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ORLANDO-Hotel consultants Robin L. Webb of Winter Park, FL and Sheldon Greene of Miami have some unsolicited advice for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau: Don’t worry about business travel volume five years from now–it will be there.

The bureau’s latest statistics show volume in 2001 was five million business visitors, down 12.3% from 5.7 million in 2000.

The number of attendees at conventions or meetings held in hotels or at the four million-sf Orange County Convention Center is shrinking–651,954 at 586 meetings in the first half of this year versus 1.2 million at 697 meetings in the first six months of 2001.

At the same time, a total 450,000 sf of new or expanded meeting space has opened up at hotels in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties since January of this year. Another 450,000 sf will surface by 2006 if hotel owners can get financing for the new construction.

The bureau puts the total hotel meeting space in Orlando at 2.38 million and expects that number to grow by at least 830,000 sf to 3.21 million by 2005.

That one million sf of convention/meeting space at area hotels is in addition to the two million sf of new meeting and exhibit space being completed at the Orange County Convention Center.

The numbers show demand isn’t keeping pace with supply, bureau researchers contend.

“The bottom line is that meetings rooms and convention space within a hotel are designed to drive guest room occupancies and not to be profit centers within themselves,” Webb, vice president and managing broker of Coldwell Banker Commercial NRT, tells GlobeSt.com.

A hospitality industry professional for 30 years, Webb says there are only 10 hotels in the metro Orlando market offering 20,000 sf or more of meeting space in a single room and only four hotels with a total one million sf.

The planned new meeting space will potentially double that number.

“For a city which will be sporting two million sf of convention space, that is not excessive,” Webb says. “On the other hand, it is unlikely that much more than half of the proposed space will be funded and constructed over the next few years.”

The reason: “The extremely conservative posture of lenders will continue to constrain new hotel and meeting room expansion until the market reflects tangible signs of recovery,” Webb says.

Most Orlando area hoteliers only now are realizing the potential revenue from catering to the business travel market.

“Because of the magnitude of attractions visitors, meetings and convention visitors have long been a relatively ignored segment of the local travel economy,” the consultant tells GlobeSt.com. “The tremendous success of the initial phase of the Orange County Convention Center brought attention to the convention business little more than a decade ago.

“Yet conventioneers, hands down, outspend tourists by about 60% per capita visitor to the market.”

Webb cites Convention & Visitors Bureau data showing about nine million convention attendees at Orlando meetings spend an average $879 per person compared to an average $548 per tourist.

“That’s why you are seeing the recent competition for the meetings and convention business,” Webb tells GlobeSt.com.

But the consultant concedes few hotels can compete with Convention Center meetings.

“The typical size of such events necessitates a full service convention center with hundreds of thousands of sf in both exhibit and meeting space,” Webb says. “Hotels, on the other hand, provide a significant complement to large capacity space, such as the County Convention Center.”

Greene, the Miami consultant, says the new hotel meeting space in Orlando was planned prior to September 2001.

“If Orlando was to remain competitive for the larger conventions that needed more space and nearby hotels, then Orlando had to add on,” Greene says. “Las Vegas (already) was meeting this need. Las Vegas was also broadening its market by increasing its retail outlets and including entertainment for children and families.”

Fortunately for Orlando, the meeting space under development “will come on stream in the years ahead,” Greene tells GlobeSt.com. “Assuming the world does not go to pieces and energy prices don’t go out of sight, then the construction that is taking place now will enable Orlando to be competitive and, in retrospect, will be viewed as a brilliant, gutsy and visionary move in what is today, difficult times.”

The Miami consultant says, “Looking at it another way: the development under way now is the long view. The long view is something that many executives and people in power often forsake for the short-term benefits.”

Greene says Orlando’s hospitality industry, in the main, is “guided by people who are extremely capable in protecting its position for now and the future.”

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