- Wert takes great pride in sports and international tourism, which barely existed when he took the job.
- Wert’s greatest moments include the many awards the tourism bureau’s creative marketing and advertising have received in a competitive field.
- Wert has hinted that he’s not done working with the tourism industry just yet.
When Jack Wert agreed to become Collier County’s first tourism director, he made a promise.
The promise? To stay on the job for at least five years.
He made good on that promise — and then some.
Nearly 20 years later, Wert plans to retire as head of the department and bureau that steer and oversee tourism marketing and promotion countywide.
“It quickly became 10 years, then 15 years. So it grew and grew, as did the whole operation,” he said.
He’s been on the job since December 2002.
Starting as the lone employee, Wert built the county’s tourism office from scratch — after successfully doing the same in Central Florida’s Seminole County, where he worked for 12 years to boost visitation in a smaller destination with a smaller budget.
A county consultant recruited him for the job in Southwest Florida.
That consultant, Elaine McLaughlin, the former head of Lee County’s tourism office, said Wert emerged as the top pick for several reasons, including his experience in Central Florida and his knowledge of key players and the modus operandi in the state for destination marketing.
“It was a national search. There were several candidates that were brought in and interviewed from around the country,” she said. “Each state is unique in how they do tourism development.”
The search committee chose Wert unanimously after he “impressed everybody,” McLaughlin said.
Over the years, she said, Wert has shown that “he can play in any arena,” demonstrating great skill in dealing with government and political leadership, while deftly representing and standing up for the tourism community.
His calm demeanor — even in the toughest of times — has helped.
“I would say when Jack gets quiet and careful, that’s the time to listen to him,” McLaughlin said. “Because he brings great wisdom.”
When Wert, now 78, took the job as Collier County’s first tourism director, he viewed the opportunity as a welcome challenge.
“I was on my own for almost the first nine months that I was on the job,” Wert said.
He made his first hires in public relations, advertising and sales, then added administrative support.
Today, the tourism office has 10 employees, supplemented by a handful of outside consultants that provide contract services such as advertising, marketing and public relations help, research and international representation.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Wert hopes to add a few more employees to his team before he retires in September, making it even stronger.
‘What a difference a year makes’:Tourism making major comeback in Naples and Collier County
The right time
With a team that’s “stronger than ever” and a succession plan that puts the deputy director in charge, Wert said it’s the right time for him to retire, although the decision comes as bittersweet.
He sees a bright future ahead for tourism.
“Tourism is a mainstay in our economy and throughout Florida,” he said. “Florida is known internationally and I think frankly that’s part of the success we’ve had.”
When Wert arrived in Collier County, cooperative advertising or promotion really didn’t exist for the destination, with Naples and Marco Island taking their own approach — and “no one really talking about the Everglades at all,” he said.
So, much of the early work focused on developing a common theme and message. That’s how the Paradise Coast brand — that’s still used to this day — came about.
“It came from research and it came from potential customers, not really us here in Collier County,” Wert said.
In 2003 — the first year after Wert became Collier’s tourism director — the county had 1.36 million overnight visitors. By 2019, that number had climbed to more than 1.9 million, hitting an all-time high.
After losing ground in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, visitation has come roaring back in Southwest Florida. Based on current projections, Collier County should end 2021 with 2 million overnight visitors, reaching a new record, Wert said.
The latest report by county consultant Research Data Services showed record visitation for May.
Tourist spending and tourist tax collections also hit new highs for May.
“We set new records for visitor spending, which fuels so many businesses in Collier County. We are seeing record visitation from Florida and from the Southeast U.S. — and the Northeast continues to grow visitation as those states have opened up to travel again,” Wert said.
The annual budget for marketing started at roughly $750,000. It reached $5 million a few years ago — where it stood before the pandemic hit.
Initially, promotion focused on the offseason and in-state visitors. That thinking changed with the arrival of the Great Recession, when it became more apparent than ever that marketing should be a year-round effort, reaching beyond state limits, Wert said.
“That really changed and really improved our visitation numbers,” he said.
The tourism budget is funded by a share of the county’s tourist tax — a 5% charge on short-term stays at hotels, campgrounds and other vacation rentals. As tourism has grown, so have tax revenues, which also help pay for beach improvements and other tourism-related projects, venues and events.
Replicating what he did in Seminole County, Wert introduced the grant program that helps support local venues and events.
From nothing to something
As he reflects on his career in Collier County, Wert takes great pride in having grown two important markets: sports and international tourism, which barely existed when he took the job.
The tourism bureau now has full-time international representation in Europe, the United Kingdom and Latin America.
Sports tourism has grown dramatically — and it’s expected to get much bigger with the recent opening of the county-owned Paradise Coast Sports Complex, east of Interstate 75 off Collier Boulevard.
As an advocate for the tourism community, Wert supported a 1% increase in the tourist — or bed — tax to get the amateur sports complex built. The price tag has come in at more than $100 million, exceeding the budget, but it’s an investment well spent, he said.
In his role as tourism director, Wert has faced many daunting challenges, including the Gulf oil spill, the Great Recession, bouts of red tide, tropical storms and hurricanes, wildfires, a Zika outbreak — and now a pandemic. He admits that is what he’s liked least about his job, how everything can turn on a dime.
“It’s always something, some challenge that you need to stop everything for and make sure that we’re really all geared up to keep people informed of what the situation is — and that we are still open and ready for business,” Wert said.
Over the years, the county has been fortunate, he said, to have emergency advertising dollars set aside and reserve funds to boost marketing in tough times.
On the bright side, he said, challenging times have resulted in new ways to promote the destination, so the county didn’t lose any ground.
Of all the challenges, the pandemic has been the worst, Wert said, bringing tourism to a virtual halt, forcing many hotels to temporarily close and lay off or furlough employees. Fortunately, he said, the industry has fared better than expected, aided by a pivot in messaging that focused more attention on the drive market in Florida and nearby states — and emphasized open spaces and safety.
The pandemic’s effects are still felt, especially when it comes to international travel and group business, which have been the slowest to rebound.
“I don’t think any of us would have ever guessed that it would still be going on this long,” Wert said.
Observers have attributed Collier County’s quicker than expected recovery from COVID to the success of its marketing efforts and messaging, which has included pushing awareness of the Paradise Pledge, a pledge dozens of local businesses took to follow all of the safety guidelines recommended by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health to curb the spread of COVID-19.
On the flip side, some of Wert’s greatest moments on the job have come from the many awards the tourism bureau’s creative marketing and advertising have received in a competitive field.
“Boy those are gratifying,” he said. “What’s even more gratifying is those awards were for things that absolutely worked.”
Wert is also proud of the job growth that has resulted from the tourism bureau’s success. When he arrived in Collier County, it had about 25,000 workers in the leisure and hospitality industry. That number sat at about 45,000 before the pandemic hit.
Success hasn’t just come from the bureau’s promotional efforts. The destination’s satisfaction rates — and word of mouth — have driven both repeat and new visitation, as great experiences are shared with others either directly — or via online travel sites or social media, Wert said.
Since 2003, the bureau has held an annual day-long retreat to build the marketing plan for the coming year, inviting all of its industry partners to help craft it. The industry’s involvement and buy-in have been critical to the success of the operation, Wert said.
The local tourism industry isn’t happy to see Wert go. He’s not only well-respected for his leadership and professionalism, but well-liked as a genuine and kind person.
Wert is known in state, national and even international circles for his dedication and success.
Dana Young, president and CEO of Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, said Wert has been an active participant with his agency over the years, “particularly as it relates to international marketing efforts.”
“Jack’s contributions continue to make a positive impact on both Visit Florida and Florida tourism, and we wish him well in his retirement,” he said.
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, described Wert as “one of the longest-standing, most respected leaders” in the industry.
“Not just in Florida, but on the national and international scene, which is where I have had the pleasure of interacting with Jack,” he said. “At all the international travel trade shows — ITB, WTM, ABAV, IPW and more — Jack and his team have a presence and know all the big travel buyers to the destination.”
Not only has Wert strategically brought the many disparate Collier County tourist destinations together to speak with “one voice” to in-state, national and international visitors, but he’s “upped the region’s game and rebranded it to be a more sophisticated destination with something for everyone,” Dow said.
“In addition to being a stellar marketer and “destination salesman” he has been very engaged with legislators in the county, state and nation, always fighting for what will increase tourism and presenting a persuasive case against policies that could be harmful,” he said.
Phil McCabe, CEO and general manager of the Inn on Fifth in Naples, said Wert is a “legend” in the local tourism industry.
“His depth of knowledge and his calm manner helped in the growth of our tourism over the last two decades,” he said. “His fortitude and passion for our industry have worked well.”
Collier County commissioners praise Wert for his hard work and great leadership, consistently shown by the county’s visitor metrics.
After learning of Wert’s retirement, Commissioner Andy Solis described the bureau chief’s record as 4-0 against tough odds, using sports lingo.
Even through a pandemic, Solis said, with Wert at the tourism bureau’s helm the county has shined, “leading the pack” in Florida when it comes to recovery.
Randy Smith, CEO of Naples Transportation & Tours, said Wert and his tourism bureau helped put the Naples area “on the map.”
“Without the visitors and tourism in Naples, our area would not be what it is today,” he said, and Wert’s success at the helm of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau “should be directly thanked for that.”
A legend in his own time
Even one of Wert’s biggest competitors can’t say enough good words about him.
Tamara Pigott, his counterpart in neighboring Lee County, said she also thinks of Wert as a legend in destination marketing, who has worked diligently to make sure the industry grows in the right way.
She describes him as kind and a “true gentleman,” who she’s been honored to work with cooperatively and admired as a competitor since he started the job.
“Sometimes we partner up,” she said. “Sometimes we compete against each other.”
He’s never down-talked Lee County to gain visitors in Collier County, Pigott said, and he’s created a shining example and forged a path for other destination marketers to follow.
“In my opinion,” she said, “he’s always been really stalwart and focused on providing good leadership in the communities in which he’s served — and to the industry.”
Wert and Pigott have worked hand-in-hand on many fronts, including their cooperative efforts to attract more domestic and international air service to Southwest Florida International Airport, which have paid off in a big way.
“I’ll admit I’m jealous of his two Ritz-Carltons and his JW Marriott, but that’s also a good thing,” she said. “Even though we do compete, we do speak to different audiences and it does allow us to work together.”
Like many others, Pigott said she’s sad to see Wert go as Collier’s tourism director, but she suspects she’ll still see him involved in the industry.
Wert has hinted that he’s not done working with the tourism industry just yet. He said he’ll look for opportunities to share his knowledge with others, with hopes that they can see the importance of bringing visitors to their community and find the success he’s had with it.
He hopes to slow down a little, working on his own schedule, instead of the hectic one his demanding job now requires.
This much is clear: He’s not leaving Naples.
“That’s the one thing I’m not going to do,” he said. “I’m staying right here.”
Q&A with Jack Wert
If you could be or do anything else, what?
I would find the time to write the book that has been in my head for many years.
What one word would you use to describe yourself?
What are you most proud of?
How our community and our tourism industry has come together over the past 18 years to help tell the world about this great place we call paradise.
How would you like to be remembered?
That I made a difference in how the world perceives Naples and all of Collier County from a sleepy retirement community to a thriving community where people and young families want to come to vacation, to live or to work.
What’s the one thing about you few people know?
That I earned my private pilot and my Merchant Marine Captain’s license prior to coming to Naples and although I have let both licenses lapse, I will still be a very active boater and will be on the water as much as I can in the future.