The banquet hall at Lake Eva Park in downtown Haines City is one of the attractions in Northeast Polk County that local tourism officials love to promote. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

HAINES CITY – When Polk County’s Tourism and Sports Marketing Office hosts National Tourism Week with a special luncheon next month, they’ll be celebrating some of the big changes that have come to the county in the past year, including the opening of the Legoland Florida theme park.
At the same time, the office plans to do more this year to promote what Northeast Polk County has to offer, said Kris Kepris, the tourism sales and marketing manager for Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing in Auburndale.
Northeast Polk County, Kepris said, has become home to some very successful and popular hospitality destinations – not to mention a thriving business known as the vacation home industry. Vacation homes, he said, are becoming better known, and quite appealing, to families that come here to visit the theme parks, and want more space than what a hotel provides.
“That’s one area in the county we really try to promote,” Kepris said. “A lot of people don’t know we have that available.”
Vacation homes are fully furnished houses that offer guests the benefit of multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, and a private pool and game room. Many of them are located right off U.S. 27 and Country Road 54 in Davenport, providing easy access to Interstate 4 and the nearby theme parks.
It’s one industry that’s grown despite the recession – or even perhaps because of it. In numerous cases, people who bought homes at the height of the real estate market boom in 2004-2007, and couldn’t sell it once the housing market collapsed, have been renting their homes instead. Vacation homes are rented on a short term basis, to tourists and business travelers.
Kepris said his office wants to do more to let people know this is not only an option during their stay, but that Polk County has some of the best vacation homes in Central Florida.
“They’re used to staying in hotels, but sometimes big families like to come down and stay in a home with a pool right there, and it’s a great option for the traveler,” Kepris said.
The other attraction in Northeast Polk that Kepris and his office have been aggressively promoting is Lake Eva Park in Haines City, along with the banquet hall that hosts so many special events, and brings thousands of newcomers to the city every year.
Kepris said that park and banquet facility were a major drawn when Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing began working so hard to recruit the annual Ironman 70.3 competition to the county. The amenities that the banquet hall and the park in downtown Haines City proved irresistible to the organizers of the competition, which previously had been hosted by Walt Disney World.
“One of the reason we were able to recruit Ironman here was because of that facility and the area around it,” Kepris said. “That was a major factor in being able to drawn that event here, and the people in the city have all been great to work with, and they’ve done so much to prepare for Ironman. We’ve also had our tourism luncheon there, and it’s a beautiful facility.’’
The upcoming National Tourism Week luncheon will be held on May 2 at the Lakeland Center, when Hannah Paramore, the president of Paramore Digital Agency in Nashville, Tennessee – which provides advice on online marketing strategies – will be the guest speaker.
“She’s known worldwide for her expertise in social media and new media and reaching the traveling consumer,” Kepris said. ‘’She has surveys to all the attractions and hotels and vacation home rentals in the county. We’re holding this luncheon because it will be National Tourism Week, and we celebrate it here locally to talk about how much tourism means to our county and why tourism sports industries are so big in Florida.’’
At the same time, Kepris’ office just commissioned a study by Randall Travel Marketing, which does market research, strategic planning, and trend analysis for the travel and tourism industry.
‘’We’re in the middle of doing a destination analysis research study with them, just to help us focus on where we need to go in our marketing efforts,’’ Kepris said. ‘’It started about a month ago, so we’ll probably have the final report in August. A lot has changed here in the last few years, and that’s why we’re getting the study done. Legoland opened, and we’ve had the expansions at the Lakeland Airport, and then Fantasy of Flight (in Polk City) has added new attractions with its new Zip Line and Ropes Course and agriculture tours. A number of things have changed for the better in the last few years, and we want to analyze where we’re going and how best to reach new customers.”
An Flamand runs one of the vacation home businesses in Northeast Polk County. USA Vacation Homes in Davenport manages several vacation homes in that area, and she said vacation home managers have been using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for several years now as a way to build up a strong customer base, offering everything from special deals to contests on their Facebook pages.
“I think social media is an important part of how we market our business today,” Flamand said. “We had a special where we’d give away Aerial flight tickets once we reached 1,000 fans on our Facebook page.”
Flamand is also the president of the Central Florida vacation Rental Managers Association, the trade group that represents the vacation home industry. She agreed that the vacation home industry has come into its own in the past few years, and bookings are getting stronger for the industry as the Central Florida tourism market gets stronger.

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