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After Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win this past Sunday, the first-ever Virtual Florida Huddle kicked off with a celebratory mood on Monday morning, with Florida tourism officials feeling optimistic about travel, and Visit Florida CEO Dana Young noting that she’s “extremely optimistic on the year ahead. We are seeing so much pent-up demand, and we just need for people to travel. I do believe that as soon as people can travel, logistically they are going to come here and when they come, we are here to welcome them with open arms and give them an amazing experience.

“Florida offers something that most if not all states in the country cannot offer right now,” she noted during the Virtual Florida Huddle press conference, “and that is the ability to live your life in an amazing outdoor setting; to enjoy wide-open spaces; outdoor recreation; fantastic beaches; theme parks; outdoor dining; you name it…. We do stress personal responsibility—wear a mask if you are unable to social distance, of course, wash your hands…socially distance when needed. But beyond that, get out and enjoy this amazing unique state that we have…and all the outdoor experiences that are available to residents and visitors alike.”

Young noted that Visit Florida has seen success with its Domestic Rebound Campaign, as well as its In-State Rebound Campaign, which targeted both in-state visitors and various domestic markets. “I think we have been able to position ourselves domestically really well,” and with its winter campaign, Visit Florida will be targeting the U.S. west coast—California, Oregon and Washington. “We feel we have a lot to offer,” she noted.

She also pointed out that “COVID highlighted the critical importance of tourism to our economy here in Florida. Tourism is our number one industry,” with Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay (VTB), adding that, “If anything good has come out of this, it’s been the realization that tourism is vital for Florida’s economy. Sometimes you don’t value something until you don’t have it anymore.”

By the Numbers
In terms of 2020 domestic visitation (excluding in-state visitors), the first quarter of 2020 saw 28 million visitors, with the second quarter dipping to 12.6 million, and the third quarter inching back up slightly to 21.6 million, with the majority of those visitors categorized as “non-air,” due in part to reduced air service and, according to Visit Florida officials, “because some people feel less comfortable in an airplane or an airport than a car.” The first three quarters of 2020 saw 62.2 million visitors (as of press time, fourth quarter was not available), compared to just over 115 million domestic visitors to Florida in 2019.

A Florida Keys flats guide idles away from the dock during the dawn of a new day in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Florida saw more visitation from some Southeast states, including Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, in the second half of 2020 than it did in the second half of 2019. “It’s related to the difference between air and travel…people felt much safer traveling relatively close to home compared to where they previously might’ve traveled, and it’s super easy to get to Florida by car,” the Visit Florida official mentioned. And because the Florida Panhandle specifically is easy to get to by car from those Southeast states, in the second quarter of 2020 the area saw an uptick in visitation when compared to the same time period in 2019. The Florida Keys, too, proved to be quite popular.

That said, airports across Florida have welcomed new domestic routes, including a new nonstop from Honolulu to Orlando International Airport (MCO). In terms of air capacity February to April 2021 vs. 2019, there’s an uptick from Hawaii, as well as various Northwest states.

Getting Ready for Florida Huddle 2022
Florida Huddle 2022, to be held Jan. 24-26, 2022, will be hosted by Tampa, and take place at the Tampa Convention Center located in the city’s downtown district.

“We are very excited to be welcoming Florida Huddle and all our hospitality industry friends in person to Tampa Bay in 2022,” said VTB’s Corrada. “We are no strangers to hosting some of the most epic Huddles and this time around will be very special. Since last time we hosted, Tampa has changed dramatically with brand-new hotels, attractions, restaurants and an emerging downtown core that has become a focus for residents and visitors. We know you’ll love it and we look forward to hosting an industry reunion that we all need.”

This year’s Virtual Florida Huddle was the first Huddle to include travel advisors, and speaking to that, Young said, “It’s great to have travel agents and I think it’s a recognition of how important travel agents are to our industry and to our state. Frankly, I don’t know why we didn’t include them before, but the virtual format really lends itself to that because you don’t have to deal with all of the logistics of getting 350 travel agents to Florida.

“Going forward, assuming it’s successful, and believe it will be, we could continue to have a virtual element so perhaps if a travel agent couldn’t afford to be here in person, we can include them in a hybrid Huddle event.”

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