On the Upswing: Florida Sees Hope in Current Trends

Through the third quarter 2009, Visit Florida was tracking at 53.5 million domestic visitors with visitation better than at many other domestic destinations, stressed Eileen Forrow, executive vice president, sales and marketing, in a briefing to reporters at Florida Huddle, a trade conference in Clearwater, FL. “We’re not out of the woodshed, I don’t think anyone [tourism-wise] is, but we’re doing better than a lot of people across the country," she said.


Forrow said Visit Florida is working to educate legislators about the importance of tourism to Florida’s economy. “Every 85 visitors create one job in tourism,” she stressed. “That’s the message we’re going to [legislators] with this coming session.” She said that in the past legislators have viewed tourism as creating mostly low-paying positions, when in fact, the sheer volume of people employed and the benefits to the economy are sizable. 

Her budget was cut last year as Florida legislators sought ways to cushion a budget shortfall within the state. But visitors pay taxes on everything from hotel rooms to rental cars. “Tourism is the number one industry in Florida, so we’ve got to convince them that we’re not part of the problem, we’re part of the solution as we can bring back tax dollars very quickly,” Forrow said. 

Forrow told reporters that the four international countries sending the most visitors to Florida are Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Venezuela. Based on Visit Florida’s latest statistical reporting period, “for the U.K., visitation to the U.S. overall had dropped 16.9 percent and it’s down 15 percent for Florida. Brazil was up to the U.S. by 8 percent, but it was up almost 22 percent to Florida.” Canada was down 9 percent to the U.S. and 9.2 percent to Florida. 

Looking forward, Forrow said focus group research showed “people are tired of everything going on,” and in the mode of “give us a break here.” Thus, a new Visit Florida advertising campaign launched this week. It’s designed to boost North American visitation with advertising tag lines that feature action verbs. Among them are “Awaken your Florida Side” and “Unleash your Florida Side.”

Expect to see these promotional campaigns in what Forrow calls the “Super Seven” metropolitan areas— Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington, D.C. The campaigns will include advertising, outdoor billboards and special promotions. 

She said the meetings market has been greatly affected by the economic downtown. In a domino effect, it’s spilling onto leisure and impacting those statistics, she said, noting that when people travel for business, they often bring their families along and often take personal time after the meeting for a vacation. So a new campaign also targets meeting planners with the thought that everyone is more upbeat when in a destination like Florida. 

“Would you rather have the choice of an airport hotel in Cleveland or be down here in Clearwater?” she asked the media audience, while holding up a poster showing the intent of a campaign entitled “Destination Does Matter.” This promotion is designed to combat the corporate perception that no one should book a meeting at resort, beach destination or anywhere in the Sunshine State where people will simply enjoy fun and frolic. 

That’s flawed thinking, Forrow noted: “Everybody [attending a meeting] is more upbeat when there is a destination that is upbeat,” she stressed.

Visit Florida has also launched a stimulus program to help local destinations within Florida attract more conventions and conference. If they’re bidding on citywide conferences, Visit Florida will match the CVB funding up to a certain level – in a program that runs through 2016. “It’s working for us,” she said, noting that one major plastics convention has already moved from Chicago to Orlando.

Speaking for the Florida Attractions Association, Bill Lupfer, president and CEO, based in Tallahassee, said attraction attendance in 2009 beyond the major attractions was good, but came at a cost in terms of sizable ticket discounting. 

And while more Florida residents in a “staycation” mode visited his attractions, the attractions took a hit with a drop in visitation from afar. “It’s great to use the 18 million people who live here to visit our attractions, but we’re anxious to reach back out to the national and international [visitors],” said Lupfer.

Host Destination Report

D. T. Minich, executive director, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, outlined new plans ahead for his central west Florida destination. The destination hosted this year’s Florida Huddle delegates, many of whom stayed in Clearwater Beach and Sand Key hotels.

Hospitality-wise, the new Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Hotel opens February 1 with 250 spacious suites with full kitchens; Florida Huddle participants were hosted at the yet-to-be-opened hotel during an evening event. Other hotels in the area also have updated their properties and hosted Huddle events. 

For example, the press group attended a breakfast briefing at the new waterfront conference center at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Clearwater Beach; that property just completed a $27 million renovation. 

Minich said the Trade Winds Resort on St. Pete Beach, the destination’s largest property with nearly 800 rooms, is currently renovating all the rooms— pulling out a block of 100 rooms at a time of out service and refurbishing them. 

Minich also talked about the destination’s top attraction, the Dali Museum, which boasts annual visitation of 200,000 or more guests. That visitation will likely double when the museum’s new building opens on January 11, 2011, officials said. Construction is under way, and contractors are now installing glass panels that wrap around the building. 

“It will really expand what we can showcase of Dali’s work,” noted Minich. Right now, only one third of what the museum owns is on display. An official from the Dali Museum told reporters than once the new museum opens, at least for a year or so, it will display the entire collection before then sending some pieces out to exhibitions elsewhere. 

Agents also may expect an announcement within the next few weeks on the re-start of the Dale Chihuly Museum project for St. Petersburg. “The Chihuly is back on track,” said Minich. “They’re getting ready to make an announcement.” 

While the original intent was for the Chihuly collection to be part of another museum, the particulars of the re-launched project may change, said Minich: “This would be a major collection that would be on permanent display.”

Next Year’s Host Destination

Next year’s Florida Huddle is slated for Daytona Beach in February 2011. Sharon Mock, president and CEO, Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, outlined what’s new in her destination.

Improvement in the tourism economy “started for us in September 2009 and we’ve seen increases every month right up through December,” Mock stressed. “It’s been very slow, but very sure [the recovery]. Hopefully, that means…that we’ve turned the corner and it’s [soon] back to good times.” 

Calling her area “a classic American beach destination,” Mock also said the destination is moving to focus more on sports, as a visitor hook.  While most visitors know Daytona has a wide range of motorsports attractions, it’s also much more, said Mock. The area is home to the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), many renowned golf courses and has a world-class tennis facility and a baseball farm team called the Daytona Cubs

“We can become a more dynamic sports destination,” said Mock. The CVB Web site has just added a new “tab” for sports. Mock also said that as one of Florida’s original beach destinations, Daytona Beach continues to focus on families. One new attraction is StarLite dining cruises.

Hospitality-wise, much has changed. Five years ago, Daytona Beach and environs sustained much hurricane damage, which ultimately resulted in the closure or replacement of older hotel and motel properties. Today, Daytona has 12,000 hospitality units and new hotel options. Beyond those, “we gained an additional 1,500 condominium and private home rentals [over the past few years],” said Mock. 

That said, as with most other destinations within Florida, the hotel community has been compromised on the rate side during this recession, she noted. “People pretty much tell you what they’re going to pay for a room,” Mock acknowledged. “The playing field has changed, discounting is huge, and we are starting to see it come back up but it’s not going to happen overnight.” 

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