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ORLANDO-Central Florida new hotel development and financing, already plagued by a softening economy, received more bad news this week as the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau revised earlier predicted visitor counts to a lower level.

New hotel development and financing will be affected, area hospitality industry brokers tell GlobeSt.com.

“What it means is the larger (hotel) chains may put off new projects for at least another year here,” Dean Fritchen, senior associate, Coldwell Banker Commercial NRT, Winter Park, FL, tells GlobeSt.com.

The bureau, headed by Bill Peeper, projects a slower visitor count over the next 2 ½ months will bring the final 2002 figures to 38.1 million or 4% down from 39.2 million predicted only two months ago.

For all of 2003, the bureau’s revised numbers show 40.9 million visitors will arrive, down from 45.1 million predicted in August. However, the 2003 predicted figure is still better than the final 2000 count of 39.8 million visitors.

International travelers to the United States in the first half were off 14% but the bureau didn’t have specific numbers for Central Florida.

Peeper couldn’t be reached at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. But bureau staffers tell GlobeSt.com the bureau’s projections are based on data received from the American Economics Group of Washington, DC and D.K. Shifflet & Associates of Falls Church, VA. The bureau asked the two firms to recalculate their earlier data.

The revised numbers show the national economy is not recovering as quickly as analysts had predicted earlier in the year.

The bureau’s new forecast ties in with Orange County comptroller Martha O. Haynie’s latest revised estimate of final hotel room tax revenue for 2002. Haynie’s office had projected 12-month revenue of $112.6 million but reduced that figure to $90.6 million when area hotels began reporting softer volume at the end of the first half.

The 11-month total hotel room tax revenue stands at $85.5 million with September numbers still be calculated. The county’s fiscal 2003 year started Oct. 1.

In a move to give the tourism industry a new look in the new year, the visitors bureau has awarded its $6 million advertising account to WestWayne Inc., a 100-person company based in Tampa, FL with an Atlanta satellite office.

Robin L. Webb, vice president/managing broker, Coldwell Banker Commercial NRT and a hotel industry consultant for 30 years, isn’t surprised by the convention and visitors’ bureau’s new numbers, but sees an opportunity for the industry to improve those figures with the opening of the Orange County Convention Center’s one-million-sf, $750 million addition in January.

“Clearly, the opportunity to enhance visitors to Orlando is rooted in two primary markets: the conventioneer and the full return of the international visitor,” Webb tells GlobeSt.com. “With the 2003 opening of the new convention center, it is incumbent on us that we drive attendance to those conventions which are already on the books, since that is a near-term solution” that can be accomplished by packages, discounts, partnership promotions and deals.

Webb says the visitors bureau’s numbers “translate to a significant reduction in occupancy.” The consultant tells GlobeSt.com that “with the opening of only the rooms now completed or under construction, occupancies in Orlando may decline to around the 63% level, based on the (bureau’s) projections.”

If that happens, “it will be the lowest level of hotel occupancy for Central Florida lodging properties in 25 years.”

Webb agrees with other analysts “the recovery from the economic downturn of 2001 has undeniably been slower than anticipated.” He says, “While vacationers have generally returned to traveling, their spending habits are more frugal, in light of the economic uncertainties, and most are traveling closer to home.”

Webb says “It is reasonable to believe that the number of visitors to Orlando and the attractions will not accelerate at a significant pace unless and until the economy rebounds and some of the remaining terrorism fears diminish.”

Still, the broker says, “while both terrorists and weakened worldwide economies, along with stock markets, have impacted international travel, Central Florida still represents a great bargain for visitors from Britain and Europe.”

He says, “after all, the charter carriers operate some of the most secure airline flights on the globe and it is still cheaper to fly from London to Orlando than it is to fly from London to Madrid.”

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