On Site: Ponce de Leon Beckons Conference Goers to 2012's Florida Huddle


Ponce de Leon on stage with a Colonial Spanish drummer // All photos by Susan J. Young

When Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore somewhere around St. Augustine in 1513, he essentially became the first celebrity tourist to the Sunshine State. His name has been forever linked to the Spanish conquest of Florida and this year “Ponce” showed up at the annual Florida Huddle in Fort Lauderdale, FL, to kick off the lunchtime presentation to conference goers.

With a Colonial-era Spanish drummer and compatriots in tow, Ponce promoted the St. Augustine area's hosting of Florida Huddle in 2013, which just so happens to be the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s landing along Florida’s East Coast.




Richard Goldman, executive director of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau (left)

2013 in St. Augustine


Richard Goldman, executive director of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, told Florida Huddle-goers that while the destination may never know exactly where Ponce de Leon came ashore along Florida’s East Coast, it can be narrowed to a very specific geographic area, given that the explorer and his officers were good journal keepers.

On April 2, 1513, the day prior to his landing on Florida’s shores, the ship’s navigator logged the ship’s position at 30 degree, eight minutes, just south of what is today Ponte Vedra Beach and a few miles north of St. Augustine. 

During a humorous lunchtime program, "Ponce" and his Colonial Spanish-era soldiers tied up Alfredo Gonzalez, VP Tourism Sales and International Business Development, Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, taking one of the 2012 Huddle host city's executives, as prisoner.

Attendees also mingled at lunch with a ragtag group of pirates and wenches, and paraded in masks around the room in a congo-like parade. Prior to the luncheon, a violinist and guitar player performed 1500s-era Spanish music.

During a more serious discussion at the Florida Huddle press conference later the same day, Goldman talked with pride about St. Augustine’s upcoming celebration – a huge tourism boon for the state and Florida’s Historic Coast in northeastern Florida.

Goldman stressed that St. Augustine was founded because of wars in Europe, treasures in Mexico and the confluence of those actions. He stressed that St. Augustine was built in a European style as a walkable city, and the Spanish embraced diversity in a way that others in America didn’t.

The first free African city in North America was built adjacent to St. Augustine. Long before the Underground Railroad of Civil War times sheltered slaves as they fled north, a well known freedom route for slaves flowed southward to Spanish Florida, Goldman emphasized.

“History does not always mean talking heads and your history teacher from high school,” he stressed, noting that visitors will discover authentic history in St. Augustine and environs, but they’ll also discover more modern historical events, such as the Players Championship for golf fans and cultural treasures and events that spur people to travel.

When asked by Travel Agent about whether St. Augustine will invite royalty to its celebration, much as Williamsburg, VA, did with its recent celebration, Goldman said: “Yes, I can give you some hints. Royalty is involved, but at this point, we can’t address particular dates and where royalty will be... but there is commitment."

He stressed that “the eyes of the world, or at least of our hemisphere will be on Florida," yet also said the St. Augustine celebration will not encompass just one huge event but rather a series of events over the next year and three months.

For example, starting this May, the destination will host a five-day educational event – bringing children and academics from around the country to discuss the impact of the Spanish on Florida. Goldman says there is a lack of knowledge that Florida was on the radar for Europeans for a very long time.

“Lots of folks don’t understand that the cattle industry began in Florida, that a lot of what we know of agriculture in the U.S. began in St. Augustine and that the citrus industry – that Florida is so famous for – began in St. Augustine,” Goldman said.



Will Seccombe, Chief Marketing Officer, VISIT FLORIDA (far right)

Promoting Tourism Statewide


From Visit Florida’s perspective, supporting the anniversary of Ponce De Leon’s "discovery" of Florida for Europe is linked to supporting other ethnic heritages as well. VivaFlorida.org (www.vivaflorida.org) is the state’s portal for efforts and information about Spanish, French, native America, African-American, Jewish, Cuban and British heritage.

Agents with clients interested in traveling to Florida for the upcoming Ponce de Leon celebration might visit that Web site for details on the Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail, which looks at the history of the Spanish in Florida, showcases sites of interest around the state and offers drive tour ideas. 

VivaFlorida.org is a collaboration between Visit Florida and the Florida Department of State. It will continue to be the state’s focus in promoting the quincentennial of Ponce de Leon’s landing on Florida shores, according to Will Seccombe, Visit Florida’s chief marketing officer. He told reporters that every county in the state is involved in the effort.

“We’re making sure that this is more than just a tourism initiative,” he stressed, noting that schools and Florida residents will be involved, along with international and domestic visitors. “We do have an incredible tourism product,” Seccombe noted, and said, “the Florida tourism industry really  continues to invest in the tourist product year in and year out, even in tough economic times.”

He mentioned that it's not only such huge projects as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando and other major theme park initiatives, but also updates by smaller attractions. For example, he said the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park has opened a zip line experience above the gators.

In Greater Fort Lauderdale, the Florida Huddle host city this year,  the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery and Science (www.mods.org) has just expanded. Reporters covering Florida Huddle toured its new EcoDiscovery Center, which has playful river otters in an outdoor eco-area, a gigantic walk-through shark and Florida Everglades airboat ride simulator. The new 34,000, $25 million expansion has more than doubled the museum’s space.

Elsewhere across the state, Secommbe said hotels and resorts have upgraded facilities, new hotels have opened and destinations are enhancing their offerings. For example, Panama City Beach just completed a $16 million beach renourishment project. Working with the United States Corps of Engineers, the destination pumped 1.4 million cubic yards of sand to approx. 7.5 miles of beach, extending the shoreline by 100 feet in many locations.

“Tourism is just part of Florida’s DNA,” Seccombe said. Tourism is Florida’s largest industry employing more than 1 million people in hospitality and tourism-related jobs around the state: “It helps every single Floridian when we have more visitors; it creates jobs.”



Steve Belleme, Business Development Manager, Broward County Aviation Department (Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport) (at podium)

Greater Fort Lauderdale


Speaking for Greater Fort Lauderdale, Gonzalez said his destination has a vibrant and ever-changing product yet “there is no such thing as competition between one [Florida] city and another,” he said, noting that no one expects visitors from Scandinavia via the U.K. or Germany to come for 14 days and not at some point during their stay in Greater Fort Lauderdale to take I-75, I-95 or the Florida Turnpike to see other parts of the state. Visitors who move around experience all the elements that the state has to offer and that helps all the state's tourism entitities, he said.

Steve Belleme, business development manager, Broward County Aviation Department (Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport), gave reporters an update on the airport's news. Through December 2011, the airport had 27 months of positive growth, with dramatic increases in international passengers. Spirit Airlines’ presence as the airport’s home town airline has significantly increased passengers, he said.

He noted that his airport’s top three carriers in terms of traffic are Spirit, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airlines, all low-cost carriers. Sixty percent of domestic travelers using Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport are traveling on a low cost ticket; overall, the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood fares are 24 percent lower than those at Miami International Airport and 10 percent lower than those at Palm Beach International, Belleme said. 

Another interesting factoid? Belleme said 10-to-20 percent of all passengers are flying into his airport are headed for a cruise. Most sail from Port Everglades, just a short distance away. “We’re tied at the hip with the port,” Belleme stressed.

The airport has just broken ground for a major runway expansion project, which Belleme said will create 11,000 jobs, contribute $1.4 billion to the local economy, reduce flight delays and increase safety. The airport is also expanding its international facilities in Terminal 4; international gates will increase from six to 14.

Christy Myers, vice president of Florida Huddle, released conference statistics that showed more than 4,000 pre-scheduled business meetings were conducted on site at this year's conference; more than 192 buyer delegates and more than 188 supplier companies participated.

The goal was to develop the tours and packages vacationers will book in the coming years. Buyers came from Andorra, Argentina, Canada, Columbia, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States. They met with sales personnel from Visit Florida, the Florida Convention and Visitors Bureau, state hoteliers, attractions, tour operators, and other tourism service companies.

Next year, those same buyers and suppliers, along with CVB and state tourism officials will head north to St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the nearby beaches. Goldman stressed that Ponce de Leon and the 500th anniversary celebration await.

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