|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 27, 2008 - Despite falling home values and rising gas prices, Central Florida tourism prospered in early 2008. But now, tourism officials are wondering how long their good fortune will last.
"We've become so accustomed to great growth in Orlando . . . that it's almost become the norm," said Scott Smith, an instructor and lodging expert in the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "We're spoiled in some ways."
Theme parks reported bigger first-quarter crowds -- but nearly every major airline is cutting service to Orlando this fall. Hotels filled a few more rooms during the first few months of the year than they did a year earlier -- but the region's main convention center will host fewer shows this fall than it did last fall.
Once again, Americans are booking vacations on short notice -- as little as a week out in some cases. The same thing happened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but this time the fear is tied to rising unemployment.
"The theme of this year is last-minute travel," said Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
As vacationers, Americans are trading down but not out in 2008, according to Peter Yesawich, chief executive officer of Ypartnership, a locally based research-and-marketing company.
Yesawich said his research indicated the percentage of households planning a trip -- 78 percent -- is essentially unchanged from 2007. And 42 percent of them said they are extremely or very interested in visiting Orlando.
"The good news is, Orlando has maintained its position of preference among American travelers," Yesawich said.
"The fall is going to be dicey," said Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's going to be choppy for the next six months."
Sain is concerned about September, which is historically a slow month for tourism anyway. His organization hopes to convince would-be visitors that the crowds are smaller, the weather's a bit cooler and the deals are a lot better in September.
Next year, the CVB will focus more on drawing international visitors -- though it will have a lot less money to work with, because a temporary injection of Orange County resort-tax revenue will be diverted to construction of the new downtown arena and performing-arts center. Brazilians have begun returning to Orlando in numbers, and other nationalities -- such as Russians -- are still fertile ground for travel promotions.
"They have invaded New York City. They have invaded Miami," Sain said of the Russians. "They need to invade Orlando."
The area's theme-park companies have been riding high this year, thanks in part to new rides at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando -- and to a new water park for SeaWorld, called Aquatica. The parks say they continue to bank on the strong family appeal of their Orlando properties, especially among tourists who might be avoiding overseas travel for a while, with the dollar buying so little in Europe and elsewhere.
"We hopefully have a very good product and also a unique product that you can't get anywhere else," said Joseph Couceiro, vice president of sales and marketing for Busch Entertainment Corp. "The Central Florida destination is still seen as a value for domestic and international tourists. So we have that advantage, unlike other destinations that have the perception of being more expensive."
Universal Orlando and the Busch parks, in particular, have been aggressively trying out a variety of new ticket and meal deals to attract more Florida residents and to capture more of every vacationer's time spent in Central Florida.
Still, there are some ominous signs. Disney is closing its Pleasure Island nightclubs while canceling a major, live theme-park show and scaling back another.
However, Disney is readying another live show, American Idol Experience, and Universal Orlando expects to keep its work force at current levels, not counting the additional staff that will be brought on for its annual Halloween surge.
Demographics are changing, and lodging executives need to appeal to larger groups that include grandparents, parents and children, said Don Harrill, president and chief executive of Orange Lake Resorts, a 2,500-unit time-share development west of Walt Disney World.
"They want to be with family," Harrill said during a panel discussion with other tourism experts at a recent tourism-industry discussion organized by the local hoteliers' association.
With travel becoming more of a hassle, Harrill said hoteliers need to find creative ways to help guests -- for example, by offering things such as loaner golf clubs to patrons who want to avoid luggage restrictions or new baggage fees. Lodging professionals need to figure out what they can do to change the travel paradigm, he said.
"There's a lot of gloom and doom, but there's also some positive indicators," said Tom Ackert, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center. "We're not ready to pull any panic alarms."
So far, the nation's second-largest convention center has 157 events committed for 2009, with a combined attendance estimated at 1.3 million people. Typically, the center books an average of 256 events a year, with a combined attendance of 1.4 million.
Premiere Show Group -- a Winter Springs-based trade-show company catering to beauty professionals -- recently pulled in 46,000 people at its Orlando event. For the rest of 2008, the center has 81 events planned, with an estimated attendance of 500,000. That's slightly fewer than during the second half of 2007, when the center hosted 118 events, with an attendance of about 600,000.
"Face-to-face business is alive and well, and that's really our product," Ackert said.
Struggling against record-high fuel prices, the airlines serving Orlando International Airport are planning to drop nearly 6,900 seats a day from their scheduled departures as of October. But if they're able to fill all of the remaining seats, OIA's passenger count still could wind up exceeding last year's record total of 36.5 million, said Carolyn Fennell, the airport's spokeswoman.
"When we look at the markets that are cut, they're second tiers -- the Little Rocks, the Ashevilles," Fennell said. "We have a diverse range of carriers, so the competition will be there."
Fennell predicts ticket prices will continue to rise and said OIA's passenger total could decline. The last time the airport's annual head count fell was in 2001 and 2002, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington sparked a months-long travel slump.
Fennell said Orlando needs to market itself more heavily on an international level.
"Our competition is not here," she said. "Our competition is Dubai, China, Argentina."
"Orlando is still a small town in the concept of how you market," Fennell said. "There's been a perception here that they will come because we're Florida -- they will come because they love us."
"Everything is changing, but here's what's not changing: People are still competing in events," said John Saboor, president and chief executive officer of the Central Florida Sports Commission. "If your son or daughter makes it to their AAU regional championship . . . chances are Mom and Dad are going to find a way to get them there."
Saboor's organization is feeling bullish about the rest of the year, as well as about 2009. More than 60 events are already on Central Florida's sports calendar next year, and the organization is still in its active shopping season. It hopes to build on the 87 events Central Florida landed for 2008.
The sports commission is also looking at ways to create events -- such as the Downtown Orlando Triathlon, now in its fifth year -- that will draw people here year after year.
"We are building those at times of the year when you need and want that business," Saboor said.
"2009 . . . is going to be about the perception of value," said Bud Nocera, president of Visit Florida, a private/public partnership that represents Florida's tourism industry. Gas prices have hit a level at which many Americans are curtailing auto use, and the number of visitors to Florida has leveled out at 82 million a year, Nocera said.
International visitors, who constitute 5.5 percent of all travelers to Florida, are coming this year in growing numbers.
Among the positives for the coming year:
*Attractions are doing more joint marketing.
*Amateur-sports events are attracting young athletes and their families to the state.
*Medical tourism is ripe for expansion.
"It's looking for the opportunity in this time of change," Nocera said, "and looking to what the new model is going to be."
Scott Powers of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Sara K. Clarke can be reached at 407-420-5664 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Orlando/Orange CVB targets Russians; some parks offer ticket and meal deals; sports marketers have a full calendar. Page A8
To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com.
Copyright (c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email email@example.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA. NYSE:DIS,