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Expansion Effort Shows That Size Does Matter

Putting Their Best Feet Forward: While Las Vegas grabs an increasing share of convention and trade show dollars, other cities aren't standing still. A look at what several of them are doing to attract business.

September 23, 2003|Jerry W. Jackson | Orlando Sentinel

This is no Mickey Mouse market when it comes to travel.

The Orlando area has long dominated Florida's leisure travel sector, thanks to attractions such as Walt Disney World.

Now the expansion of the cavernous Orange County Convention Center has cemented the region's lead in the state for conventions and meetings as well.

With about 2 million square feet of exhibition space, double its previous size, the newly expanded center in south Orlando is by far the largest meeting place in Florida and among the nation's top three single-site locations, just behind Chicago and ahead of Las Vegas.

Although Orlando and Florida historically have not been thought of as top business travel markets -- in the same league as Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Dallas -- the picture has changed in recent years. The worlds of corporate meetings and tourism intersect in the Orlando area in a way that blurs the line between leisure and business travel, giving the region a competitive edge.

But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, business travel has been in trouble everywhere. Even industry promoters are having a hard time mustering optimism.

"Lots of companies are just not sending people on the road," said Tom Flanigan, spokesman for Visit Florida, a public-private organization responsible for promoting the state.

Business visitors accounted for 19% of the total 62.3 million domestic overnight visitors to Florida in 2001, the most recent year for which a breakout is available. Total domestic visitation rose to 69.6 million in 2002, and although researchers are still sorting out how many were business visitors, Flanigan said, the percentage might be less, and it could go down in 2003 as well.

The National Business Travel Assn. heads to Orlando for its 2004 annual meeting. Carol Devine, the group's recently elected president, predicts a record 5,000 members will make the trip -- whether the business travel industry is much improved or not.

The previous record of nearly 4,800 was for the recent 35th annual meeting in Dallas, where the topic of the continuing crisis in business travel was a big draw. The draw for Orlando, Devine said, is the location.

"Orlando," she added, "is all about hospitality."

-- Jerry W. Jackson

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