Vicki Jaramillo was walking off a flight back home to Orlando when she realized her plane had been packed with youth cheerleaders heading to a competition. It was one more sign that in her 24 years working at Orlando International Airport, the reasons people visit Central Florida have become increasingly diverse.
Long known for its traditional tourist experiences of theme parks, beaches, cruises and space launches, and its popularity as a convention destination, the region is attracting visitors for all kinds of other activities in recent years — everything from the arts to corporate training, medical treatments and shopping.
One of the newest draws people are talking about is sports. In the past decade, visitors of all ages have increasingly started to visit Orlando Central Florida’s Evolving Image as spectators and athletes. The trend is in its early stages, and the Central Florida Sports Commission is watching it closely. So are Jaramillo, the senior director of air service development and marketing for Orlando International, and her longtime colleague Carolyn Fennell, the airport’s senior director of public affairs and community relations. “Have I mentioned sports?” Jaramillo jokingly asked twice when asked what’s bringing in visitors lately.
Individually, these trends might equate to drops in the bucket in the count of annual visitation. But anyone who has lived in Central Florida during summer storms can attest that small drops add up when they come day after day, week after week.
Orlando is the top destination in the United States. The Central Florida area brought in a record 72 million visitors in 2017 — 5 percent more than in 2016, according to Visit Orlando, which serves as the region’s tourism bureau. By comparison, the New York metropolitan area counted 62.8 million and Las Vegas 42.2 million.
Most visitors come for multiple visits to the theme parks, which are aggressively adding to their arsenals in what the Orlando Business Journal recently called an “arms race.” Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando admitted a combined 86.5 million visitors to their theme parks and water parks during 2017, according to an annual count by Themed Entertainment Association and engineering firm AECOM.
This year saw additions of Toy Story Land at Disney and Fast & Furious at Universal. The parks plan to open new features in 2019, too, including a Star Wars land at Disney, a new Harry Potter ride at Universal and a Sesame Street-themed land at SeaWorld. All three resorts have reported double-digit increases in attendance in the first quarter of this year, according to the latest figures from TEA/AECOM research.
The Orange County Convention Center, the largest in the nation behind Chicago’s McCormick Place, has seen increases in its attendance figures as well. Traffic at OCCC grew 4.3 percent to eclipse 1.5 million in 2017, according to Visit Orlando, the not-for-profit trade association contracted by Orange County to brand, market and sell the Orlando destination globally.
In addition to ongoing investments and expansions at the theme parks and attractions, tourism leaders say the strong visitation numbers come from a combination of two major factors: One is aggressive marketing to potential tourists and convention groups. The other is the day-to-day subtle marketing to visitors who might come here for one reason but decide to extend their stay and explore other attractions.
Visit Orlando President and CEO George Aguel, whose organization represents 1,200 member companies across every corner of the tourism industry, points to the region’s reputation for creativity, innovation and hospitality as key factors driving growth. “These qualities are ingrained in our cultural fabric,” he said, “and people all over the world recognize that.
“At Visit Orlando, we’re committed to rolling out consistent and creative marketing products to ensure our destination is top of mind for consumers and convention organizers,” Aguel said. “Meanwhile, our member companies keep delivering new and exciting experiences for visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Together, that’s proven to be a very effective formula for making us America’s most-visited destination.”
Jason Siegel remembers being impressed with Central Florida when he arrived from New York in 2011 to re-ignite the Orlando Solar Bears ice hockey franchise with business partners Joe Haleski and Bob Ohrablo.
“We fell in love with the marketplace and found it to be an incredibly unique business community,” Siegel said. “It was an inclusive community that really pulled together, and there weren’t a lot of silos. Franchises were helping franchises, community leaders were helping community leaders. The collaboration to advance the community as a whole was palpable.”
The partners sold the franchise in 2017 to the DeVos family, which owns the Orlando Magic basketball team that plays in the Amway Center. That left Siegel open to take on the role of CEO of the Central Florida Sports Commission, a 25-year-old regional nonprofit with seven full-time and two part-time employees.
That sense of teamwork he noticed early on in Orlando has translated into marketing efforts for Central Florida from organizers of all the sporting events held here, he said.
Collectively, the commission represents more than 30 sports facilities in the city of Orlando and Orange, Lake, Seminole and Osceola counties.
The sports commission targets many different types of business segments. The largest events include WrestleMania, the pro sports league All-Star Games, and the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games.
Orlando is also in the running to be selected as one of 23 host cities for World Cup 2026 soccer after a joint bid by the United States, Canada and Mexico was awarded on June 13. Canada and Mexico each have three host cities, and the U.S. will choose 10 to 12 from its list of 17 that were submitted as part of the proposal. With as many as 65,000 people at a time packing into the newly renovated Citrus Bowl in Orlando, now known as Camping World Stadium, the region would be sure to see a boost in visitors and tourism dollars.
Another targeted business segment is NCAA/collegiate events, which include conference and national championship football games. Orlando hosted the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball first- and second-round games at the Amway Center in 2017. Other categories include USA Olympic-sanctioned events, e-sports competitions, sports conventions and meetings, and national and regional youth and amateur sporting events.
“Our tentacles stretch into a lot of different areas and a lot of different types of sports,” Siegel said.
Central Florida is known for more than 100 top-rated golf courses that can be played year-round, and the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in southwest Orange County is televised internationally. Florida’s 30,000 lakes are popular for fishing, boating and water sports. The National Training Center in Lake County hosts track-and-field athletes, triathlon competitors and cyclists from around the world, while runners also visit Central Florida for the annual Disney Marathon and other events.
The U.S. Tennis Association opened a national campus in Lake Nona in 2017. Central Florida is also home to pro franchise teams, including the Orlando Magic in basketball, the Orlando City Lions in men’s soccer, the Orlando Pride in women’s soccer, the Orlando Solar Bears in ice hockey, and the Atlanta Braves for spring training in baseball.
Measuring the impact of sports on the local economy will be a challenge because so many of the facilities are private and aren’t necessarily compelled to share their numbers. For instance, the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World states on its website that it brings in 350,000 athletes, coaches and fans every year. Those would include the cheerleaders the airport’s Jaramillo spotted on her flight. But the revenue figures aren’t made public.
Measuring the Impact
The sports commission plans to work with its partners in four Central Florida counties and the city of Orlando to better quantify the visitation and impact numbers for the region, Siegel said. The Florida Sports Foundation reports a $57 billion impact throughout the state that can be attributed to sports tourism, but it’s not clear how much of that is coming from Central Florida. Current figures from the sports commission show more than 1,200 events from 1993 to 2017 brought in $1.4 billion in direct spending throughout the community.
One way tourism officials gauge visitor numbers is through hotel room occupancy. The official numbers from Visit Orlando say there are 121,000 hotel rooms in Central Florida, and the occupancy rate last year was more than 79 percent.
Seminole County recently welcomed 350 boys and girls teams with 15 to 20 athletes per team to come to an event to play soccer. College coaches came to see them play. Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles accompanied them on the trip.
Visits like these are hidden gems contributing to the local economy. Those visitors are renting cars, eating in restaurants, shopping and probably visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World and other attractions.
“When you start to do the math, you can see that these events significantly drive impact,” Siegel said.
The sports commission works with event organizers case by case to help them promote two things. One is the event itself. The other is Orlando as a destination.
“We view ourselves as certainly an important part of the sports landscape,” he said, “and we also want to make a positive impact and be part of the fabric of the tourism community.”
The Other Half
Gloria Caulfield likes to tell the story about taking a group of visiting corporate and science dignitaries downtown for a dinner event hosted at the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. The new facility across from Orlando City Hall impressed them, but so did the location.
“When they think about Orlando, they think about the attractions and maybe the convention center,” she said. “But they never knew about the life sciences cluster that is achieving what we’re achieving. Many of them didn’t even know we have a downtown.”
Caulfield serves in a dual role as executive director for the Lake Nona Institute and the vice president of strategic alliances for Lake Nona developer Tavistock Development Company. Her third role, she said, is as an ambassador for Central Florida.
When Lake Nona started to take shape with Orlando’s “Medical City” a decade ago on vacant land near Orlando International Airport, local leaders envisioned it would draw what they called “medical tourism” from people who would travel to Central Florida for cutting-edge healthcare they couldn’t get elsewhere.
Lake Nona is becoming much more than that, Caulfield said. Today it’s home to not only unique facilities like the Nemours Children’s Hospital and a state-of-the-art Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but also the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and soon a training facility for global audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG.
Through those entities and others, Lake Nona contributes multiple kinds of “drops in the bucket” for tourism.
The USTA alone, which has more than 700,000 members, has been generating traffic with its national campus that houses 100 courts on 64 acres and is marketed as “the home of American tennis.” It is the centerpiece of a sports and performance district Lake Nona is developing as part of its vision to focus on health and wellness throughout the medical city area.
That creates visitation for other parts of Central Florida, including the theme parks, Caulfield said. “When you commit to play, you don’t know if you’re going to win or lose on day one, but your commitment is to be there Thursday through Saturday. So that brings people to the community who have good discretionary income and have money to spend on other things when they’re here.”
In much the same way, KPMG’s new 800,00-square-foot global training center will serve the tourism industry when it opens in early 2020, she said. It will host an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 executives a week for training, and they will be interested in connecting with the community and experiencing all that Orlando has to offer.
Additionally, the Veterans Affairs Department is building a 51,000-square-foot national simulation center in front of the VA hospital where it will train physicians and other medical professionals from more than 150 VA centers across the country, Caulfield said.
The foundation Caulfield leads is also bringing in groups of people for an annual meeting of the best thinkers in healthcare innovation. About 275 people convene in Lake Nona for two days from organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Google, Pepsi, Cisco, Harvard and others.
“The Impact Forum is a great opportunity for us to bring in the best leaders and thinkers and introduce them to a part of our community they are most likely not familiar with,” Caulfield said. “One of the things we always emphasize with people and organizations that come to visit us is the Orlando Economic Partnership.” The not-for-profit public/private partnership represents seven counties and the City of Orlando in a merger of economic development and chamber of commerce activities. Its slogan is “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.”
Promoting the Destination
It’s an exciting time to be promoting Central Florida as a destination, Jaramillo and Fennell with Orlando International Airport said. When they’re trying to persuade airlines to add more direct flights to the region, they have to build the case by showing the robust nature of today’s tourism picture and the diversification of Central Florida’s economy.
One key piece to watch, Fennell said, is the future development of rail access to and from the airport and other parts of Central Florida. “It all comes back to access,” Fennell said. “In the future, rail will continue to contribute to the tourism development.”
The multi-pronged approach to bringing in visitors does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon. That’s good news for businesses in Central Florida that rely on tourism dollars, which account for half of all sales tax revenues in Orange County alone, according to Visit Orlando.
“We’re firing on all cylinders right now,” Jaramillo said. “There’s so much to the story, but we have to make sure we are out there telling it.”