gov. Rick Scott, who had earlier vetoed a bill that would have decimated the budget of Visit Florida—approved a $76 million measure funding the state tourism promotion agency at its current level for another year that two more senior officials had taken their leave of Visit Florida.
The latest and, possibly the last senior official to go was Alfredo Gonzalez, the organization’s vice president of global meetings and trade, who officially quit his job effective July 7. His $179,313 salary made him the highest-paid employee at the agency, which now has a number of strict budget control measures in place. Gonzalez, a former long-time official with the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, left the state in in 2013 for a brief stint of less than two years with Brand USA in Washington, D.C. as senior vice president of global partnership development before returning to Florida (and Visit Florida) in January 2015.
The announcement of the Gonzalez resignation followed by a few days that of International Marketing Program Director Shari Bailey, who worked for Gonzalez. It looks as if the departure of Gonzalez and Bailey should bring to a close an exodus of senior-level staff at Visit Florida that, depending on when the count started, numbers more than 15 individuals.
It all began with the forced resignation of Will Seccombe, who was ousted last December from his position as president and CEO of the public-private sector organization over an expired $1 million dollar contract with a globally known rapper, Pitbull, whose video on behalf of the state has generated 10.9 million YouTube views of a flashy performance celebrating the state’s beaches.
Seccombe was not the only December victim of the episode. Before he resigned, he had to terminate two senior agency officials—Vangie Fields, chief financial and operating officer; and Chief Marketing Officer Paul Phipps—who had the misfortune to be associated with the Pitbull contract and the organization’s refusal to make it public. Earlier in the day on which the three agency leaders were let go, state legislators had eliminated funding for the jobs of Phipps and Fields.
By mid-January, there was a new president and CEO of Visit Florida—Ken Lawson, a native Floridian who has no background in the travel and tourism industry, but whose resume has a tenure as U.S. Marine Corps Judge Advocate General, and who had spent 12 years in public service in numerous regulatory positions, including nearly six years as Secretary of the Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).
There followed for five months a highly publicized tug-of-war between Gov. Scott and state legislators, who wanted to cut the state budget by two-thirds from $76 million to $25 million. Scott vetoed the $25 million funding bill approved by state lawmakers and called them back into a special three-day session where he got a bill that restored the funding level to $76 million—but the measure contained a series of controls in its fine print.
Had Scott allowed the lower budget figure to remain intact, it would have resulted in the layoff of 60 of its 139 employees. As it turned out, nine employees resigned up to the last day of the special session, when legislators had agreed to provide the full $76 million the agency had requested. Six employees, including Gonzalez and Bailey, left after legislators signed the amended budget.
As if the budget drama and mass resignations were not enough, during a June 25 meeting of the Visit Florida board of directors, Nelson Mongiovi, acting chief marketing officer, said that a reorganization of the agency would take place in the next 45 days.