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Okaloosa County’s tourism development department has selected St. Petersburg-based Aqua Marketing & Communications as its “agency of record.”

The full-service marketing and communications firm was selected from a number of national agencies in contention, and was ultimately chosen for its proven success in travel, tourism and hospitality marketing, officials said. Aqua’s work has previously been recognized with numerous Flagler Awards presented by VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s official tourism marketing organization, as well as by Hospitality Sales and Marketing International through its Adrian Awards, which honor the world’s best hospitality, travel, and tourism-related marketing efforts.

Okaloosa’s county-run tourism department formerly operated as an independent agency until a 2012 scandal uncovered that former director Mark Bellinger had used more than $1.7 million in tourism funds to purchase a house, yacht, and more. Bellinger later committed suicide.

Since then, the county-run department has struggled to find both a marketing vision and leadership. Three directors have come and gone since Bellinger, and the City of Destin, unhappy with how tourism is being managed, recently threatened to try to leave Okaloosa County over the issue.

“Aqua has proven that it knows what it takes to differentiate and successfully market a destination and quickly rose to the top because of its impressive track record and results,” said Maureen Morgenthien, deputy director of sales and marketing for the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I am excited to work with the team to introduce and attract more visitors to our great county than ever before.”

“There are many exciting developments ahead for Okaloosa County and I am looking forward to working with the team at Aqua to build on our momentum,” said Darrel Jones, interim CVB executive director. “This was an important decision, coming at a significant time for Okaloosa County. We are confident Aqua is the best selection to support the Emerald Coast’s continued tourism development.”

“We are thrilled to have been selected by the CVB, the Emerald Coast is one of America’s most beautiful coastal destinations,” said Aqua President Dave Di Maggio. “We know what it takes to successfully position it as a premier location for leisure and events, and are expecting to assist the CVB in driving visitation for years to come.”

In 2012, Visit Pensacola selected an out-of-town marketing firm, bringing aboard Nashville-based BOHAN Advertising, which had garnered much acclaim marketing Walton County’s beaches over a ten-year period. However, amid pressure from local agencies, Visit Pensacola chose not to renew BOHAN’s contract in late 2013 and awarded its marketing business to Showcase, an alliance of Pensacola-area ad agencies.

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