Orlando is No. 1 … again.
George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, the region’s official destination tourism and marketing organization, announced Thursday that the destination had a record 75 million visitors in 2018, reaffirming Orlando as the most visited destination in the U.S.
“It’s not every day you can generate numbers like that,” Aguel said. “People always ask us why you make a big deal of being No. 1 in visitors, well, hopefully we’ll have a lot of people at home going, ‘If everyone is going there, maybe we should, too.’”
Aguel made the announcement with Adrian Jones, Visit Orlando board chair and divisional director, USA, for Merlin Entertainments USA Inc., and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings in front of about 1,200 attendees at the Celebrating Travel & Tourism Luncheon at the Hilton Orlando. The announcement also came as part of National Travel and Tourism Week, and during Visit Orlando’s 35th anniversary.
The 75 million visitors represented a 4.2 percent increase over the previous year.
Orlando also set other records in 2018:
The 75 million visitors accounted for the majority of the state’s 126.1 million visitors in 2018.
Aguel said the meeting and event industry accounts for about 10 percent of the total number of visitors, making Orlando the top destination for that sector.
“We talk about numbers as a whole, but obviously we recognize that we’re pretty substantial on the [meetings and conventions] side of the business,” he said. “Needless to say, people always ask me, ‘How come you guys, if you’re so popular with people who just come on vacation, how come you’re so huge in the meeting and convention industry?’ Well, it’s the same as Las Vegas. Eighty percent of their business is there for leisure, but [people] like to come for meetings.
“Often the conversation is about where we are relative to someone else and I say Las Vegas has three convention centers, we have one. We’re always No. 2 in the large trade shows, but when you account for everything else, every size group meeting, we’re No. 1. We like that. We’re OK with that. We’ll never have three convention centers, we’ll never have two, but we’re happy our convention center does as well as it does while our hotels keep growing.”
By comparison, Las Vegas, the No. 2 destination, welcomed just over 42 million visitors in 2018, with about 6.5 million of those in the city for meetings and conventions. Orlando, though, is home to seven of the world’s top theme parks including such popular attractions as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld.
Aguel said about 40 percent of the people who live in the Orlando community work in the hospitality industry with tourists contributing to about half of the area’s sales tax.
“You take into account we’ve doing this for decades, focusing around the growth of the tourism industry and the value it brings to the community,” he said. “This is good for all of us. Everyone talks about 75 million, but if we don’t’ take care of them, they won’t come back.”
Orlando’s hold on the top spot will likely get even stronger going forward with significant expansions, enhancements and innovations at the Orange County Convention Center, Orlando International Airport and the city’s convention hotels.
The Orange County Convention Center is in the midst of a US$605 million campus improvement plan that will bring significant expansion including new meeting and exhibit spaces in the North and South concourses, further increasing the center’s 7 million square feet of total function space.
The center brings more than 200 conventions and events to Orlando, hosting 1.4 million attendees each year. The expansion includes an 80,000-square-foot ballroom with a grand entrance to the North-South building and a 200,000-square-foot multipurpose venue. There are now five pedestrian skybridges connecting more than 5,200 hotel rooms to the convention center.
“We are in a great position right now,” said Rodney Gutierrez, director of sales and marketing at the convention center. “We know we can do so much more. What are customers looking for in the future to stay relevant? We’re asking those questions.”
The city’s hotel inventory is growing every year, with more than 123,000 rooms of which 7,300 of which are within a one-mile radius of the convention center. By the end of 2019, that number will reach 128,600. Some of the new projects include Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, the largest of the six convention hotels at Walt Disney World Resort, which is expanding with construction underway on a new 15-story tower that will bring an additional 500 rooms to the resort. The expansion includes a new rooftop restaurant, meeting venues, a new board room and two multipurpose rooms to the resort’s current 220,000 square feet of dedicated meeting and function space.
Another is the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld, which added 30,000 square feet of flexible meeting space including a new 16,500-square-foot ballroom and six new breakout rooms. Later this year, Universal’s Endless Summer Resort Surfside Inn and Suites debuts, and next year, Universal’s Endless Summer Resort Dockside Inn and Suites opens.
The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress has broken ground on 25,000 square feet of flexible ballroom space, and next year, JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa opens with 516 guest rooms and 50,000 square feet of meeting space.
Also in 2020, a new tower at Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort debuts with 349 rooms and 22,000 square feet of meeting space.
Then there’s the Orlando International Airport, where the new North terminal is already welcoming more than 150 flights a day, and a new South terminal will be completed in 2021, which will add 19 more gates.
Is there a limit to how much Orlando can grow?
Aguel, who has been at Visit Orlando for 29 years, said he remembers thinking 20 years ago, then again 15 years ago, that “this is it and we can’t grow anymore. It’s impossible. It’s not going to happen, and it did happen. There’s really not an end to it.”
“What we’re trying to do is figure out how to be more innovative and reinforcing the creative side,” he said. “One thing is we represent some of the most creative brands in the world and we have to mirror that. We have to be sure the way we serve a meeting and convention, the opportunity and experience [attendees] get, is not the same they can get anywhere else.”