Marketing the Most Visited Destination in the USA
During a very busy May and June, media outlets all over the world reported Orlando had held onto its place as America’s most visited destination, welcoming 75 million travelers in 2018. That figure topped New York at 65 million, Chicago at 58 million, Los Angeles at 50 million, Las Vegas at 42 million and Washington, D.C., at 22 million. Coverage of the announcement provided more exposure than most other destinations ever could have afforded in paid advertising.
It might seem easy to market Orlando as a destination for leisure and business travel. After all, the area’s world-renowned theme parks are opening new attractions, the Orange County Convention Center is expanding, Orlando International Airport is adding direct domestic and international flights, Kennedy Space Center is increasing the frequency of launches and Port Canaveral is enhancing its cruise options.
But it’s far from easy. Orlando’s tourism figures, which increased from 72 million in 2017, are the result of a concerted effort of multiple marketing initiatives aimed at multiple audiences on multiple continents, all working in conjunction with each other to produce results that are consistently delivered, measured and fine-tuned.
Behind these initiatives, the destination’s official tourism association, the not-for-profit Visit Orlando, brings together 1,200 member companies representing all segments of an industry that supports 41 percent of the area’s workforce and generates more than $70 billion in annual economic impact. Messages inviting people to come to Orlando are presented around the world in one form or another 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“We never slow down,” said George Aguel, the president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “We can’t, because consumers around the globe have so many choices for where they can spend their time.”
Benefits to the Locals
Why is being No. 1 in the country, and among the top destinations in the world, so important? Locals might not fully appreciate why increasing tourism is a bonus. It’s not just about bragging rights or even about commercial success. It’s about quality of life.
“To have that brand of Orlando be a household word on the tip of the tongue of so many people around the world lets us stand out,” Aguel said. “Then we can go on to talk about every other thing Orlando is known for that makes us a great place to live and work. We’ve been able to successfully see how leveraging our famous Orlando brand has played nicely into the overall economy of this region.”
He points to the benefits local residents enjoy because of tourist-generated tax dollars, which are used for community projects and also pumped back into marketing initiatives. Those benefits include
a new Amway Center, a new Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, a renovated Camping World Stadium, expansions at the convention center and more. In addition, tourism is responsible for more than 70% of the passengers at Orlando’s world-class airport, the availability of luxury retail brands at the Mall at Millenia and other shopping outlets, and an increase in high-end dining and entertainment options.
“You as a resident have access to that,” Aguel said, “and we all enjoy the fruits of what our visitors bring us.”
Recently, Visit Orlando and 29 of its member companies hit the world stage at a travel trade show in Anaheim, California. The IPW event, formerly known as the International Pow Wow, is the largest of its kind in the U.S., attracting about 6,000 attendees annually, including 1,300 travel buyers and 500 journalists from more than 70 countries.
During the five-day event, the Visit Orlando team conducted more than 250 appointments with clients and media. A press conference about updates on Orlando’s theme parks, hotels, attractions and airport attracted some 300 international media attendees and more buzz than announcements from any other U.S. destination.
Every move to prepare for May’s announcement of the 2018 figures and then take the show on the road to Anaheim in June was planned as part of Visit Orlando’s marketing strategy. That strategy relies on participation from the organization’s partner companies — including many that are direct competitors of each other, such as
Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando, as well as other attractions and hotels. It also relies on ample research and data.
“We have a collaborative approach that includes multiple committees for sales, marketing and other topics,” Aguel said. “The goal is to get as much feedback and insight as we can from members, so we recognize what they’re experiencing, what they’re seeing. We collectively put that together with data from our frequent and significant research efforts.
“We look at macroeconomics, national trends, evolving demographics, political climates, economic climates. We consider the international marketplace, including monetary exchange rates. We look at absolutely every point of data. We don’t move forward on key initiatives or strategies until we fully understand the research that gives us the data we need to invest in our plans.”
Prepared for Anything
One of Visit Orlando’s biggest challenges is to stay flexible, to always account for how unforeseen challenges might affect its marketing plan. In recent years, the organization has had to pivot in response to hurricanes, the Zika virus, the Pulse nightclub shootings, and political unrest in other countries, including the uncertainty around Brexit in the United Kingdom and Europe.
“We have to recognize that things have been changing so rapidly, there’s no way to lock and load on something and then forget about it for multiple years,” Aguel said. “A strategic plan is a living document. Annually, and even within the year, you’re going to have to be ready to make adjustments because so many things can play into that.”
After September 11, 2001, when air travel was on hold all over the country, Visit Orlando shifted its marketing efforts to target drive-in traffic. People still needed to get away from the stress of the time and go on vacation, and driving to Orlando was the perfect option. But to this day, the organization did something most destinations did not do: It never let its foot off the gas pedal. People around the world still heard about Orlando as a great destination, and when they were ready to travel, Orlando was ready to greet them.
“You have to have backup ideas and plans for ‘what ifs,’ and we look at that as well,” Aguel said. “The research tells us a lot, it gives us wonderful guidance, but it can’t anticipate everything.”
Over the years since Aguel has been in the industry, Florida’s population has become the third highest in the nation. New residents coming into the state are prime targets of marketing and sales campaigns reminding them of all the fun activities and experiences that Orlando has to offer, including a wide variety of theme parks as well as nature experiences, airboat rides, ziplines, sporting events and activities, museums and local culture.
“We’ve been able to do more within the Florida market, which is positive,” Aguel said. “There are a lot of places in Florida that offer you an opportunity to go to a hotel and stay at the beach. But we are the only ones who provide all that we do.”
About four years ago, Visit Orlando focused on a differentiator that led to its most successful marketing theme of all time: Orlando makes an emotional connection with its visitors like no other destination. Marketing and advertising campaigns showing the expressions of family members making lifetime memories have been a big hit.
“With most other places, you’re not as often going to go home thinking, ‘I’ve made memories of a lifetime with people I love,’” Aguel said. “On the leisure side, the ability to come here with family is a big deal. It’s an aspirational vacation. Many have saved up for a long time to come. When I’m flying into
our airport, I see families who already have their T-shirts for a particular theme park. They come outfitted and ready to go. It’s extraordinary to see their excitement.”
From the business side, Orlando is the overall leading convention and meeting destination in the United States. “We know it’s been proven there is no more effective way of conducting business than face to face,” Aguel said. “So, we work hard at reinforcing the message of, what better backdrop and environment can you have for your meeting or convention than Orlando, the place you enjoy visiting personally? We emphasize that if you like coming here on a personal level, you’re going to love coming here for a convention.”
That trend of blending business and leisure travel has been nicknamed “bleisure,” and it is also continuing to grow, Aguel said. More than half of the people who come to Orlando for conventions extend their stay for personal time.
The business travel market is important to Orlando because it helps drive incremental occupancy numbers as well as revenue. Business travelers individually, on average, spend
more money than leisure travelers because they stay at high-end hotels and dine at more expensive restaurants, Aguel said.
The business market is also counter-seasonal to the peak period for vacation visitors. “When we’re seeing tons of families out of school on vacation and visiting us during the summer and holidays, for example, that’s a period when there are fewer conventions coming here,” Aguel said. “Conventions start coming in September, when kids are back in school. People are unlikely to want to attend conferences over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, but we have families coming in to visit during those periods. That kind of dynamic occurs throughout the year, giving us the ability to promote visiting us to each of these audiences when we need them the most.”
Secret to Success
When Aguel travels to other destinations, there’s one thing he looks for that makes Orlando such a great place to visit. But he doesn’t always find it until he heads back home. “You must have a strong service culture,” he said. “You have to genuinely want to take care of people when you’re responsible for their experience.”
People don’t typically write letters to companies to say, “I really loved that roller coaster” or “I enjoyed the food at that restaurant.” They write about the experience they had with an employee and how that employee made them feel — good or bad.
“When they get here, that’s where the rubber meets the road in how well we take care of them,” Aguel said. “That’s one absolutely critical benefit we have. There’s no place I can think of where the entire community understands the importance of showing this level of hospitality. We have a culture here that supports our visitors like no other destination.
“Many individuals who lead businesses in our community were at one time part of the tourism industry. They were working at theme parks, hotels and restaurants. They understand the value of hospitality and have developed a service mentality. Wherever you go, people in Orlando are genuine, friendly, inviting, embracing and want to help. They want to be there to give you a great experience.”