KISSIMMEE – When tourists come to Central Florida, they may have purchased tickets in advance for the big theme parks like Disney and Universal Studios. But if this is their first visit to the region, they may not be fully aware of all the other, smaller attractions available here – not to mention the restaurants, gift shops, time shares, and other places that they could end up wanting to check out — if they’re aware that they exist.
That’s where Stephanie Luther comes in.
“We’ve grown quite a bit in the last 10 years,” Luther said. “Our goal is to be the main source tourism guide in Central Florida.”
Luther is the president and publisher of VS Publishing, which stands for Vacation Stretches. This family-owned company has been “publishing in tourism for 37 years,” Luther said, and now produces Discover Orlando, a comprehensive magazine-style guide book that let’s visitors know everything there is to do here beyond the well-known theme parks.
On Thursday, Luther was a guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group that represents one of the fastest growing aspects of the region’s crucial hospitality industry: vacation homes that are rented out on a short term basis.
These homes appeal to families that want to rent a house with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, a game room and a private pool, rather than a hotel room. The industry has grown solidly in the past decade, particularly in Polk and Osceola counties.
The association held its monthly meeting on Thursday at the Mystic Dunes Golf Resort near Kissimmee.
VS Publishing has an agreement with the trade association to put Discover Orlando in the homes they rent out, provided as a courtesy to their guests. Luther said this benefits the association as well, since the property managers can promote their rental homes through the guidebook.
“The more we pass these out to our guests, the better it is for us and the association,” Luther said.
Another reason her publishing firm keeps growing, she said, is the rising number of new attractions and vacation spots that are opening up every year. The most recent one opened on Oct. 15: Legoland Florida, the new theme park in Winter Haven built by Merlin Entertainments, and modeled after the popular attractions in Europe and California.
With so many new attractions to sell, Luther said, the guide just keeps getting bigger and more expansive.
“When we started back in 1972, there were only two tourism publications that we produced,” she said.
Now the company has multiple ones, including a map guide available inside Discover Orlando that is ideally suited to the guests who stay in vacation homes, she said, and may not be fully aware of everything this region has to offer.
“CFVRMA was wanting to provide a free map guide to the property managers, and it’s tailored to the property managers,” she said. “It builds credibility for the association. This is a guide specifically tailored around your industry. We highlighted certain areas that are important to your industry.”
Discover Orlando prints twice a year, she said, in May and November.
“Our role is to sell it, print it and distribute it,” she said. “We’re always looking for ways to improve it.”
VS Publishing also sells advertisements in the guide for businesses that want to reach those visitors, she added.
“We really spent a lot of time in the Four Corners area and the (U.S.) 27 area talking to businesses that are trying to reach your guests,” she said.
Four Corners is the area where two highways, U.S. 192 and U.S. 27, meet. It’s also where four counties – Lake, Orange, Osceola and Polk – come together as well, and this area has grown enormously in the past decade, with both new residential subdivisions and commercial shopping plazas.
It’s also become one of the best known tourism corridors in the region, since it leads directly to Walt Disney World and is lined with hotels, time share communities, restaurants, gift shops and shopping plazas like Formosa Gardens, Rolling Oak Commons, and Summer Bay.
Luther said her publications get feedback from visitors, and people do take the time to check them out.
“It gets guests excited about coming to Orlando,” she said.
The vacation home industry continues to grow, said Colin Young, the association’s president, and has also developed some political muscle in the past year. The association hired a lobbyist and was able to convince Florida lawmakers in Tallahassee to exempt the industry from a state law that requires sprinkler systems to be installed in all homes that are rented out on a short term basis.
As Young noted, that requirement could have bankrupted property managers who oversee multiple homes.
“To retrofit a sprinkler system in a home would have cost $18,000 to $20,000 each,” he said. “How many of you would have done that and how many would have walked away from it?”
By convincing lawmakers to exempt them from this costly regulation, “We all benefited from it,” Young said.
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