[Orlando, Florida] Al Kidd, President & CEO of Sports ETA, the international association for the sports events and tourism industry, is one of a several influential voices hailing Orlando’s rapidly recovering tourism industry and identifying sport as a key driver.
“As we emerge from the restrictions and challenges of the pandemic and return to business, great cities like Orlando are poised to recover faster than others. Sports events and sports tourism in Orlando have shown to be the re-entry catalyst, generating new and much needed business”, he said.
Jesse Martinez, General Manager at The Alfond Inn, Chairman of the Central Florida Lodging Association Board of Directors, and Board Member at Visit Florida, agrees. “In my opinion, Central Florida has a tremendous head start on all other major city travel destinations. After seeing a huge influx of travelers this past spring break, we have not slowed down since.”
“Sports tourism was an early bright spot when Orlando began to reopen in the summer of 2020 as we hosted the NBA bubble, the MLS is Back Tournament and youth events such as the AAU’s Jr. National Volleyball Championship,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, who echoed the sentiments of Jesse Martinez by saying that “Orlando has a one-year head start”.
To underline this, the 2021 edition of the same AAU Youth Volleyball event - hosted just a few weeks ago - drew over 130,000 participants and visitors. Mark Tester, Executive Director at the Orange County Convention Center said: “The event drove one of our highest food and beverage totals in the Center’s history.”
Don Welsh, President and CEO of Destinations International, added: “All eyes were on Orlando during the pandemic as the NBA and MLS restarted their seasons. It was impressive to watch their collaborative community come together to host in the most trying of circumstances.”
Orlando believes its emphasis on encouraging sports-related travel and welcoming teams and players has been a game-changing factor in keeping its infrastructure ticking over.
“When business travel collapsed, some cities were saved by their youth and amateur sport travel business” said Jason Siegel, CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. “There is no doubt in my mind that sports tourism is a viable pathway for generating visitor spending and promoting a destination – which is why Orlando puts such a high priority on it”.
In normal times, Orlando has the largest tourism industry in the USA, producing $26 billion a year, exceeding Las Vegas with $19 million. One in five workers in Orlando (21%) worked directly in hospitality and leisure in 2019. When COVID-19 struck, the unemployment rate skyrocketed. “Our neighbors at Port Canaveral, who derive significant revenue from the cruise industry, lost 43% of their workforce,” said Siegel.
But as life normalizes, the recovery is swift, much more so than many anticipated. Hotels are taking bookings; forward occupancy is very promising and optimism abounds.
According to a study authored by Adam Sacks of Tourism Economics, hotel room demand overall has reached 89% of 2019 figures and air passengers are at 71% (June 2021). Leisure trips will be nearly back to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, although business will take longer. He has said: “Overall, sports are outperforming the market as youth sports have returned well before other business-related events. In fact, we are hearing from clients that sports have been the star performer in what has been an otherwise dismal market”
Orlando, one of 17 US candidate host cities for the 2026 FIFA World Cup™, is hoping to be selected for the final 10. “I believe our reputation as a collaborative tourism community and reliable partner to sport – and our popularity as a destination – suggest we surely deserve a place” Siegel summed up.