I’ve had a bit of a theory going for quite a few months now, one that I rarely hear discussed when conversations are happening about Disney Springs. I see talk around the large number of above-average restaurants that have been added, I see people talking about the “upscale shopping mall” side of Disney Springs, and above all, I see people wondering aloud how crazy Disney must be thinking that tourists would want to spend their time and money shopping at places like they have around. The draw for local Orlando residents seemingly is not large enough to sustain a place like Pleasure Island once was.
All of these things I feel are missing a big piece of business that at times flies under the radar of most Walt Disney World fans, one that would go a long way towards sustaining a large “lifestyle center” like Disney Springs: convention attendees.
I’ll state up front that this is not something I have firsthand experience with. I’ve attended very few conventions/work-conferences in my life, and none in Orlando. The largest one I’ve attended was in Las Vegas, a theme park environment in some ways, vastly different in others.
Central Florida as a Convention Center
The convention aspect is something I’ve speculated about for long enough that I decided it was time to investigate this a little and see what kind of evidence I could dig up to support or disprove the theory.
When looking for information on this, I’ll admit that a lot of the data that I can find online to support the impact of conventions in the Orlando area are presented by the convention industry. If you’re a conspiracy theorist that believes that accurate data can not be provided by an industry that supports it, make note of this now. I’d suggest that while the data might be presented in the rosiest light, the trends likely are based in fact.
Looking at the information I could find, Orlando is quite large on the convention circuit. The record breaking tourism numbers of the last few years make this quite believable. In 2015, it is estimated that 66 million people visited the Orlando area. This is up from 62.7 million in 2014. Looking back a couple of decades paints a stark contrast, as the number of visitors in 1995 was 32.4 million. In 20 years, the number of visitors doubled. That’s in essence a growth the size of the population of Texas in two decades.
In order to handle this increased visitor population, some infrastructure improvements are required. The Orlando Airport is undergoing a $3.1 billion capital improvement project, including a $1.8 billion new South terminal, capable of handling up to 1700 passengers per hour through its security processing area. An investment like that means that they project a continued increase in visitors in the next few decades. That means that in theory, this new terminal could help handle an extra 12 million (or more) visitors annually into the Orlando area.
What about conventions? Is Orlando a popular destination for conventions and conferences? The Sentinel also reported in May of 2016 that:
CVent (http://www.cvent.com/ ) - Rated Orlando #1 convention destination in US 2016
“The company ranked Orlando as the top U.S. meeting destination – above competitors like Chicago, Las Vegas and Atlanta — based on Cvent data and factors, including unique requests for proposals, total room nights generated, number of profile views and more.”
So Orlando is seeing a record number of visitors, and that it is (at least by some industry groups) ranked #1 destination in the US to hold a convention. That all seems reasonably logical. While Las Vegas and Chicago are two of the major players in the convention realm, Orlando has a major differentiating factor, it’s family entertainment options are second to none. Convention visitors are likely more inclined to try and bring their family to a vacation in Orlando. While mom’s at the convention, dad and the kids might be off riding Splash Mountain. A business traveler might not decide to bring their family along when they are headed off to Vegas, but Orlando it’s a distinct possibility.
Disney and Conventions
So how well is Disney prepared to handle these visitors?
Disney has the ability to host a great number of convention visitors. According to their Disney Meetings website:
With more than 700,000 square feet of flexible meeting and event space as well as six dedicated convention resorts, Walt Disney World Resort in Florida is the premier meeting and convention destination. Home to four theme parks, a nighttime entertainment district, championship golf courses and world-class spas, the Resort gives meeting attendees a variety of entertainment and dining options to choose from.
Disney has convention space available at the Boardwalk Inn, The Contemporary, The Grand Floridian, Coronado Springs, The Yacht & Beach Club, The Swan and The Dolphin. In 2014, The Four Seasons was opened, which added nearly 40,000 square feet of convention space. In fact, while researching this piece, the news broke that Disney is expanding its convention space at the Yacht Club.
Not quite as obvious, but related, Disney is building a new 8000 seat cheer and dance stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. With events like the cheer and dance competitions and Pop Warner tournaments, Disney is bringing in a large audience of families for their events. These tournaments don’t fit the classic mold of a convention, but are extremely similar in terms of drawing a large semi-captive audience to their resort.
This means that Disney is preparing to handle more guests like for conventions, conferences, and events. They know that there is untapped demand that they could help fill by expanding their ability to host more events. I assume as well that they have crunched the numbers internally to understand the economic value of hosting these visitors. For those travelers that will be attending a convention that is hosted on Disney property, it’s a huge benefit to ensure that they have everything that they would want within the gates. Just as Disney strives to keep guests “in the bubble”, so should they strive to do the same for conventioneers.
Disney Springs Town Center
Disney isn’t the only convention game in town of course. The Orange County Convention Center boasts over 2 million square feet of usable convention space. The OCCC is the king of the convention in the Orlando area. According to their press kit:
As of January 2015, there are 818 events with an estimated 11.9 million attendees booked through the year 2035. This will generate approximately $22.1 billion in economic impact during this timeframe.
Activity at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) supports over 1,000 local businesses and creates more than 26,000 local jobs.
The OCCC is also in the middle of a multi-year capital improvement project that is set to cost $187 million dollars. The focus of most of this work looks to be improving the interior, some of the conference rooms and hallways, as well as improving traffic flow. A nicer interior and ease of access are two things that will help improve the appeal of holding a convention at OCCC.
Other companies are also doing improvement projects to help handle the increased tourism. Up the road from the OCCC, I-drive is undergoing a massive transformation as well, with over $1 billion in various additions and upgrades accounted for. The Orlando Eye and the iSquare Mall are just the tip of the iceberg meant to attract visitors. The I-drive attractions are built right near the OCCC, and will provide a major draw within a short distance.
The Value of a Conventioneer
While a good portion of the visitors being sought are likely standard tourists, you can bet that the massive number of convention goers are a highly sought prize as well. With convention goers, you have an audience that may be spending corporate money, buying higher-priced meals than they typically would buy, and since dinner is on the corporate card, they may feel free to spend a little money shopping, drinking, or other entertainment options.
Looking at some estimates on the spending patterns of convention goers, the OCCC provides this information:
Financial Impact -- $1,970 Approximate Economic Impact Per Visitor Per Trip
Average number of nights per visitor - 2.8 nights
Top 5 visitor activities
24% - Dining
18% - Theme / Amusement Park
15% - Shopping
10% - Visiting Friends / Relatives
9% - Nightlife
$2.2 Billion In Total Economic Impact - Fiscal Year 2014–2015
Take a look at the list of how visitors tend to spend their time and money. Disney covers 4/5ths of those activities. With the upgrades to Disney Springs, Disney has vastly increased its desirable offerings for nearly half of the top visitor activities. What’s more, travelers that might not have interest in visiting the theme parks can be enticed to visit Disney Springs because of the Dining/Shopping/Nightlife aspects. If convention visitors prefer dining to theme park visits, then Disney Springs makes a HUGE play for those guests.
If the average impact of a convention-goer is nearly $2000, the more of that pie that Disney can capture the better. If Disney can entice their on-site convention guests to stay on property rather than travel out into Orlando, they keep those dollars within the mouse. If Disney can convince convention-goers to spend at least one of their nights in Disney Springs, that’s a highly-desirable consumer that is now on Disney property that might not have been there previously.
The new offerings, the higher-end shopping, the destination dining, the unique lounges. These are the kinds of establishments that a convention visitor is looking for. The dining locations like STK or Morimoto might bring them in, and while they are on property they are likely to do a little shopping as well. Those dollars might have been lost to the outlet malls, I-drive establishments, or City Walk, but can be kept in Disney’s pocket with the improvements being made to what was once Downtown Disney.
STK Orlando - a high end restaurant in Disney Springs
I know that while I’m on a family vacation, my desire to go to Downtown Disney was quite small, and typically relegated to an hour or two on an “off” day from the parks. The World of Disney was more likely to draw my business than the other venues.
If I were to head to Orlando on business for a convention however, Disney Springs would likely have my business nearly every night. I’m guessing I’m not the only one that is like this either, and I’m guessing that Disney is well aware of this market that is now starting to be tapped in a much more effective way. Just food for thought the next time you’re reading news about a new dining establishment at Disney Springs (pun very much intended). Your average American tourist family just may not be the intended audience, unless they are there on business.