In May, Visit Orlando announced that the destination became the first in the U.S. to surpass 72 million visitors. That’s not the only new record for the destination — the Orange County Convention Center welcomed 1.53 million attendees in 2017, up 5 percent from 2016. George Aguel, who celebrates his five-year anniversary heading up Visit Orlando in 2018, weighs in on what’s new and what’s next for the destination.
Congratulations on a banner year! What are your hopes for the next five years, in terms of visitation numbers and overall growth related to both the leisure and the meetings segments?
I remember [when we hit] 50 million — who would have imagined that we could be at 72 in that short of a period? I believe that number will only continue to grow, because we already see more growth, more investment coming into the community. We’ve managed to marry the appeal of the destination to the leisure visitor with what appeals to convention delegates and organizers, because generally we know that as convention attendees, we all like to go attend a conference, a meeting, a great show in a place that we personally would like to visit ourselves.
Clearly, Orlando has a lot going for it as a meeting destination, but it’s had to overcome some challenges — for example, Orlando didn’t have a great dining reputation in years past.
We were more known for casual dining and fast food service. We started to first figure out, how are we going to get to…the truer story, the deeper story about our dining options and opportunities? We brought in the James Beard Awards’ semifinalist announcement to Orlando — the first time they left New York City. The attention that drew to us immediately created the question, ‘Why are they there?’ We took advantage of that, and it really sort of launched what then became a continuous focus for us. We did make the choice that we would take the lead to aggregate all the dining opportunities that we have, and we made sure that we were painting the right picture for the public and for meeting organizers as well. I can tell you that definitely now, and I would say over the last couple of years, we just don’t hear that as a complaint or a concern.
What do you think is the next challenge for the destination?
We’ve done, perhaps, such a good job overall that the demand for conventions and meetings has been and continues to be very strong. Consequently, one of the challenges we have is with our convention-center demand, and we recognize that we need to expand [the Orange County Convention Center]. I think that we can look forward to some more to come on how we intend to do that. With that, frankly, also comes the need for more hotels. While we may already be at 121,000 [rooms], which is a huge number…we know we need more, so we are seeing a good interest from investors to continue to add to that inventory.