By Martin Owen | Special to Destin.com8owenmartin

You may have heard that local counties are looking how best to organize their tourism activities. The matter was raised, just before Christmas in the Northwest Florida Daily News, by former CEO of Walton County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, Jim Bagby. The guest editorial correctly identified the problem perceived by both County Commissioners and industry stakeholders that there is a disconnect between correct oversight of bed tax generated funds, investment in infrastructure (which local government does well) and organizing marketing (which local government really isn’t designed to handle).

Jim suggested that Bay County’s model is a viable alternative to that used by Walton and Okaloosa counties, as it is public/private as opposed to a county organization. He may well be correct. In fact, across the USA, something like 70 percent of Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) are privately run, and very successfully. Here in Florida the situation is slightly confused by bed tax, which as we’ve discussed before, is collected (in many cases by the industry itself) to fund tourism development. As it’s a tax, the administration is closely monitored by the County Commissioners to make sure it’s spent in compliance with the strict state statutes. The “rules” of bed tax are that the various pennies collected can only be spent on certain things, and only in the exact area where the tax is collected. For example, the tax collected in South Walton cannot be spent on projects in the north of the county.

Within Florida there are some 10 counties whose tourism marketing is handled by a private, not-for-profit organization. These counties usually handle their own infrastructure needs, using the parts of the bed tax designated for that, but subcontract the marketing element to the private sector. Very successful examples are Orlando and Kissimmee. Locally, both Bay and Escambia counties are variations on that theme. As well as the 10 or so current examples of public/private partnership, there are a number of counties looking actively at changing to a similar model soon.

It makes sense to have an entity that is very good at items like creating and maintaining beach access, cleaning, public safety, infrastructure, etc., to look after those items. County administrations are excellent at that. However, when it comes to marketing, then almost certainly the tourism industry is both more knowledgeable and more nimble. The important thing is that the elected county leaders have oversight on how the bed tax is spent.

I’ve investigated and spoken to people in the counties where they have a public/private partnership and in all cases the Commissioners maintain oversight, and have been increasingly satisfied that the changes result in not only better services for locals and tourists, but allow the Commissioners to concentrate on the tasks for which they were elected, rather than planning advertising campaigns.

Tourism’s a fast-evolving industry. Here on the Gulf Coast we need the best methods to deliver excellent services to both locals and tourists, while of course, maintaining correct oversight of spending.

Martin Owen is an independent consultant to the tourism industry and owner of Owen Organization in Shalimar. Readers can email questions to martin@owenorganization.com.