When it comes to tourism, Seminole County has long been in the shadow of neighboring Orange County — with its millions of tourists from around the world drawn to Disney World, Universal Orlando and other popular attractions.
That hasn’t stopped Seminole officials from redoubling efforts in recent years to entice visitors to the county through sporting events and ecotourism activities.
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So far, the county’s aggressive efforts are paying off as local hotel rooms continue being booked at an increasing pace.
Seminole officials announced this week that the county last year saw revenues from its hotel bed tax jump by nearly 10 percent — to $5.8 million — from 2017. It’s also a 42 percent increase from 2013, when Seminole collected just over $4 million.
County officials also touted last year’s average hotel occupancy rate of 73.3 percent, a more than 3 percentage-point jump from two years ago. Seminole has about 4,400 rooms in its 44 hotels.
Why is Seminole now seeing more visitors?
County tourism officials point to the $27-million Boombah Sports Complex that opened in May 2016 as one of the main reasons.
The facility, off East Lake Mary Boulevard, hosted 64 tournaments last year that brought in about 146,000 visitors — including athletes, coaches and spectators — and generated 17,000 hotel room night stays and $21 million for the local economy, according to county data.
Also, the county spent nearly $6 million renovating the Boombah Soldier’s Creek Park in 2016 into a world-class softball complex. Last year, the park on State Road 419 near Longwood hosted 22 tournaments that drew 28,000 visitors and generated 4,800 hotel room night stays and $4.3 million for the economy, according to data.
“We’ve seen an expansion of tourism because our focus has been on sports,” said Tricia Johnson, chief administrator for Seminole’s office of economic development. “That’s our niche because we don’t have the theme parks.”
This weekend, for example, more than 5,000 visitors from out of state are expected to come into Seminole for the National Field Hockey Coaches Association tournament at the county’s sports complex. The four-day event event, which ends Sunday, is expected to generate up to 2,500 hotel room stays, county officials said.
Bringing in weekend visitors who pump millions of dollars into the local economy was the main reason Seminole built its sports complex on 102 acres near the Orlando Sanford International Airport. Before the sports complex was built, most people staying at Seminole’s major hotels along the International Parkway and Lake Mary areas were business travelers, county officials said.
“The whole reason [for the sports complex] is to bring in people from out of town and put heads in [hotel] beds, especially on the weekends,” County Commissioner Bob Dallari said. “And it’s working, which is exciting news for Seminole County.”
In recent years, the county has hired more staff devoted toward marketing the county’s new sports facilities to tournament organizers around the country.
“We go to trade shows and build relationships with sports tournament organizers,” Johnson said.
County tourism officials also market Seminole throughout Florida through digital and web site advertising. Since 2008, Seminole has contracted with Paradise, a St. Petersburg-based advertising firm, at an annual cost of $550,000 to handle most of the county’s advertising and marketing for tourism. Seminole also recently hired Evok Advertising, of Heathrow, for $100,000 a year.
In 2015, the county adopted Orlando North as the new name for the county’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau as a way of encouraging tourists visiting the attractions in Orange County to spend an extra vacation day in Seminole.
On its Do Orlando North website, the county promotes various attractions, including the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens in Sanford and the Wekiva Island entertainment complex along the shores of the Wekiva River.
In the coming weeks, Seminole plans to hire a research company to launch a survey of people staying at local hotel rooms. Officials said they’ll use survey results to more efficiently tailor their marketing strategy.
“We want to know what brings people here, and what do they do,” Johnson said.
Mary Sue Weinaug, owner of Wekiva Island, estimates that more than half the people that visit her attraction in west Seminole County come from outside the area and are looking to explore a different side of Florida than the theme parks. She’s even had guests from as far away as the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom.
“I have had more and more people come to me and said they heard of us while they were at a restaurant near Disney and their waiter told them about us,” said Weinaug, who sits on the county’s Tourist Development Council. “They don’t want to do the Disney thing. They want something different. …And that’s what we want. We want people to come to Seminole County.”