Barely two weeks after Peggy Heiser announced her resignation as Flagler County’s tourism chief, her replacement was named Friday: Georgia Turner, a sharp, congenial, ukelele-proficient 30-year veteran of public relations and marketing. Turner was hired out of the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, where she’s either worked, had contracts or contacts since 1987, with a direct hand in marketing Biketoberfest, which she helped found 19 years ago, Spring Break (when Daytona’s romp was still on the map) and decibel-rich special events.
Flagler’s tourism strategy, by contrast, has stressed this county’s selling point as the anti-Daytona, down to its marketing campaign’s standing motto: “The quiet side of Florida.” Not that Turner is unfamiliar with that side of tourism. To the contrary.
Turner honed an affinity for smaller-market, rural-county tourism when she spent six years as the executive director of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, promoting Alabama’s northern counties–and being named the state’s Tourism Professional of the Year in 2000. “The reason that several people said that this might be a fit for me was really because of my past experience,” Turner said, standing at the entrance to the Seafood Festival in Town Center and protected from the wind by a Biketoberfest jacket. “For 10 years I’ve had clients all over the Southeast that were in much smaller communities. That was really our forte, was working with smaller communities in Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia.”
It’s that rich Rolodex (or its more current electronic equivalent), along with Turner’s familiarity with the region–she lives in Ormond Beach–that appears to have played a key role in her hiring. Turner spent the last decade at the head of the Nashville and Ormond Beach-based Georgia Turner Group, a management and PR consultancy for tourism and entertainment industries she bought in 2001 when it was called Stone and Associates. Through it she became especially familiar with PR and travel writers, a pillar of tourism-industry advertising.
Turner’s employer is officially the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. But she’ll be paid with public dollars generated by Flagler County’s 4 percent bed tax–levied on hotel, motel and other temporary-lodging stays–and administered by the county’s Tourist Development Council. The council contracts with the chamber to provide marketing services. She’ll be vice president of tourism development at the chamber, reporting to Chamber President Doug Baxter. In effect, however, Turner works for and in conjunction with the tourist council. She starts Nov. 21.
Though she cited family matters when she resigned, Heiser’s $65,000 salary was likely a big reason she left, after she requested a 7.7 percent raise that the council approved, but the county commission–which ratified all council decisions–rejected. This year’s TDC budget was set a few weeks ago, with the executive’s salary at $65,000. That’s not likely to change. (Note: the figure was incorrectly reported as $70,000 in an earlier version.)
There was a Palm Coast applicant with strong credentials, out the 20 who applied, but the chamber was more comfortable with Turner’s enthusiasm and style, said Milissa Holland, who chairs the TDC and spent an hour speaking with Turner. Holland’s relationship with the next executive is key to the continuing success of the council: the council’s advances in the last two years hinged on a cohesive partnership between Holland and Heiser, both of whom saw eye to eye on fundamental issues such as the kind of tourism Flagler would go after, its place in the economic-development equation and the role of intense marketing, particularly in Canada and in markets within a six-hour drive of Flagler. Holland on Saturday said that change was difficult, but she was not going to judge Turner through the prism of her experience with Heiser. “I’m certainly going into this with an open mind,” Holland said, reserving further evaluations until Turner has had time to get used to the job.
Turner is clearly aware of Holland’s role–and cloud. She described Holland as a “very sharp lady,” and went on: “I’m really excited to work with her because I think she gets it. I know that she’s had a lot of education within the last couple of years with Peggy to really find out what tourism is and how I feel about it too, that it’s part of economic development as well as a good thing for all communities. But it’s really a part of economic development. We had an opportunity to talk a lot about that and what we feel like I can bring to the table.”
When she ran her own company Turner focused especially on organizing so-called media tours, the bread and butter of tourist marketing, but also, from journalism’s perspective, an ethically compromised practice that entails travel writers traveling and getting wined and dined on the marketer’s dime, and on that of the hotels, restaurants and attractions the writer is visiting. The implicit expectation is that the writer will in turn produce flattering reporting that will look objective and appear under the banner of journalism, but is far from it. Heiser organized at least one such tour with Turner in Flagler, and organized them without her as well. Serious news organizations forbid their travel writers from taking part in such schemes. Serious and credible free-lance travel writers who do take part in them–and who cannot afford the trips on their own–strive to disclose the conditions of the trip and what was paid for.
Expect such trips to continue to be part of the Flagler council’s strategy under Turner, who said the nature of travel writing is changing, anyway: the days of the big organized tours are over–which is one of the reasons she closed her own firm and looked for steadier work in Volusia a year ago. “We had just really had kind of a change, what we were doing was not working as we ll as it had in the past,” Turner said.
One of Turner’s principal responsibilities this year, through a sub-contractor, will be to redraw the tourism council’s three-year strategic plan. Turner doesn’t yet have specific ideas about that, looking as she does to find out more about the county first. But she has a clearer idea about the current market. “All of us are really having to depend on Floridians to attract to our areas, people are going closer and closer” to where they live, she said. “Also, the economy the way it is right now is giving us an opportunity for international visitors, mostly for Canadians, which we’ve had that a lot anyway but also to give us a lot more opportunity for international visitors which I think all of Florida is going to benefit from that, from the dollar being the way it is.” A euro is trading at close to $1.40 at the moment, making travel to the United States very attractive to Europeans. “Just for Biketoberfest alone, we had more international visitors than we’ve ever had. So I just think it’s kind of something to fit in even with smaller communities.”
Baxter, the chamber president, in a chamber release, cited Turner’s “considerable experience, communications skills and enthusiasm” among the qualities that would help promote Flagler tourism.
If Turner wasn’t in PR, she was once asked in an interview, she said she’d be “driving the tour tram at the Daytona International Speedway,” what she called her dream retirement job.