In recent years, millions of dollars have been invested in the meetings infrastructure around the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando—the second largest convention center in the country. As the host city for Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Conference in July, Orlando officials had a chance to show itself off.
"In addition to the opportunity to showcase the "new Orlando" with our $4 billion in new infrastructure, hosting WEC allowed us to meet face-to-face with thousands of meeting professionals—a vital component to the success of our hospitality industry and the destination at large," said Gary Sain, president and CEO, Visit Orlando.
Most notable among the hotel projects is the 1,417-room Hilton Orlando, which opened in 2009. It was one of two headquarters hotels for the WEC, both of which connect to the convention center via walkways. The other, the 1,641-room Peabody Orlando, added 750 rooms and 250,000 square feet of meeting space with its 2010 expansion. “We were extremely pleased with this year’s World Education Congress, which resulted in 29 property site tours, 32 hosted-buyer appointments, and approximately $18 million in identified business opportunities for the hotel,” said Gregg Herning, vice president of sales and marketing, Peabody Hotels.
Orlando now has 3,785 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, 7,380 rooms within one mile, and 16,668 rooms within two miles. Overall, there are about 116,000 hotel rooms in the destination, with more on the way. According to a recent Smith Travel Research/McGraw Hill Construction Dodge Pipeline Report, Orlando ranks second in the nation for new hotel room construction with 2,636 new rooms in the pipeline.
Increased demand is driving the construction. In 2010, the OCCC saw a 13 percent increase in conventions and a 17 percent increase in attendance. In 2010, Orlando became the first destination in the U.S. to top 50 million visitors in a single year. This year, business travel to Orlando is expected to jump 2.3 percent, and next year it is expected to climb 5 percent, thanks in part to SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, which is bringing about 45,000 attendees to Orlando in April for the International Plastics Showcase. It is SPI’s first time in Orlando after 40 years in Chicago.
One of the big draws for SPI and other associations is Orlando’s popularity with the growing Brazilian travel market. "While our new location in Orlando promises to attract Brazilians because of its lower costs, easier access by air, and popularity as a vacation destination, we expect that the economic boom in Brazil will provide even stronger reasons for attending NPE2012," said Gene Sanders, SPI's senior vice president for trade shows and conferences.
“Orlando has become a gateway for [visitors from ] South America,” said Sain. Orlando attracts 450,000 visitors per year from Brazil alone, he said, adding that he believes that just scratches the surface. “If Brazil was a visa waiver country, that number would double in just one year,” he said. At the WEC, MPI saw its highest-ever attendance from South America, officials said.
Beyond the meetings infrastructure, several other projects are in the works that officials hope will boost Orlando’s profile as a center for business. One is the Lake Nona Medical City, a 7,000-acre development that will house a children’s hospital, veteran’s hospital, the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Facility, University of Central Florida medical school, MD Anderson Cancer Research Institute, and the University of Florida Medical Research Facility, in addition to retail outlets, residential facilities, and schools. Another is the planned construction of a Creative Village on 70 acres in downtown Orlando on the site of the old Amway Arena. City leaders envision a cluster of high-tech companies, primarily in the area of digital media, as well as retail areas and residential buildings.
With these improvements, Visit Orlando will place “a greater emphasis on branding the destination as a great place to do business,” said Sain.