“In 1960, people around the world made 25 million trips outside their home countries. In 2011, that number passed one billion. Tourism has become one of the most powerful, most influential and least-examined forces in the world. It produces $6.5 trillion of the global economy and employs one out of every twelve people on earth,” wrote Michael Caruso editor of Smithsonian magazine. Elisabeth Becker, in her book, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, added, “In gross economic power, tourism is in the same company as oil, energy, finance and agriculture.”
Nowhere is this impact felt more than in Central Florida.
Arguably, America’s most significant contribution to the evolution of the travel industry since our national and state park system debuted with Yellowstone in 1872, was the opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando almost a century later. This quantum leap drew travelers to Orlando from around the globe. Building on this success, with additional attractions and an aggressive focus on the convention industry, in 2010 Orlando became the first U.S. city to reach 51 million visitors. That record was broken again with 55 million visitors in 2011, and in 2012, the area welcomed more than 57 million visitors from over 197 countries.
The economic impact of those numbers is staggering. Visitors spend $33 billion in Orlando annually and generate $52.4 billion in economic impact, which helps to support nearly 380,000 jobs in the region. In addition to the leisure market, Orlando has become the No. 2 convention destination in the country, pulling ahead of Chicago. Las Vegas held on to its No. 1 position due to the fact that it operates three convention centers to Orlando’s one.
Marketing juggernauts like Disney and Universal are legendary in their branding expertise, employing some of the brightest and most creative minds in the world to make the attractions … attractive. But the organization that has done the improbable job of uniting competitors in the tourist, hospitality and convention industry to make Orlando a world-renowned destination is Visit Orlando, regarded as “the top destination marketing organization in the world.”
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, commenting on its success, said, “Visit Orlando takes a holistic approach by involving not only its members in its efforts, but the entire business and community leadership to uplift the destination; these partnerships are beneficial in moving major projects and ideas forward.”
If You Build It and Market It, They Will Come
Discussions about opening an independent organization to promote Orlando began as early as 1976 when the Orlando Tourist Trade Association (OTTA) was founded. The first undertaking of the OTTA was to generate legislative support for funds to build the Orange County Convention Center. Bill Peeper came to Orlando in 1981 as the director of marketing for the Convention Center.
Working with the private sector hospitality industry and what is now the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce (Orlando, Inc.), Peeper helped form the nonprofit Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc. with 94 initial members and became its first CEO in 1984. He served as president until his retirement in January 2007. Joe Cantrell, editor of the Orlando Sentinel and then vice president of tourism for the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, served as the first chairman. In 2010, the company’s name was changed to Visit Orlando to better position the organization’s focus of drawing a broad range of visitors to Orlando.
From 2007 to 2012, the leadership of Visit Orlando was in the capable hands of Gary C. Sain. It was a period of tremendous growth for the destination and considerable challenges, as the nation navigated the effects of a widespread recession and the tourism and travel industry experienced a significant headwind. But Sain’s vision and boundless enthusiasm carried Orlando to unprecedented heights.
One of his proudest achievements was working with the community to bring NPE2012, an international plastics industry tradeshow with more than 55,000 attendees, to the Orange County Convention Center in April 2012.
A month later, Sain passed suddenly from a heart attack. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said of him, “Gary was a giant in every aspect of life and left behind a remarkable legacy as our community’s brand ambassador. His passion, foresight and intellect made Gary a champion, not only for Visit Orlando, but the entire travel and tourism industry.”
George Aguel took over Visit Orlando as president and CEO in February 2013, having served for several years on the board and two years as chairman of Visit Orlando (2009-2010). He also served as vice chairman of the Central Florida Sports Commission and is a past member of the Orange County Tourist Development Council. Aguel brings to the organization over 35 years of executive experience in sales and marketing, most recently as senior vice president at The Walt Disney Company. Prior to Disney, Aguel was Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for Gaylord/Opryland in Nashville.
Speaking of the transition, Paul Mears III, who was serving as chair at the time, said, “The Visit Orlando team really showed strong leadership during a very difficult time for the organization; everyone stepped up and made the transition to a new CEO seamless. George’s recognized experience and leadership, both in our community and in the industry, provides Visit Orlando with an opportunity to take our organization to a new level with a seasoned travel and tourism veteran leading the way.”
Reinforcing Visit Orlando’s vision, Aguel said, “We will continue to work to open new markets, grow our current share of international and domestic visitors, sell Orlando as the best place to host a meeting or convention and connect with family, friends or business colleagues.”
Strategy of Synergy
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point, but cooperation begins where competition leaves off.”
Like a chamber of commerce works in a community to raise the tide so all the boats in the harbor rise, Visit Orlando brings together representatives from all the industry sectors and public partners like the Orange County government to promote Orlando as a destination.
Paul Mears III, president of Mears Transportation Group, observed, “Having a board of directors that represents a cross section of our tourism community provides our Visit Orlando team with insightful and thoughtful feedback that enhances our efforts for optimal impact to our destination. This type of structure also provides supportive listening posts for industry trends happening both locally and globally.” By uniting Visit Orlando’s member companies, whose numbers have grown to over 1,200, to develop strategic goals and then utilizing those members to extend the exposure and the reach of their key marketing initiatives, the results have been dramatic.
One major component of Visit Orlando’s mission to brand the area as the world’s foremost tourist (both leisure and business) destination is promoting and booking events at the Orange County Convention Center. Today, it is the second largest convention facility in the country (see page 42), having hosted 27 of the 250 largest conventions in 2012.
Gene Sanders, Sr., vice president, trade shows of the Plastics Trade Association commented, “When NPE met for the first time in Orlando after 40 years in Chicago, we were anxious to witness the results of the decision to change venues. We likened it to pulling a mature tree out of our backyard, and moving it the front yard – would it survive? But even before NPE2012 took place, we knew it was going to be a fantastic decision. We can’t wait to achieve even greater results at NPE2015.”
Next year, MegaCon – the “multi-genre” convention that caters to the comic book, sci-fi, anime, fantasy, and gaming communities – is expected to draw 40,000 and the Premiere Beauty Show, which attracts the who’s who of the beauty and barbering industry, is scheduled to bring 50,000 attendees to Orlando. All total, according to an Orlando Business Journal story, the meeting and convention industry could draw as many as 11 million travelers in 2014, spending more than $9.4 billion.
Continuing to Hit the Target
In 2013, Visit Orlando launched the most integrated consumer campaigns in its history, with eight campaigns in six countries. Depending on the target audience, these efforts engaged every single marketing and publicity element ranging from TV and radio to social media, direct marketing and global industry marketing and sales.
Broadcast is one of the most effective ways to showcase Orlando. This past year, Visit Orlando garnered nearly 100 hours of television broadcast coverage on shows like the top-rated U.S. Hispanic morning show on Univision, the leading all-news channel in Canada, two of the most popular entertainment shows in Brazil and TV news programs in key domestic markets across the United States. Additionally, Visit Orlando also launched a pioneering effort by producing its own 45-minute travel show and self-syndicating it in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
On the convention side, Visit Orlando played a major role this past year in hosting key industry groups like the Professional Convention Management Association, Society of Incentive Travel Executives and HelmsBriscoe, as well as continued to focus on major citywide convention business while also pursuing conferences that occur in non-peak periods for the destination.
According to Aguel, the future is bright for Orlando’s tourism scene. He predicts that when final 2013 figures are tallied it will be another record year in number of visitors to Orlando.
“We are fortunate to have an organization of dedicated professionals who work effectively with our members and partners,” said Aguel. “Our tourism community is united in its commitment to serving all of our visitors from around