Explore Jacksonville

My First Coast: Visit Jacksonville’s Paul Astleford

With more than 42 years of hospitality-industry experience, Paul Astleford is passionate about his role as president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville. He and his team are working to raise the profile of Visit Jacksonville’s role in economic development and to show visitors that Jacksonville is a vibrant and welcoming city. Below, he talks about their work and what makes Jacksonville so special.

Paul Astleford
Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville (©2013 GPL Studios, All Rights Reserved.)

Now that you are settled into your new role, what exciting things are on the horizon for the CVB?

Our team is working to raise the profile of Visit Jacksonville’s role in economic development and how important visitors are to our economy. The visitor industry employs upward of 40,000 people in Northeast Florida, and we’re sharing the word about that throughout the city. We’re also about to receive some new research about the economic impact visitors bring to the area. We’re excited about that because we haven’t had this level of research done since 2009. We’re also re-focusing on our main mission to bring more meetings, conventions and leisure travelers into Jacksonville while being more productive with our limited resources. We’re introducing the ‘Bring It Home’ campaign this year, to encourage Jacksonville residents who are involved in any association, group or organization to bring their convention or meeting here to Jacksonville, and we plan to implement a new Certified Tourism Ambassador Program with a goal to increase tourism by training and inspiring our entire community to embrace our visitors. We’re also exploring how our community wants to present itself to the world. There are many attributes here already. We’ve got more interior and ocean shoreline than any city in the country, more than 1,100 miles of navigable water, so it’s a paradise for anyone who wants to fish, get out on the water or just enjoy the beach. We have a strong and vibrant arts community, great local chefs and dining, and some fantastic sports facilities. Jacksonville has a lot going for it and many offerings as a visitor destination. We just need to find what the community aspires to be and create and present that destination to the world.

What is the one thing about Jacksonville that would surprise an out-of-towner?

That it’s truly a natural water wonderland and one of the most inviting communities in America. If you love the water, there’s so much to do: walk and jog along the bridges downtown, enjoy the beaches, or fish the Intracoastal, the St. Johns River or out in the Atlantic. We are a growing ecotourism destination with some of the largest Preserve and Reserve areas on the east coast. There’s a pretty large surfing community here, too. When it comes to golf, there are more than 80 golf courses in Northeast Florida. Our museums are top-notch. Then there’s the Jacksonville Symphony and national acts at The Florida Theatre, where Elvis made one of his earliest appearances. I think a visitor would be surprised at the range of things to do in Jacksonville on any given day: Attractions like the Jacksonville Zoo or the Catty Shack Ranch if you enjoy animals, or perhaps a stop at the Cummer Museum to enjoy its exhibits and beautiful gardens, or checking out the Old Florida Fish Camp and their Dolphin Limousine tour at Jacksonville Beach. Whether it’s the arts, dining, shopping, enjoying the beaches, our attractions, or cruising with porpoises on the St. Johns River, there’s a diversity of things to experience.

What makes the First Coast so special?

I think it’s the quality of life and that we’re a young and vibrant city in many ways. The median age here is in the mid-thirties, so that’s melded nicely with the growth of our local restaurant, retail and entertainment industry. There are a lot of eclectic bars and nightclubs growing along Bay Street downtown, events like One Spark, the largest public crowdfunding event in the country, as well as a growing arts community. For visitors, that means there’s a lot to explore in Jacksonville. It’s more affordable for visitors, too. You can certainly get more for your dollar here than in Orlando or Miami. And, probably the most important thing for visitors, it’s a very friendly city. The people here are welcoming and really epitomize the term "Southern Hospitality."

What has been your favorite part of settling into the city?

Well, besides the weather, the people here are very gracious and inviting, which made the move to Jacksonville very easy for my wife and me. Also, there’s an emerging realization of the economic impact of what the visitor industry does every day and some energy coming together in the community about the image Jacksonville wants to portray to the world. With so much to offer to visitors, it’s a great opportunity for me to work with the community leaders and the people who care about their city and help that process along.

What are some of your favorite places to eat?

Since I’m a foodie, I could go on forever, but my short list would include Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, one of our newest restaurants at the St. Johns Town Center Mall. Closer to downtown, in the San Marco area, there’s Matthew’s, the city’s only AAA Four Diamond restaurant, along with Taverna and Bistro Aix. Other downtown restaurants would include the River City Brewing Company, which offers an excellent view of the St. Johns River and downtown, along with the Charthouse and Olio, a great breakfast and lunch place that had some its sandwiches featured on the Food Network.  In the Riverside area, just west of downtown, one of my favorites is the Mossfire Grill & Lounge.

What’s the best advice you can give someone visiting the area for the first time?

I would go to the visitjacksonville.com website and find out what’s going on that week and plan accordingly. Now, if I just dropped in for a visit, I’d call Ad-Lib Tours and take the Top-to-Bottom tour of Jacksonville, which gives you a lot of history of Jacksonville, taking you to the highest and lowest points of the city–and all within two hours. From there, about 20 minutes from downtown they should tour the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve and the Fort Caroline Memorial, where the French and Spanish fought for a foothold in the New World in the mid-1500s. For shopping and dining, there are many local restaurants in the Riverside, Avondale and San Marco areas near downtown–and at the St. Johns Town Center Mall and out at the beaches. I would really encourage anyone visiting Jacksonville to explore it based on what their interests are. Whether it’s history, water activities, the arts, dining or shopping, there’s really something for everyone here.