It seems like tourism has always been a part of my life. I remember playing on the beach in Ocean City, Md., going on school field trips to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., visiting the Smoky Mountains with my grandparents, and camping in East Coast state and national parks. My parents moved us to Florida in my sophomore year of high school after they fell in love with the Sunshine State on vacation.
My first job at age 16 was working as a salesclerk at a gift shop in St. Petersburg. I was in charge of keeping the Florida souvenir T-shirts aisle stocked and tidy. I worked there through my first two years of college, and my favorite tourists came to the store year after year from faraway places like Canada and Peoria, Ill. They asked for me by name and said I was a great ambassador for the state.
Little did I know then that I was joining the ranks of official and unofficial tourism industry champions who work hard every day to welcome people into Florida. Many have paved the way before me, and I learn from them every day. You’ll hear about some of them in this issue’s cover package.
So it surprised me when someone said to me recently, “You know, tourism as it exists today really hasn’t been around that long.” His premise is that it’s only been since World War II that leisure travel has been available to people outside of the wealthiest circles. Today families of all income levels come to Central Florida from every part of the world.
One of the greatest thrills of my professional career was writing about the business of tourism for Florida Trend, still one of my favorite magazines today. In my nine years there as an independent writer, I saw the tide start to turn. People who had visited Florida for theme parks, beaches and conventions were beginning to come for other reasons. Lake Nona was just a concept, and this was the first time I heard the words “medical tourism.”
I often find myself on a plane asking people whether they’ve been to Orlando. It’s rare that someone says no, but almost everyone says, “Sure, I’ve been to the theme parks.” I always ask, “Yes, but have you been to downtown Orlando?” They usually confuse that with Downtown Disney, the predecessor to today’s Disney Springs.
I like to set the record straight. “Come to downtown Orlando,” I say. “It’s a hip place with a lot to see. You’ll like it. Bring your family.” Earlier this year, I was in a village pub outside Glasgow in Scotland, and a young man learned I was from Orlando. He pulled his chair over to my table and leaned in. “I love Orlando!” he said. “Sure,” I said, “you’ve been to the theme parks?” “Oh, aye,” he said, “but I love downtown!” He told me he and his friend had hired a cab to take them from a resort area into the heart of the city. It was one of their favorite parts of the trip.
I realized then that marketing the entire destination makes so much sense. We don’t want people to just come here once and then look for another place to visit. We want them to return to Central Florida again and again, and then spread the word when they go back home.
So whatever brings them here — whether it’s a chance to see Hogwarts Castle at Universal, dine with Shamu at SeaWorld or watch a college ballgame or World Cup soccer — we have to keep working to make their visit memorable. We can never have too many great ambassadors.
Thanks for reading!