|By David Bauerlein, The Florida
Times-Union, JacksonvilleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 15, 2010 --Visit Jacksonville is bracing for budget cuts by laying off three employees and reducing spending across the board.
The reduction in Jacksonville's tourism agency comes as hoteliers wait for tourists to spend the way they did before the recession struck.
Officials said they see some signs the worst of the downturn is over.
"The groups are smaller, but the frequency is coming back," said Mya Surrency, interim president and chief executive officer for Visit Jacksonville.
Visit Jacksonville announced Monday it had laid off its senior director of finance and administration, Debbie Mudd, along with director of convention services Julia Gast and group services manager Iris Harris. The layoffs leave Visit Jacksonville with 22 staff members.
The organization is operating this year on a $4 million budget from bed taxes plus a one-time $875,000 "rainy day" expenditure authorized by the Duval County Tourist Development Council.
The $875,000 came from a reserve account. Visit Jacksonville used the money for marketing aimed at leisure travelers and to offer financial incentives for groups booking hotel rooms in Duval County.
For the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Visit Jacksonville won't have access to any more rainy-day money.
Depending on its share of bed taxes, Visit Jacksonville would either get about $3.1 million or $3.5 million for its budget.
Surrency said the layoffs will diminish Visit Jacksonville's ability to assist groups after they arrive here, but Visit Jacksonville will retain its full sales team for seeking business.
Dan King, general manager of the Hyatt in downtown and chairman of Visit Jacksonville's board, said the focus needs to be on generating business.
"Right now, the sales team is the economic engine that drives future bed tax dollars, so we've got to keep that going," he said.
Surrency said the reduction in hotel occupancy rates have strengthened but travelers are still in a discount-hunting frame of mind.
"Our industry is having to work twice as hard to make the same dollar," she said.
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