“Vacation homes in 2007 were identified as a threat,” said Maccini, the strategic research and marketing manager at the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The reason, she said, is that vacation homes – which were becoming more frequent and easy to find in Northeast Polk County and Northwest Osceola County – seemed like a potential threat to older hospitality establishments, including local hotels.
Now, Maccini said, the view is exactly the opposite.
“Nobody is saying that anymore,” she said. “Now they are saying the vacation homes are an asset to the region.
“The biggest threat now,” she added, “is transient rentals” – meaning hotels that no longer market to tourists or business travelers, but rather to people unable to afford to live in an apartment or house. So many of the hotels have made the switch in order to stay in business, Maccini said, that Osceola County officials are considering ways to get them to switch back – or find another location to operate in.
“We want to get those hotels that have gone into the extended stay business to get out of the extended stay business,” Maccini said. “Let hotels be hotel. Let hotels get back into the hospitality industry.”
On Thursday, Maccini was the guest speaker during the monthly meeting of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group representing the small business owners who manager vacation homes. Those are houses rented on a short term basis to tourists, who want more room than what a hotel or motel offers. The houses are usually fully furnished and provide guests with several bedrooms, a kitchen, game room, and private pool.
This has been a booming industry in Northeast Polk County, which vacation homes are easy to find along U.S. 192, U.S. 27 and County Road 54. In fact, there are so many vacation homes in Northeast Polk County that they make up the bulk of the county’s tourist development tax collections today.
Maccini noted that the CVB is working on a plan to revitalize U.S. 192, from Kissimmee to Celebration and then into Four Corners, where the tourist-friendly highway also cuts through Polk, Orange and Lake counties. The goal is to make the entire tourist corridor someplace that continues to attract visitors, while also encouraging them to stop and see the area on their way to someplace else, whether it’s Walt Disney World near Orlando or Legoland Florida on the way to Tampa.
Called “Destination Osceola 2022,” “This project kicked off a year ago,” Maccini said. “If you’ve been following the political climate in Osceola County and our tourist tax dollars, you know there was no plan. Money just got spent.”
A plan was approved five years ago to make U.S. 192 more competitive, but “There was never any buying into that new plan,” Maccini said. “It sat on a shelf. So we went back in and decided to do it again.”
The CVB hired the firm CSL International to do a new strategic plan for tourism, which was completed in March and calls for establishing a U.S. 192 redevelopment agency, focusing on the international tourism market, looking for ways to bring more sports activists to the region, and creating and hosting more special events along the corridor.
“It’s great to have festivals and events that bring prominence to the community,” Maccini said.
In the meantime, Maccini said she wants the vacation home managers in both Osceola and Polk counties to talk about what they think should be done to bring more motorists to U.S. 192 and U.S. 27.
“If we do nothing else as a community, we need to fix 192,” she said. “It is certainly the front door to our tourist corridor. And we need input from the vacation rentals. Where do you play a role in this? I want you to think about how this impacts you.”
Jeff Chase, the secretary of the CFVRMA and the moderator of Thursday’s meeting, held at the Capone’s Dinner Theatre on U.S. 192, agreed that property managers should let their voices be heard as the business community starts working with the CVB to fix U.S. 192.
“We have participated in many of the steps she was talking about,” Chase said, adding that as recently as seven years ago, some of the key players in the convention and tourism promotion world didn’t even know what vacation homes were.
“Now the vacation home market is equally at home with everyone else,” Chase said. “It’s accepted as an option in Osceola County, Polk County, and even Orange County.”
Maccini said one of the ongoing challenges is that entrepreneurs and investors coming into U.S. 192 often can’t find parcels of land available to purchase that they can build on.
“Land development is an issue,” she said. “One of the challenges of people coming in to invest now is we have small parcels of land. There’s starting to be a hint of private redevelopment capital dollars coming back in, but that’s a concern.”
Maccini said she believes the region’s tourism corridors can be revitalized, and she noted the ways that Anaheim, Calif., where Disneyland is, developed a long range revitalization plan that worked.
“We know there’s a model for being successful,” she said.
The biggest challenge, she added, will likely be money – and the lack of it.
“In 2007, we at the CVB had our budget cut by 40 percent and our staff cut by 40 percent,” she said. “We needed to go back and look at our marketing strategy. There will be a lot of discussions on how do we pay for this. Once we have a vision, it won’t be cheap. It is not going to be an easy political process, either. Everyone says ‘Oh, this is great,’ but the first person who shows up at a commission meeting and says ‘I can’t do this,’ then it becomes hard.”
The CFVRMA will hold its next meeting, on the third Thursday in May, at Legoland Florida.
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