By CASANDRA MATEJ
This content originally appeared March 19 as a guest column in the Orlando Sentinel.
It’s been a hard year. We’ve all had unfathomable losses in our families, our workplaces and community. This loss has been felt around the world.
This pandemic also has created collaboration beyond even our large imaginations. From tourism giants to small hair salons, local businesses were dependent upon each other for a collective commitment to safety. We are fortunate that Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings addressed this need early on with a cross-sectional regional task force to determine a unified, measured and, most of all, safe manner for the community to resume operations.
The travel industry, which is at its core about making memories with others, hit an unbelievable low. Visitors create the economic foundation of our local economy, a whopping $75.2 billion. Equally important is the fact that tourism supports over 40 percent of the local workforce. This was one of the most heartbreaking and personal impacts as, at our lowest point in May, 163,000 of our colleagues, friends and neighbors lost their jobs in the industry.
But our imagination created new paths. Harnessing our famous Orlando creativity, we developed new ways to host guests safely and start to rebuild consumer confidence, and the industry and rest of the country took note.
- Orange County led the way with a required mask mandate, gave free PPE and safety signage to encourage business compliance; ensured rapid testing was easily accessible for all.
- City leaders closed off roads to allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining.
- Theme parks came up with new ways to still create magical moments and committed to operate at reduced capacities for greater space.
- Hotels, attractions and restaurants adapted with new touchless technologies such as online check-ins, QR codes and automated processes.
At Visit Orlando, we switched from worldwide marketing to focusing on our own backyard. We raised $345,378 to provide food for struggling residents and established an online help hub for businesses to stay informed on ever-changing industry updates.
We partnered with Orange County and OEP to create a regional safety campaign to encourage mask compliance among businesses and joined forces with Orlando Health and the convention center to create the country’s first medical concierge program for conventions.
We launched new marketing programs to urge locals to take out and dine safely in our restaurants and Florida residents to take spontaneous staycations in our hotels.
People gradually began to venture out, mostly for travel closer to home. The hotels are gradually coming back, with now over 90 percent of our properties open. By year’s end, the industry was thankful to be able to add back 73,900 of the lost jobs for our residents — although we have miles to go, with 89,000 positions still down from pre-pandemic levels.
Assuming a continued successful vaccine rollout, domestic travel is predicted to gain momentum starting this summer. International travel will be one of the later segments to recover due to travel restrictions. Meeting and convention business will also be down for a while, although Orlando is recovering at a faster pace than our peers. Visit Orlando and the center have rescheduled 47 cancelled conventions — for a much-welcomed $681 million in local revenue impact — and continue to book new groups for 2021.
And leisure travelers remain our mainstay. Just last month, Visit Orlando launched our first full-scale, multi-channel advertising campaign to multiple states beyond Florida. We are investing $8 million, funded by Tourist Development Taxes from overnight visitors, into this campaign to spur spring and summer visitation.
The collective hard work is paying off: Bookings for summer and beyond are strong, with 81% of people feeling confident that they can travel safely in the next six months, once vaccines are widely available. And we are focused on full recovery by 2023.
As residents, our tourism-based economy provides us a long-term positive resource. Not only for economic benefits in good times, but also its ability to rebound after tough times, which is the phase we are in now.
I am honored to join the community during this significant time, and my pledge to you is that Visit Orlando is focused on stoking economic recovery with even greater marketing, publicity and sales efforts to bring back travelers. You also can see Orlando’s commitment to safety woven into all we do. The future is promising, and I look forward to working together to emerge as an even stronger and safer community in the coming year.