In a crisis, Chris Thompson and the state’s public-private tourism marketing corporation are responsible for enticing weary travelers to Florida hotels, restaurants and beaches. And the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a crisis for the tourism industry -- an industry that generates roughly $20 billion annually.
Thompson and Visit Florida have been blitzing the state’s prime markets with promotions showing that Northwest Florida beaches and tourist destinations are open, in an attempt to keep the state’s restaurants and hotel rooms full. And they are in for a long campaign.
Fresh from a meeting about how the response to the oil spill can be refined, Thompson took some time to speak with the Sunshine State News about his job and life.
What is your job? President and CEO of Visit Florida
What is your age? 52
Where were you born and where do you live now? Born in Darby, Penn. Moved all over the Northeast. My dad was a paper salesman. Settled in Atlanta as a 10-year-old. That’s where I grew up. Went to school at the University Of Florida. That’s how I came to Florida. I’ve lived in Tallahassee since 1983.
What did you major in? Got a business management bachelor's degree in 1980 from UF.
What did you do before starting this job? I‘ve been in the destination marketing business for 27 years. I came to Tallahassee and went to work for the old Department of Commerce (now the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development). I did that until 1988. Then, when they passed the tourist development tax, I was executive director of the Leon County Tourist Development Council. I also wore the dual hat of being the director of the Tallahassee Convention and Visitors Bureau.
After that, I went into business for myself, helping small counties that had tourist development dollars and either didn’t know how to use them or wanted strategic advice on what to do with the funds. I did that for about 2.5 years. Back in 1997, I was offered a job as a vice president of Visit Florida. I became president two Mays ago.
What has been your biggest success so far when countering the effects of the oil spill? I’d say the thing I’m most proud of is the Florida Live section of our Web site (a site that updates regularly with photos of Florida beaches to show which ones are impacted by tar balls, and alerts about health warnings and closures). What that allows us to do is to really play on the hyper-localized aspect of the state and the local communities dealing with the oil spill.
We can continue talk about what is not affected, and, by the way, the majority of the state is not affected. But even for those communities that are affected, we’re able to push the interest in those areas. We’re the trusted source for travel planning in the best of times, and we’re going to be the trusted source in these very challenging times.
What’s your responsibility when it comes to promoting Florida beaches when some have had swimming advisories, but not closures, or have been impacted by the oil? Our responsibility is to work closely with the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the state Department of Environmental Protection and our Department of Health that are the experts on the science of the spill and everything related. And we deal with that on a rolling, 72-hour basis.
What has been Visit Florida’s biggest failure in responding to this crisis? I’d say we have been so caught up in dealing with every aspect of a different kind of crisis that we haven’t been communicating as well as we should. I can tell you we’ve really reached out more often in the past few weeks to try and start communicating more with our local destination marketing partners, which are the cities and counties. We have a conference call with them every other week.
Who do you admire most, dead or alive? A gentleman who just passed away recently. His name’s Ed Litrenta. He was director in the Division of Tourism in the former state Department of Commerce. He worked on the 1984 Olympics, and he was also part of the original team that brought Disney to Florida. I think I gained a lot of how I operated as a leader and as a manager from him, which is to recognize the strengths and the good in people and to empower them to run with it.
What are your interests outside of work? I like to think that I’m still somewhat athletic and an athlete. I’ve had to back off of playing basketball, which was my passion, mostly because my 52-year-old knees are not supporting me like they used to. I like playing golf. I spend time with my kids and my family and things that they enjoy doing, which fortunately are the same kind of things I enjoy doing. I read. I like to enjoy what we promote in Florida: going to the beach.