But when the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association meets on Friday, Feb. 25 to honor a state lawmaker who represents a good section of the local tourism industry, there’s reason to think the industry is not only on the mend, but possibly on the rise as well.
The association will host its annual Smith Travel Research Luncheon on Friday at noon at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando. As part of the luncheon meeting, the association will honor state Rep. Mike Horner, the Republican from House District 79 who represents parts of Kissimmee, St. Cloud, and the region’s critical tourist corridor. Horner will be presented with the 2010 CFHLA Public Servant of the Year Award, given to an elected leader who has demonstrated dedicated service to the region’s tourism and hospitality industry.
“Since he first was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2008, Representative Horner has continued to serve as a State of Florida hospitality advocate,” the association notes. “Throughout his two years in public service, the representative has continued to preserve the integrity of the Tourist Development Tax and maintained an understanding of the importance of VisitFlorida, the public/private marketing agency for the state. Also, the representative boasts a pro-tourism voting record.”
“I was unbelievably honored to receive this award, and excited to be meeting with them next Friday,” Horner said. “The tourism industry is near and dear to my heart and frankly, it is the primary economic engine in our economy here in Central Florida and the dominant factor in our state economy. If we can help improve the hospitality industry, we’re going to create jobs.”
While the local tourism industry suffered economically in 2009, last year saw a bit of an improvement, and this year there are signs that the industry is getting even stronger. One positive sign in this region has been the rise of the vacation home industry.
“It’s probably the strongest sector of the hospitality economy right now in terms of growth,” Horner said.
Vacation homes are rented out on a short term basis to tourists and business travelers visiting the region. The appeal is to families that want to rent out a fully furnished home with multiple bedrooms, a private pool and a game room for children, rather than a hotel or motel room.
The Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group representing this industry, now has more members than its statewide affiliate does. CFVRMA also flexed its political muscles for the first time in 2010, convincing state lawmakers to exempt them from a regulation requiring costly sprinkler systems to be installed in every vacation home.
“I’m filing another bill this year to assist that industry,” Horner said. “Right now the statutes governing that industry are all over the place – you’ve got them under code management and hotel/motel, and they need their own statutes governing them. That’s something we’re working on this year.
“Frankly, it’s an emerging industry,” Horner added. “Twenty years ago it may have existed, but it was in a much smaller form. Now it’s recognized and growing. We need to recognize the importance of that industry and give them their due and stature.”
The local tourism industry also got a boost last June from the opening of the Wizardening World of Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios Orlando, which drew in huge crowds. The same could be in store for Winter Haven when Legoland Florida opens there in October.
Even one of the region’s oldest theme parks, Walt Disney World, is working on changes, with plans to transform Pleasure Island into the new Hyperion Wharf, and to expand Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.
That may be one reason why Disney is constantly running help wanted ads, Horner said.
“Disney is the largest private employer in the state and clearly the largest private employer in Central Florida,” he said.
The CFHLA also plans to honor Horner for his work on behalf of the so-called Pizza Flyer legislation, an anti-crime bill that’s been a critical priority for the local tourism industry.
“Importantly, Representative Horner’s leadership was instrumental in laying the groundwork to strengthen the Tourist Safety Act,” the association noted. “This legislation enhancement will positively impact the tourism industry and enable visitors to continue to safely enjoy the state of Florida. “
That bill targets organized crime units that hire young people to visit local hotels and motels, putting flyers advertising pizza deliveries under the doors of each room.
The flyers and the phone numbers are fake, intended to scam tourists who call and provide their credit card information to the criminals.
“We came close to passing it last year and I’m very hopeful we’re going to pass it this year,” Horner said. “This is about organized crime. It needs to be addressed as such.”
The legislation is designed to make it easier for law enforcement to target the people who create these scams and then hire the young people to distribute the flyers.
“We’re doing it in a clever way, that doesn’t put an additional burden on already overtaxed corrections agencies,” Horner said. “We’re going to hit them where it hurts the most, with civil forfeiture. We’ve increased the fines, and ultimately you’ll be subject to civil forfeiture. You could lose the van you used to bring these criminals to the properties in the first place.
“The problem has always been that these criminals employed young people to hand out these pizza flyers, and the ringleader is safe at home,” Horner added. “We want to get at that individual by taking their van.”
This is also about more than just scamming people out of their credit card information on phony pizza orders, Horner said. In some instances, the people distributing the flyers have assaulted their victims.
“From a public relations standpoint, the biggest concern we’ve had is assaults on tourists from these folks,” Horner said. “As they are going to these hotel rooms, they slide the pizza flyers under the doors — and then they check the door handle. If they can get in, they rob the room. There have been times where the door was unlocked and someone was inside the room, and there was a confrontation and the visitor got hurt.”
But simply arresting the kids distributing the flyers isn’t enough, Horner said, adding that they need to go after the ringleaders as well.
“It’s good public policy,” he said. “It’s good public safety.”
To learn more of CFHLA and its upcoming luncheon, log on to the website at www.cfhla.org.
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