2018 Business Leaders of the Year | Tourism
When George Aguel was named president and CEO of Visit Orlando in 2013, the region’s tourism bureau touted a $31.7 billion hospitality and travel industry that welcomed more than 56 million tourists annually.
This year, Orlando became the first U.S. destination to top the 70 million visitor mark. In fact, the region saw 72 million visitors in 2017, and the local tourism industry shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon — not on Aguel’s watch.
“I have the good fortune of being the spokesperson for this industry and speaking for all it represents here in Orlando,” he said. “It’s a privilege I enjoy. I don’t forget that we’re part of an industry that’s the No. 1 employer in our area. It accounts for 41 percent of all jobs in this region and generates an economic impact of $70 billion.”
Aguel has been an avid tourism ambassador for as long as he can remember. Ask him any question, and he can quote the latest visitation figures off the top of his head. He can chat about Orlando International Airport, the theme parks, and the hotels, attractions and restaurants that make Orlando a unique destination. He was born for this job.
He didn’t seek the position initially. As a 23- year veteran of the Walt Disney Company, Aguel was senior vice president of global corporate alliances and operating participants and was serving on the board of Visit Orlando when its president and CEO, his friend Gary Sain, died suddenly in May 2012. Aguel was asked to step in.
Today, whether he’s admiring motorcycles at Daytona Beach’s Bike Week or visiting a theme park with his family, Aguel is wearing his tourism ambassador hat, sharing with everyone he meets his passion for what Orlando has to offer.
The focus is not just on leisure visitors, but also on business travelers. With a staff of about 175 and approximately 1,200 member companies, Visit Orlando is contracted by Orange County to promote events at the Orange County Convention Center, which saw record attendance in 2017. Long known as a champion of diversity and inclusion, Aguel is especially proud of the way Orlando welcomes visitors from all kinds of backgrounds and every country in the world. He was born in Cuba and moved to the U.S. at age 4 with his parents and his brother, and his background has allowed him to establish personal connections that help make Orlando a welcoming place to live and to visit.
“We have evolved into becoming identified as a destination that respects and values everyone,” Aguel said. “We’ve made it well-known to a very significant segment of the population, both domestically and globally, that we embrace everyone.”
Aguel noted that Orlando’s support for diversity was no more clear than when the region — and world — united in the aftermath of the 2016 Pulse nightclub tragedy, which included many victims from the LGBTQ and Hispanic communities. The OnePULSE Foundation is developing a memorial and museum to educate future generations on the importance of acceptance. Visit Orlando has supported the foundation’s efforts with research and marketing counsel, and looks forward to continued collaboration.
With plans in the works for expansions of the convention center, the airport, the theme parks and the hotel districts, Aguel and the Visit Orlando team are getting ready to accommodate even larger numbers of travelers — some from markets that are relatively untapped, including China.
“There’s a point in the future where we’re going to see more visitors from Asia,” Aguel said. “That will be another key milestone moment when we establish that connection. That will be great.”