Hospitality and tourism has long been the driver of Florida’s economy. According to the Visit Florida’s latest Travel and Tourism Report, the industry had a $91 billion economic impact on the state in 2018, supporting more than 1.5 million jobs and $54 billion in total wages and proprietor income for the state’s workers.
Now, almost a year after COVID-19 devastated travel and tourism economies around the world, Florida is no different. The state saw a 34% drop off in visitors for 2020 and, like almost all major global destinations, is looking to climb the rest of the hurdles towards its tourism recovery, which is so vital to the state.
“The crisis highlighted the critical importance of tourism here in Florida. Tourism is our number one industry and as state economists started looking into it, half of the reduction in sales tax collection [that Florida saw in 2020] was attributed to hospitality and tourism,” Dana Young, CEO of Visit Florida, said during the Florida Huddle last week.
Young took some time during Huddle, which is the official, annual trade show for Visit Florida, to talk to Travel Market Report about how it has been recovering and what the future looks like for the Sunshine State.
Some cities are faring better than others
According to Young, beach communities “have done really well” during the COVID-19 pandemic as both the drive market and some domestic fly market have flocked to beachside towns that provide an opportunity to have a close-to-normal vacation with social distancing already in place.
Those communities include St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Tampa, which, according to Visit Tampa Bay’s Santiago Corrada, is down just 30% in hotel occupancy compared to 2019.
“There certainly is a greater appreciation for our off the beaten path opportunities and adventures that we have to offer,” Young said. “People are interested in being out in nature, they are enjoying the wide open spaces. Those opportunities are things that we’ve been marketing for a while but I think there is just a great opportunity for them now.”
On the other hand, cities that have typically been a haven for conference and business travel have been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Orlando has painted a very different, much worse picture, due to the significant decrease in the meetings and conventions silo and the reduction in business travel,” Young told TMR.
Orlando has long been the premier theme-park destination not only in the United States, but worldwide. The city has benefited from both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando’s reopening, both of which have been done carefully, and safely, after shutting earlier in the pandemic.
“From what I've seen with the reopening of our theme parks and attractions across the state – they’ve done a fantastic job of taking all of the safety protocols to heart and making sure visitors and guests have a wonderful experience,” Young said.
But Orlando, and therefore Florida as a whole, will find it difficult to fully recover until the meetings and conventions begin to come back and that, according to Young, is going to be the biggest challenge for the state’s tourism sector.
“Many companies still have travel restrictions on their employees and those businesses need to feel their employees will be safe on business trips,” she said.
Part of that will be helping companies protect themselves from potential liability when sending employees on business travel. In the Florida legislature there are currently several pieces of legislation that would do just that, and Young believes that getting something on the books, which already exists in 21 other states, would kick start the segment’s recovery.
Travel advisor resources
This year’s Florida Huddle was the first one ever to include travel advisors.
“It’s great to have travel agents and it's just a recognition of how important travel agents are to our industry and to our state,” she said. “I don’t know why we didn’t include them before.”
Young told TMR that while the industry has always seen advisors have an “outsized” role for European and Latin American vacation, COVID-19 has pushed a “reassurance” or advisor-use for domestic vacations.
“People who have had travel plans early in the spring had to cancel and reschedule a lot of travel,” Young said. “We all know that they can be a real asset even on the best of days. The value of a travel agent and the services they provide are front and center now and people realize that there is a tremendous value that can be your ambassador.”
Travel advisors who may have only been booking the big highlights in Florida, like Miami or Orlando, can get reacquainted with what else the state offers through the Florida Travel Pro advisor portal. That portal has been recently updated with three new modules, including one in ecotourism, one in LGBTQ tourism, and one in road trips.
Advisors should also keep an eye out as Visit Florida expects to host several Fams going forward, with opportunities for advisors to visit the state.