Every year, nearly 50 million visitors journey to Florida’s Orlando area to enjoy sun, fun and theme-park action. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) is now increasingly turning to professional travel agents to keep that massive pipeline of visitation flowing well.
To support the trade, the Orlando CVB is launching a new Orlando Travel Academy online at Travel Agent University. “We are doing this travel agent educational program to help provide information and knowledge to agents to make them more successful,” says Gary Sain, the CVB’s president and CEO. The CVB believes agents who become Orlando Experts will sell more effectively, enhance Orlando’s market share and give guests the ultimate vacation—and, ideally, get them to return later.
From one agent’s perspective, that’s absolutely the case. “The more I know, the more I can sell the property or the destination, and [Orlando properties] tend to offer some great deals out there this year,” says Sabine Harris, owner, Cruise Planners, Tampa, who plans to become an Orlando Expert.
Putting It in Perspective
While “the entire travel pie is definitely smaller than it was in previous years and that affects everyone—not only nationally but in many ways, internationally—our job [at the CVB] is ensuring we get a disproportionate [larger] share,” emphasizes Sain. He believes Orlando’s strong emotional tug on travelers, its ability to give families “togethering” experiences, its strong international appeal and its re-dedicated focus on agents will all help bring in visitors.
Orlando is centrally located within Orange County, just about an hour away from the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico coastlines. “Tourism is king here,” says Richard Crotty, Orange County’s mayor, who adds that tourism dollars remain the “the lifeblood of the local economy” although the county is also diversifying into other industries including technology.
Crotty personally recalls that when the CVB was founded in 1984, it was essentially a two-person office. Today, the Orlando CVB is a tourism powerhouse with a $50 million budget, more than 1,300 members and 170 employees. With $2.2 billion in new development underway or planned at hotels and attractions, Sain says, “no other destination, save Las Vegas perhaps, is adding that kind of investment.”
Industry sources acknowledge that Orlando is better positioned this year than some destinations, thanks to its theme parks, extensive accommodations and good air service. Emotionally, the “Orlando Makes Me Smile” marketing campaign also appeals to consumers who need a vacation pick-me-up when life is challenging.
A former executive with Premier Cruise Line, Sain believes that “the best travel agent is an educated travel agent.” Thus, the new Orlando Travel Academy course will introduce agents to the destination’s geography, scope of offerings, transportation options, accessible travel resources and potential markets such as family, mature, African-American, Hispanic, gay/lesbian and others.
While heavily focused on leisure travel, one Orlando Travel Academy section addresses business-leisure combination trips. “That’s always been a strength,” says Sain. Given this year’s economy, “I think [business trips compared with leisure travel] will accelerate in 2009 and 2010.” Orlando has the country’s second-largest meetings market and the second-largest convention center.
Another lesson focuses on Leisure Activities with individual web screens for dining, shopping, spas and nightlife. Orlando has more than 5,300 restaurants and 21 destination spas. In addition, a 2009 Travel Agent magazine survey showed that more than 75 percent of travel agents rate shopping as a “very attractive” (27.6 percent) or “attractive” (47.7 percent) aspect of an Orlando vacation. “Shopping has become a major attribute of the destination, more so than ever before,” says Sain.
As for hotels, “most of the folks don’t realize our incredible scope of accommodations,” he says. “We have over 112,000 hotel rooms, and what’s interesting about those rooms is that they’re ‘stratified’; they’re across all the categories that would basically fit any budget for any family, which really makes us unique.” The course includes an Accommodations lesson.
“With so many hotels popping up left and right, there’s bound to be a ‘special someplace’ for my clients,” says Harris. For example, the Treehouse Villas will open at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa this summer. Elevated 10 feet off the ground, these three-bedroom homes will enchantingly blend into the forest.
Beyond hotels, Orlando has more than 16,000 fractional-ownership rental units and 26,000 vacation home rental properties, most with multiple bedrooms and baths; some have private pools. Agents say such accommodations provide good value and space, and strongly appeal to couples or families traveling together.
On the luxury side, “our luxury clients are still traveling with their families, and Orlando is still the top resort for them,” says Sally Goldwasser, president, Unique Travel of Palm Beach. Many of her clients stay at the JW Marriott or the Ritz-Carlton.
A rendering of the Waldorf=Astoria, one of a number of luxury brands slated to open in Orlando
More upscale choices are on the way. The first Waldorf=Astoria to be built outside New York City will open this fall, and guests of that property and the new Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek will have access to a 24,000-square-foot Guerlain Spa. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts also will open a new luxury property in 2010 at Walt Disney World Resort, and the Peabody Orlando is adding a new tower with 750 accommodations. The list goes on.
“It is going to be a great benefit to have the Four Seasons and Waldorf=Astoria as new luxury properties,” says Ruth Turpin, owner, Cruises Etc. Travel in Fort Worth, TX. “I see the addition of these two luxury products as a real signal that Orlando can become a luxury destination.”
Out and About
In the recent Travel Agent survey, nearly 95 percent of travel agents cited Orlando as their top-selling domestic attraction/theme park destination. Thus, the Orlando Travel Academy has individual lessons detailing what’s available and new at Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and the Worlds of Discovery parks (SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, Busch Gardens Africa and more).
A rendering of Universal Studios Florida’s “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” area of the theme park, scheduled to open in 2010
Newly opened at Universal Studios Florida is “Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rocket,” a high-tech coaster. And agents and consumers alike are eagerly awaiting the 2010 debut of “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” a new area within Universal’s Islands of Adventure park. At SeaWorld Orlando, the new “Manta” combines a spinning, soaring, gliding coaster experience with close-up animal encounters.
Walt Disney World Resort has introduced new entertainment and services for those celebrating anniversaries, graduations, birthdays and other occasions. Guests receive one free park admission on their birthday. New online planning tools help create elaborate customized celebrations; clients can choose from more than 200 experiences.
Visitors to Orlando can experience Gatorland, home of the world’s largest collection of white alligators
Beyond the big parks, visitors also enjoy other, smaller attractions. One Orlando Travel Academy lesson spotlights everything from miniature golf courses to amusement centers. New this year, guests heading to Gatorland may view the world’s largest collection of white alligators (four in total).
In the Travel Agent survey, agents rated Florida—including Orlando—the nation’s second most popular golfing destination. So, the academy’s Sports & Recreation lesson features one screen devoted entirely to golf. It includes information about area courses, golf academies, tournaments and resources. A second section covers soft adventure including sky diving, eco-activities, hang gliding, ziplining and more.
“Everyone thinks they know Orlando,” says Sain. But in reality, he notes, if a person spent eight hours per day at the destination, it would take 67 days to enjoy all of the area’s attractions and activities.
Cruise Planners’ Harris says that she is working to ensure her clients dig deeper than just the major theme parks. “A lot of folks don’t realize that Cape Canaveral is only 45 minutes from the Orlando area, and it’s nice to give clients unique options,” she says. “The same thing applies to Discovery Cove; it’s sort of a hidden gem.”
For one lesson on “Unexpected Orlando,” the Orlando Travel Academy offers web screens focused on history, nature and arts and culture. “The city plays to the cosmopolitan traveler with its fine dining, theater and vibrant nightlife and also plays to the visitor looking for adventure with its various outdoor attractions,” says Jeffrey Anderson, vice president of marketing, America’s Vacation Center.
Agents may work through the Orlando Travel Academy at their leisure, returning multiple times if need be, and access it 24/7. Those who take the course will discover destination tidbits, orientation maps and a helpful link to the CVB’s travel agent site; once there, a toolbox for agents includes details about trade discounts, commissionable packages, sample itineraries, a group service request, an events calendar and collateral resources. Agents also may download the complimentary Orlando Magicard, which offers up to $500 savings for attractions, dinner theaters, golf, shopping and dining.
Within the past year, the CVB has expanded that trade site to include new themed itineraries (spa, culture and adventure) and information targeted to specific markets. There is also a streamlined RFP process for groups. And while the CVB is high-tech, it’s also hands-on, so agents will find CVB staff willing to assist with questions or trip-planning options for clients.
“A lot has happened [in Orlando] in 25 years,” Sain acknowledges. But during this anniversary year, he’d like to recognize and celebrate the CVB’s stakeholders—its members—as well as the travel agency community. Sain says the CVB is re-engaging with agents to educate, motivate and help them sell. “We’re dialing up the messaging and dialing up the communications,” he says. “In this economy, the trade represents a very healthy distribution channel for us.”