Hotel Marketing Florida|”Business Leaders & Legoland Officials Plan For New Development”

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By                 :   Ryan E. Little
Category    :    Hotel Marketing Florida

Hotel Marketing Florida
Hotel Marketing Florida

Two years after Legoland Florida opened, Cypress Gardens Boulevard looks no closer to being a vacation destination than it did when Cypress Gardens closed. But behind the scenes, economic development officials, business owners and Legoland officials say they are slowly putting together the bricks to kick off a round of initial development. And it appears Winter Haven is on track to match the timeline of new development taking place around Legoland California. A number of complex problems confront the officials, however. About 80 percent of Legoland’s out-of-town visitors are staying in Orlando. Small scale retail units along the Legoland corridor are only two-thirds full. Few businesses have been willing to invest in the area. The biggest contributors to a lack of movement, those involved say, are a risk-averse mindset leftover from the 2008 recession and a remaining lack of confidence in Legoland’s success. The buffet restaurant Golden Corral has opened just down the street from Legoland and is doing well, development officials have said, but restaurants like Woody’s Bar-B-Q and Iam Pasta Cafe — that at one time pulled a handful of families leaving the park — have closed shop. What’s left is a confusing tangle of close deals and closed shops that leaves Legoland visitors still more likely to see pastures and orange groves than a restaurant on their way back to Orlando. All the while, Polk County taxpayers subsidize the park $500,000 a year through a marketing partnership with the county’s tourism development group.

Legoland Florida has created about 1,350 jobs with its opening and subsequent expansions, the company said. And its incursion into Polk County buoyed the local job market at a time when it was most needed, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Employment and Wages data shows. A University of Georgia analysis of the Polk County job market between 2010 and 2012, the most recent available, shows a massive increase in leisure and hospitality jobs: 2,663. Of that number, Polk had 1,792 more jobs than the normal national growth in the leisure/hospitality industry. During that same time, there was a net increase in total jobs in Polk of only 1,205. But while those jobs numbers were huge for Polk, the logical next step from them has yet to happen. When Gary Ralston, a partner at Saunders Ralston Dantzler Realty, analyzes the commercial real estate market, he uses those numbers. The firm represents four properties on Cypress Gardens Boulevard near Legoland. The shift-share analysis, as it is called, should predict movement in the real estate market. “That’s why we really tried to understand the market, get our arms around it, and at least expose the properties (near Legoland),” Ralston said. But there’s a ”but.” “We have had more than our share of frustration getting people to pull the trigger,” he said. Almost nothing is moving, development officials agree.

Typically when you want to bring retail to the area, you need new jobs and homes first, said John Crossman, owner of Crossman and Co., a leading retail management and ownership company based in Orlando that does business in six states. With Legoland tourists in the area, the equation changes, but only when those tourists are staying in town. Right now, most out-of-town visitors to Legoland – which accounts for half the park’s visitors – aren’t staying in Polk County. Legoland General Manager Adrian Jones said 80 percent stay in Orlando. Until that changes, Polk won’t see true positive impact from Legoland. Polk County Sports and Tourism Marketing has been working in earnest for the past six months to land a big hotel company to match Legoland, Executive Director Mark Jackson said. The county-funded tourism developer has been compiling data on the corridor it can use to sell a developer on investing and taking it directly to local and state developers. But landing a deal has so far eluded the group. “Creating what I call a compelling story for the Legoland Cypress Gardens corridor is what is the hard part,” Jackson said. “Sometimes you have only one shot.”

Legoland’s Jones has worked closely with groups like Jackson’s to help sell the story. Jones said developing Winter Haven as a destination location is extremely important to the park’s success. “That is all about supporting a story and a perspective to potential businesses that are either going to take a punt or not take a punt to bring investment to Polk County,” Jones said. But if you have only one shot, sometimes it’s best to take your time. “We don’t want to derail it before we start it,” he said. The situations of Legoland Florida and Legoland California have some striking similarities besides the perfect weather. Both were built near large tourist hubs – the Orlando theme parks and in Carlsbad, San Diego Zoo and Sea World. Carlsbad fought the same problems Winter Haven is fighting: Visitors staying closer to the other attractions and commuting to Legoland for the day. But with time and a little bit of a push, a number of hotels and restaurants focused on Legoland California visitors came to the area, according to Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ted Owen.

“A lot of it has to do with the economic development plan to entice companies, i.e. restaurants and hotels, to come,” Owen said. “A lot of people were playing wait and see.” Owen said Carlsbad rezoned a number of properties near Legoland California and looked to its business community and city economic development department to talk to businesses that could be interested in expanding. It took at least two years for it to begin, about six years for it to take hold and, 14 years after the park opened, has everything really come together. It is impossible to say whether Polk County is on track to match Carlsbad’s development, but Jones said his park’s business is matching Carlsbad’s in its first two years. The theme park does not release statistics on attendance or sales. Merlin Entertainment – its parent company – is privately held and not required to disclose information to investors. “Let’s just say we are mirroring exactly how Legoland California started,” Jones said.

Jones did say, however, that Legoland Florida has some advantages over California. “The big but and the big positive that we have is we have Orlando on our doorstep … and we have the infrastructure and the maturity of the old Cypress Gardens to give us an uplift,” he said. “That said, it will take time.” The bottom line for existing businesses along the Legoland corridor continues to be local customers. Carissa Hughes opened her Gourmet Goodies bakery in Miller’s Landing Plaza earlier this year, moving from Eagle Ridge Mall. She has a billboard on Cypress Gardens Boulevard that catches Legoland visitors as they head east on Cypress Gardens Boulevard. She said she lands about five families a week. Other businesses have similar experiences. Stores like Amy’s Cards, Party & More and Tijuana Flats get some families to stop, but rely on locals. Meanwhile, the economic development folks and real estate players in the area sit back and wait. Central Florida Development Council is getting interest in the area, President David Petr said, but no one’s pulling the trigger yet. His organization, too, is now in the developing stages of commissioning its own study of the Legoland corridor.

He agrees with other officials that it’s only a matter of time. Some think the first domino could fall in 2014. And that domino might just be Legoland itself, Jones said. “If we do open a hotel, and I am pretty confident we will at some point, I think that could be the first domino that topples,” Jones said. “Then I think people will say Legoland is actually doing very well and they will finally believe what I’ve been saying.”

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