Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Gary Sain spoke to MeetingNews associate editor Michael B. Baker about recent executive appointments to change interactions with meeting planners and Central Florida development.
MeetingNews: How did you restructure your executive team?
Gary Sain: The newest addition to our bench is Fred Shea, vice president of strategic partnerships. Fred's been in the industry a long time and has great experience on the hotel side. He worked for Hyatt and ConferenceDirect, which he just came from. Fred's going to help us as it relates to the intermediary market: Maritz Travel, SmithBucklin, ConferenceDirect, HelmsBriscoe and multi-association management firms. They're all middle persons between the client and the supplier. Those have become more important today than ever before. In some hotel companies, the percentage of business coming through intermediaries could approach 50 percent on the group side. So, it's important to us as a destination to have someone of high experience and recognition and who is well respected to help us garner a disproportionate share of that business. This person will help to really strategize and create marketing and sales programs that keep Orlando top of mind with all of these different segments.
MN: Any other restructuring taking place?
Sain: We also added a creative marketing specialist on the meetings and conventions side who can help our customers grow their business with us. If a client wants us to help them with attendance-building, branding or marketing strategies, we now have a dedicated person in the meetings and conventions department acting as a liaison to our other marketing resources. We haven't had that position before, and it's another position you may not find in other CVBs.
We also added a director of corporate accounts three months ago. We've always been known as a big association marketplace, but people don't realize how strong we are on the corporate side. Before the recession hit, 40 percent of our CVB leads were corporate. The director of corporate accounts can really help us lead and be more aggressive in this sector of our business. This person is strictly targeted at the larger corporate opportunities that may use the convention center with multiple hotels or one of Orlando's big hotels for a large meeting.
MN: What are your expectations for 2010?
Sain: 2009 was a challenging year for everyone. We actually did OK from a destination standpoint, but the meetings/convention segment of our business was certainly down because of a lot of hotels experienced cancellations in the first quarter, and attendance was down at the convention center for citywide events.
We had some good news in 2009 for future bookings. We came very close to making our overall goal for all future bookings with future attendance. We found they may not have been booking in 2009 and may not be booking a lot for 2010, but especially in the association market, we were booking a lot of associations for future years. The National Plastics Expo was a big win for us. That was in Chicago for 38 years, and we got that for 2012 and 2015.We booked Star Wars Celebration V for August of this year. We're the number one destination for medical meetings, conventions and trade shows, and we have been for 12 years. Because we opened a medical city next to the airport—one of only two medical cities being built right now, the other being in Dubai—that will bring us even more medical opportunities.
We have more forecasted attendees on the books in 2010 than we did in 2009, so it should be a better year if everybody holds. Also, we're feeling an increased activity for meeting planners calling and asking questions, and hotels are seeing an increase especially for late 2010 for short-term bookings. For 2011, activity has been extremely strong.
MN: Do people want to take advantage of deals before demand returns?
Sain: Yes, and companies are saying, "We haven't had a meeting in two or three years. We have to get back to face-to-face meetings and back to our customers. We can't build relationships by e-mail." That's stimulating some of this resurgence as well.
MN: How has development held up in Orlando?
Sain: We've put in over $2 billion in new construction. If you think about the last couple of years, not many destinations can do that. We added the 1,400-room Hilton Orlando, and the Peabody Orlando is doubling, going to 1,650 rooms at the convention center. We added the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek: That's a 1,000 room Hilton connected to a 500-room Waldorf, the first Waldorf Astoria ever built outside of New York City. Four Seasons has a projected opening in 2012. Orlando will always be a beacon for additional investment because it's such a strong destination with close to 50 million visitors a year.
MN: How sizable is Orlando's meetings market right now?
Sain: Other than Vegas, Orlando is the second-largest meetings market. As far as number of hotels with large meeting space ratios, we're also number two, with Vegas being the only one bigger. We can do a 2,500-person meeting based on double occupancy with a general session for 5,000 in one hotel. That's very unusual for a city to be able to do, but we have a number of properties that can do that. With 6 million square feet of space between the center and all the hotels, the challenge we have is that we're a great destination, but we're putting the pressure on the market because we have a lot of inventory to fill. What's nice for the meeting professional, whether it's corporate, association, incentive or third-party, is that there's great choice and we have great price points. Unlike other destinations where you're maybe straddled in one of those price categories, we have great choices from the lower end all the way to the higher end.
MN: Does the perception issue affect Orlando as much as it does other cities?
Sain: A destination should never be singled out because it's a vacation or leisure destination. For Orlando, out of 48 million visitors in 2008, we had 10 million business travelers, so we are a very serious business destination. It just goes back to informing, messaging and educating the audience that Orlando is not only a great leisure destination but that we're also a top-tier business destination and the second-largest meetings market in the country. Because of the leisure strength, we're the fourth-lowest airfare market in the country, and our rates are not as high as in pure commercial business destinations because of the balance of the leisure markets. Leisure actually makes you a much more affordable, accessible destination.
MN: Does the industry need to articulate that better?
Sain: It's easy for American Airlines, for Hyatt Hotels, for the Orlando CVB or for U.S. Travel to say, here are the benefits of face-to-face business meetings and here's the return. It's right, but maybe sometimes sounds self-serving based on the audience you're trying to reach. The missing link is: If we had three to five senior executives with global brands who said the best investment we make in marketing is face-to-face meetings, then I think that message resonates even with more impact. Then, the C-suite of corporate America sees it from a blue-chip company and a peer set, and they'll say, "Well, wait a minute, one of my competitors is saying it's giving them a leg up. I don't want to be caught in the rear." We're trying to get more third-party testimonials where it becomes not only authentic but is talking on an equal playing field or level of respect.
Originally published March 1, 2010