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Celebrating a Strong Performance for Tourism and Looking Ahead

February 23, 2024 News

The revenue highs of the past two years for the tourism industry flattened and even experienced a slight downturn starting in May 2023, said Mark Jackson, director of Tourism & Sports for Visit Central Florida, but 2024 and beyond has many bright spots. 

Jackson said almost everything his organization does is based on research and strategically planned and activated to “make sure cash registers ring.” He noted two records from 2023:  

  • April “closed out 26 consecutive record-setting months of revenue, a ‘highlight’ that has never been accomplished in Polk County’s tourism industry’s history.” 
  • “Visit Central Florida Sports recruited and hosted 308 sporting events, which generated more than $215 million in economic impact.”  

He also noted LEGOLAND’s announcement that it will be opening an aquarium in the fall, which “will undoubtedly bolster revenues in the last quarter of the year.” 

He’s quick to point out that Visit Central Florida has a unique business model that includes “our dual focus on both economic development and aggressively driving demand, which has also proven to be a verifiable hedge against economic downturns.” 

Facility Growth for Tourism and Sporting Events

He noted additions and improvements that will help tourism and sports:  

  • Four collegiate-sized baseball fields opened at the Northeast Regional Park in Davenport.  
  • Artificial turf will replace grass at five fields at Simmers Young Park in Winter Haven. 
  • Four additional softball fields will be available at the Bartow Softball Complex. 
  • The Chain of Lakes Baseball Complex will be reconfigured to bolster Polk’s position as Florida’s top amateur baseball destination.  

There have been other investments, too, he said. “The creation of the new Championship Ski Lake in Auburndale, within eyeshot of Camp Margaritaville RV Resort, has already paid significant dividends, including events from USA Water Ski.” 

Camp Margaritaville Auburndale 

General Manager Dawn Priebe said the Camp Margaritaville RV Resort was tremendously successful in 2023. It celebrated: 

  • “The grand opening of Paradise Pavilion, our 14,000-square-foot event center that has been host to vendor markets, special events and concerts, which were all open to the public and available for the local community to enjoy. 
  • Hosted many events, including weddings, birthday parties and RV Rallies, which bolstered our reputation as the place to stay and play in Central Florida.  
  • Landed at the forefront of the Margaritaville estate for guest satisfaction in the RV/Camp space, which is a testament to how much our team loves what they do and shares that love of fun with our guests.”  

It also was named the Best Luxury RV Resort in 2023 by RV Share. 

Culinary Tourism Destination

Visit Central Florida doesn’t have all its eggs invested in sports.  

“We’ve embarked on what may be the most challenging, and most rewarding, endeavor yet – repositioning Polk County as a culinary destination,” Jackson said. “By focusing on three prongs – farm-to-fork, barbecue and culinary experiences – we aim to sculpt a new image based on the activity that research shows rates highest among experiential travelers – food.” 

In fact, he said, food “is one of the most sought-out family travel experiences. From the already created Good Food Polk to the pending inaugural Triple Crown of Barbecue and beyond, our efforts are already changing the perception of Polk County’s culinary scene”   

Outlook for Year Ahead

Jackson and his team are forecasting that tourism “will remain slightly below last year’s record-setting pace in the first half of 2024, but then pick up modestly in the second half. We’re optimistic, however, that after years of work in partnership with the team at Lakeland Linder International Airport (LLIA), the successful recruiting of Avelo Airlines will prove to be a boost to Polk’s tourism industry.” 

Avelo is a new commercial airline that will fly into LLIA, starting in June. It could fly to as many as 10 locations by the end of the year, he said. 

Visit Central Florida has two major events planned, both in October: 

  • The Pan American Wakeboard Championships, which are being held in the U.S. for the first time. 
  • The IWWF World Barefoot Water Ski Championships. 

Jackson also shared another economic development project – the new multipurpose stadium at Lake Myrtle, which will hold its first FYSA state soccer championships this year as well as the 2024 USA Soccer Southeast Championship. 

“These investments will also help generate the demand needed to fill more than 1,200 new hotel rooms that are slated to open in the next two years,” Jackson said.  

There’s much more on the plate, too.  

LEGOLAND Florida will open its Sea Life Aquarium in the fall, and a Ferrari Build & Race in spring 2024, said President Frank Idris.  

Like Jackson, Idris said he expects tourism to be down a bit in 2024, rebounding in 2025. That’s when he has major expansions planned.  

At Margaritaville, a full calendar of concerts and events are on tap for resort guests and the community.  

“Through our partnership with Central Florida Tix, a local ticketing platform, it gives us opportunities to offer a wide range of musical and theatrical performances, watch parties and family friendly events that compete with what you’d find in larger markets,” Priebe said. “Welcoming the local Auburndale/Polk County community is a key focus for us in 2024, whether guests are planning to camp with us overnight or just dropping in to enjoy a margarita and live music.” 

Economic Insights of Tourism

Jackson is proud of the work being done to bring tourists to the county: “We enjoyed a record-breaking year with more than $200 million in sports economic impact.”  

But he’s also pragmatic about this year: “We’re very concerned about the macro-economic environment and its impact on the tourism industry. The current rate of consumer’s discretionary spending is certainly not sustainable. Since the pandemic, consumers were flush with cash and had easy access to affordable credit. But now, the disturbing combination of consumer savings running dry and credit becoming costlier will likely impact actual spending, and undoubtedly travel.” 

In the end, he’s betting on Visit Central Florida, which has survived past storms like 9/11 and the pandemic “primarily due to healthy reserves, investing heavily in the recession resistant sports industry and activating well researched and fundamentally sound strategic plans. 2024 shouldn’t be much different.”   

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