Worldwide, it has been a rough road for everyone in the hospitality industry. And few places have felt it as strongly as in Orlando, where one in three jobs is tied to tourism.

Fifty-four tradeshows and conventions at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) due to take place from March 2019 to January 2021 were cancelled, domestic air passenger traffic was down 90% at Orlando International Airport, and hotels saw their occupancies drop to historic lows.

In fact, Harris Rosen, president and COO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, owner of eight Orlando hotels, released a statement in July that he had to make cuts to staff at his eight Orlando properties.Harris Rosen

“Never in the 46-year history of my company would I have envisioned such a drastic decision,” he said. “This is especially painful for me, as I consider these valued associates as extended members of the Rosen family, without whose contributions our company would never have achieved the success it has through the years."

(Photo: Harris Rosen, president and COO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts)

As tough as it has been, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Thirty-three of the cancelled shows at OCCC have rescheduled for 2021 and 2022, and July and August saw 12 straight weeks of increased occupancy in hotels from a low of 12.3% in March. And, according to Visit Orlando, 86% of hotels are open, representing about 75% of the region's total hotel room inventory. All the theme parks are open with limited capacity.

Together Again Expo

Together Again Expo took place on July 24th at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, the first tradeshow/convention since the pandemic. The event brought together meetings industry leaders, innovators and professionals to show how live events can be hosted safely and responsibly.

Exhibitors included Rosen Hotels & Resorts, Ole Red—Blake Shelton’s new restaurant on International Drive—and many suppliers of cleaning solutions.

Together Again Expo
General Session at Together Again Expo; Credit: Robert Wood

“The Expo was very well-received. Thousands of planners attended both virtually and in person, where everyone was wearing masks and following the same social distancing guidelines that we're carrying through on the hotel level,” said Victoria Hall, director of sales and marketing at Rosen Plaza. “We were excited by the response and felt it was a wonderful kick off to a new era of bookings that will now include all of the necessary safety and hygiene measures required due to COVID-19.”

Mike WatermanVisit Orlando’s chief sales officer, Mike Waterman, was part of the panel “Re-Open for Business” general session at the Expo and said the show gave existing and potential clients “proof of concept.”

(Photo: Mike Waterman, Visit Orlando’s chief sales officer)

“Partnering with Orlando Health and the convention center, we set up temperature checks, had virtual registration and put in place social distancing not only for our seminar audiences but for the panel, as well. This show came right after we successfully held the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) junior volleyball tournaments in the convention center with more than 10,000 participants without incidence,” Waterman said.

Mark TesterMark Tester, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center, was equally pleased with the Together Again Expo, which garnered industry wide attention.

(Photo: Mark Tester, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center)

“The Expo provided hope, optimism and practical solutions at a time when our industry needs it most.” he noted.

Looking to 2021

So far, the OCCC has a full calendar for 2021. Waterman said Visit Orlando continues to keep meeting professionals in the loop of Orlando happenings, theme park and hotel openings and other relevant information with webinars and Visit Orlando’s Meetings Matter monthly newsletter. In the meantime, Visit Orlando expects to see more hybrid meetings.

“Short of medical developments or a vaccine, that’s going to be part of the process,” Waterman said. “We’ll be seeing more hybrid meetings with a virtual component. We’re getting regular requests on how we can integrate virtual with live events. Visit Orlando has member companies that have the capabilities and the convention center has partners to help introduce a virtual component.”

OCCC’s Tester is optimistic for the future. “Orlando is well-positioned relative to many other regions. The strong support of the tourism, leisure, hospitality sector and International Drive District, coupled with our world-class theme parks, places our community at an advantage.”

“The convention industry is resilient,” he continued. “We remain optimistic and are looking forward to getting back to business. People need to meet face-to-face, bring their products to market, and receive continuing education through conventions, tradeshows and meetings. The demand is there, and we are ready to start driving economic impact for the region again.”

Together Again Expo at Orange County Convention Center
Together Again Expo at Orange County Convention Center

Rosen echoed a similar sentiment. “My sense is that beginning in January 2021 our industry will experience a gradual increase in conference activity. As the year progresses and the prospects for a vaccine are real in nature, our ascent to historic levels will begin in a very deliberate fashion.

“The hospitality industry has done a formidable job of ensuring that guest safety is the number one priority. We continue to refine our Rosen’s Total Commitment program, which features numerous protocols that make our operating environments very inviting and provide for a unique level of confidence for our guests. When this pandemic is over, we remain confident that our company will be poised for a renewed level of success that we have enjoyed for more than 46 years in the Orlando marketplace.”

[Related: Together Again Expo: Face-to-Face With the Brave New World of Meetings]

How the Swan and Dolphin Resort Plans to Welcome Groups Back

We recently spoke with Area General Manager Sean Verney about the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin’s reopening, and how it plans to welcome back meetings and events.

How has the landscape changed at the Swan and Dolphin?

Sean VarneyOur re-opening has been in the works for months. We have been working alongside our clients and partners to monitor the situation and develop entirely new procedures regarding cleaning and distancing so that our guests can feel confident and comfortable. These procedures, which can be found on our website, address every aspect of our operations, from housekeeping to check-in to restaurants to recreation.

(Photo: Sean Verney, Area General Manager of Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin)

The changes are evident as soon as a guest arrives. They’ll witness our social distancing measures, enhanced cleaning and required masks by all guests and cast members in public areas. We like to say, “We wear because we care!” Everything has all been meticulously planned and practiced so that we are ready for our guests.

The staff must have been thrilled to be back. How will it be different for them?

Our cast members are what makes us special! They are so dedicated to our guests and always willing to do what it takes to create a magical experience. They’re excited to be back and while they’ll be executing the skillset each has developed over years of experience, every policy and procedure around that skill has been changed to fit with our commitment to clean. Our chefs will still create amazing meals, our concierge will still offer valuable service and knowledge and our housekeepers will keep our guest rooms clean, but they will all do so under our new guidelines.

What kind of experience can meeting professionals expect going forward?

Just like before, meeting planners who work with the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin can expect an engaged partner who works hand-in-hand with them to provide a first-rate experience. We were honored to have the opportunity to partner with Major League Soccer on their MLS is Back Tournament as the host accommodations, which was commonly referred to as “the bubble.” Both leadership teams worked closely together to create a healthy but enjoyable environment for their players and staff. We implemented protocols and policies that addressed every aspect of their stay and had to be effective on a large scale. This was a more than 1,500-person group staying over a six-week period, consuming nearly 5,000 meals day. Everything was customized and coordinated to meet their needs. It was all executed successfully—under a microscope—as the first professional men’s team sport to return to its season.

The lessons and experiences from MLS are ones we can bring to our future groups, but more than that, we hope it demonstrates that we’re willing to bring fresh ideas and creative solutions to meet each group’s individual needs, whatever those might be.

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort exterior
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort exterior

Will it be easy for meeting professionals to plan an event with social distancing in the mix?

Our team has reviewed and prepared for numerous group scenarios to develop new ways to effectively operate with social distancing. We’re extremely fortunate as well that, with more than 330,000 square feet of meeting space, we have plenty of room to adequately distance our meeting attendees.

Anything you're doing as far as banquets and dining at the hotel?

At the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, we have one of the most creative banquets, catering and food and beverage teams in the industry. We’ve developed a variety of ways to deliver the same high-quality food and experience as our guests are used to but are able to so following all guidelines. One of these solutions is a plexiglass barrier for buffet lines custom designed by our own team, so our cast members can serve items completely separated from our guests without touching any of the same surfaces. That’s just one of several creative solutions we’re bringing to our groups.

When do you see the hotel industry in Orlando getting back to some semblance of normalcy?

One thing we know for sure is that people need face-to-face interaction. My hope and expectation is that the new safety and sanitation procedures and social distancing protocols implemented in our industry will help facilitate a swifter comeback. Every day is a new step toward regaining that normalcy and providing a magical experience for all our guests.

[Read more articles about Florida in our digital editions.]

Social Distancing Is Easy at Mission Inn Resort & Club

“Real Florida Real Close” are the words Bud Beucher, vice president and general manager, uses to describe the tranquil setting of 1,100-acre Mission Inn Resort & Club in Howey-In-the-Hills, Florida. His parents bought the 1917 Floridan Hotel in the 1960s and turned it into the oasis it is today, located just 35 minutes northwest of Orlando.

The resort’s vastness has been a lure for Floridians since the pandemic has relegated people to their homes. And while the locals are the ones who took the lead in coming back to the resort, guests are coming from other parts of Florida and states throughout the country as well.

El Capeon, Mission Inn Resort & Club
El Capeon, Mission Inn Resort & Club

“If there is a silver lining in all this, guests feel more comfortable visiting this sprawling resort because of all the outdoor resort amenities and activities we have to offer. It’s easy to social distance,” explained Roy Schindele, executive director of sales and marketing for the resort.

Customer safety and distancing also includes temporary limited seating inside in the restaurants in accordance with the governor’s guidelines; however, restaurant seating is plentiful in most of their four restaurants: La Hacienda, La Conquistador, Nickers Clubhouse and La Margarita, all of which have outdoor seating areas with picturesque views.

The resort also has stringent cleaning policies that were also put into place.

Mission Inn’s 30,000 square feet of meeting space, including two large ballrooms, also lends itself to adequate social spacing when hosting a corporate meeting or social group.

“We can easily convert and configure our meeting space to accommodate the social distancing needs we’re seeing today,” Schindele said.

A popular meeting and convention spot for decades, today the resort is a haven for those who want to play tennis, pickle ball, hike on nature trails, fish, skeet shoot, or rent a boat from the hotel’s Marina del Rey on Lake Harris, the largest in an eight-lake chain.

There’s also golf. Mission Inn is probably best known for its two championship courses, El Campeón and Las Colinas, which have hosted many pro and amateur tournaments through the years including an LPGA Symetra Tournament. Additionally, El Campeón is one of Florida’s oldest courses recognized by the Florida Historic Golf Trail and has been ranked the No. 1 course in Florida by Golf Channel’s GolfAdvisor. The resort also offers lessons and tournaments for groups.

And, after a hard day on the links, there’s always the Golfer’s Massage at Spa Marbella followed by the Bourbon Bubbler Sugar Scrub pedicure to be enjoyed with a glass of bubbly or soothing tea.

Recently renovated, the 176 hotel rooms include deluxe rooms, club suites, resort villas and one and two-bedroom suites and one three-bedroom suite.

“We have golf packages, spa packages and specials like our Staycation Getaway package that people are taking advantage of now to beat cabin fever,” Schindele added.

New Property Spotlight: JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa

The second JW Marriott in Orlando opened July 1 with 516 rooms, 50,000 square feet of meeting and event space, and the 10,000-square-foot Spa by JW.

The newly opened JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa
The newly opened JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa

The illume rooftop lounge with a Japanese-inspired menu featuring sushi, eclectic seafood dishes and Asian tapas, along with hand-crafted cocktails is a big property highlight. And as an added bonus, guests are treated to views of the nightly theme park firework displays.

Menus on property are created by award-winning chefs. Private dining and chef’s table experiences at the signature Sear + Sea steakhouse feature dishes made from wholesome ingredients, handcrafted cocktails and elevated service. The UnReserved European-inspired food-hall style restaurant offers all-day dining.

The resort has also implemented new company-wide guidelines required by the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council.

Read Next: Here’s What Hotels and Resorts Are Doing to Enhance Health and Sanitation Standards