Bud Nocera is a man used to meeting challenges. After a career dominated by tourism and marketing, he faces his next hurdle straight on – retirement!
The outgoing president of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, Nocera will call it a career following Saturday’s Christmas Boat Parade, ending another chapter that began back in 1983 when he founded the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, with stops along the way in Tallahassee and a side flight of fancy in Delray Beach.
“The early days of the Visitor & Convention Bureau were intriguing and interesting,” Bud recollects. “The Lee County commissioners undertook the construction of Southwest Regional Airport to replace Page Field. This was the largest infrastructure program ever undertaken by little Lee County up to that time, at $100 million. On top of that, there was upheaval amongst the county commissioners, with one even going to jail.”
A major challenge was marketing when the county was cautious about allocating money because of the scandals. “I hired a salesperson to sell Lee County to tour operators and airlines. In a job like this, you often take potential clients to lunch or dinner or – heaven forbid – out for a drink.
We had to clear every expenditure with the commissioners, who set a strict limit of $3 for breakfast, $6 for lunch, and $12 for dinner, with $30 for a hotel room. Needless to say, we spent a great deal of money from our own pockets. Imagine being at a London trade show and finding breakfast for just $3! It took a while to convince the commissioners that funding the Visitor & Convention Bureau was sound, good, right and necessary.”
One of his early victories was recruiting German tour operators to make Southwest Florida a destination, a success story that continues to this day. “Europeans travel during the summer,” Bud states. “There was a big tourism trade show in Marco Island with all the major German operators in 1986, and it was our chance to show them all we offer. We used a Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, sending each an invitation and Indiana Jones jacket. It was like a script from ‘Mission Impossible – your mission, if you decide to accept it,’ and they all did!”
Bud chartered a DC-3 – “Germans loved the DC-3 back then because of its nostalgic importance from the Berlin Airlift” – and flew them low & slow, 500 feet off the ground from Marco Island to Boca Grande, explaining the hotels and attractions. Upon landing, the operators received a map and rental car keys to return to Lee County destinations including Fort Myers Beach. “We learned an important lesson,” Bud reinforces. “All successful relationships begin by selling the people who are the decision-makers.”
After nearly a decade of success, Lee County was once again in turmoil in 1992, “going through administrators like tissue paper,” Bud describes. “I even was interim county administrator for a little while.” He helped bring the Minnesota Twins to the area and constructed Hammond Stadium, and “that was fun but I was done playing politics.” Bud went to work for the City of Fort Myers to recruit visitors to the Edison / Ford Winter Estates and other spots, and was quite successful.
30,000 Feet Without a Jet
After four years, he moved to Tallahassee to help found Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing public/private partnership started by the Florida legislature in 1996. He began as the second in command before becoming the CEO through 2009. He explains that Visit Florida “started with nothing, not even a staff or human resources handbook. The State just closed its tourism office one day and opened Visit Florida the next. It was like building a jet while flying at 30,000 feet with a full complement of passengers – it was a great challenge!”
Visit Florida quickly became the model organization for the rest of the nation, but “a great deal of that part of my life was spent with a passenger jet strapped to my butt,” Bud recalls with a laugh! “I spent weeks on the road, plus we had 120 employees; it was very time consuming at 60 to 80 hours a week, and I eventually realized it would kill me – when it almost literally did! I totally ignored the symptoms of an appendicitis because I was too busy preparing for a Board meeting. Something had to change.”
After spending his entire career in tourism and marketing, “I ran off to join the circus,” Bud says chuckling. “My whole life I had a passion for flying, so I acquired my airframe and power plant licenses – technically I can repair a 747 engine, though you wouldn’t want me to! I had also been a ham radio operator for years, so I hung out my shingle and opened an aviation repair business at Lantana Airport north of Delray Beach.”
When the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce came calling in 2012, “the thought of running a small chamber on the beach where I knew a lot of people was attractive. Financially, the Chamber was in debt, with an unhealthy membership level, so it was quite the challenge, but I like challenges! I guess I am like the Dalmatian who smells smoke and jumps right back up on the fire truck!”
After decades of responding to three-alarm fires, “it’s now time to step away,” Bud says upon reflection. “My wife Gail and I are moving to Dunedin. My grandparents relocated there in 1948 and I did so as a child from the frozen tundra of Indiana in 1963. I have a brother and sister and lots of cousins and friends there who I grew up with, and Gail’s family is there as well. Plus we like the town – we can walk to the terrific Downtown full of great shops and restaurants and – perhaps most important – four microbreweries! We have a typical Old Florida concrete block house that we are stripping down to the 2 by 4s and redoing ourselves, as Gail just finished retiling the master bath.”
In talking about his wife, Bud says that “I won the lottery! Even though we are both from Dunedin, we actually met on-line at Senior Geezers Mate.com,” he says in jest! “We have so much in common; she is even a ham radio operator!”
When Bud informed the Chamber Board last summer he intended to retire, “I asked to have a hand in selecting my replacement, and the Chamber is in excellent hands with Jacki Liszak. She’ll take it to the next level and keep it a relevant part of the community.”
As he reflects on Fort Myers Beach, Bud call the best part “the people I had the privilege to know and work with – the Board of Directors, volunteers and community members. The Chamber is all about people and getting their cash registers to continue to ring. If there is a downside, it is that small town politics can be annoying, but that is a minor quibble.”
Bud’s parting advice and hope is that “the beach develops a common Downtown vision that works for the residents and businesses, not just one or the other. We must come together to revitalize Downtown, and work with Tom Torgerson to create an effective replacement to the blight we have now or it may be a long time before we see this type of redevelopment prospect again and that will be very sad.”
But these days for Bud are glad, as a man who conquers challenges readies himself for his next one – those Dunedin microbreweries!