Orlando’s tourism is ready to boom. Is the workforce ready?

Orlando’s tourism is ready to boom. Is the workforce ready?

Writer: Catie Schwartzman

Orlando2 min read May 2021 — The verdict is in: Orlando’s domestic tourism industry is primed for a boom. Two early indicators of what lies ahead were the stark increase in spring break tourism numbers and Orlando being the top destination in the U.S. for March.

“Pre-COVID, we were at about 3.3 million total passengers,” CEO of Orlando Sanford International Airport Tom Nolan said to the Orlando Business Journal. “We are at a solid 50% and holding our own as this persists. A lot of the industry is seeing less than 50% capacity.”

While international travel is in part the bread and butter of the Orlando tourism industry, international travel may not rebound until 2023 according to Visit Orlando President and Chief Executive Officer Casandra Matej.

“It’s going to be just a little bit longer road because there are so many obstacles, and obviously from the guidance, make sure when it’s right to open the border safely and welcome the world back to Orlando,” Matej said in a presentation Tuesday at the Orange County Board of County Commissioners.

Meanwhile, domestic tourism is expected to exceed 2019 pre-pandemic numbers: domestic travel seat capacity for this summer is expected to be more than 2 million seats per month, in stark contrast to 2020’s numbers. Visit Orlando has several domestic campaigns to stir interest further among people all over the country.

“I believe the American citizenship is pent-up,” said Nolan. “There’s such a need to get out of the home. We rely on the leisure traveler and we can rely on that to rebound. Business travel is more of a question, given the reality that people are working from home. The fact that we were leisure (travel-centric) … that’s going to result in a more expeditious recovery.”

A complete rebound for the market cannot happen overnight, however. With the low tourism numbers of 2020, Orlando’s local tourism workforce is still shellshocked. The Orlando region lost 102,000 tourism jobs between February 2020 and February 2021. Workforce numbers are increasing though; Orlando’s leisure and hospitality industry saw a 5.49% increase from 169,200 jobs in January 2021 to 178,500 in February 2021. These numbers are higher than the state average, but the industry will never look quite the same as it did pre-COVID, according to Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College, at the Orlando Business Journal’s roundtable. 

“There are things we are learning from the pandemic about how to tune the system we have, (but) I worry we are not having the right conversation. We are not solving the problem our community has. We’re improving the delivery system for the structure we have, and it’s broken,” Shugart said.

Orlando ranks last among metropolitan areas in average wages and first in percentage of workforce with no benefits. Shugart said this structure is the crux of Orlando’s issue rather than the packaging.

Nonetheless, vaccine rollout, consumer sentiment and travel demand remain positive indicators for the future. 

“Nearly 40% of American travelers have already received at least one vaccine shot, I think that is absolutely key,” Matej said at Visit Orlando’s State of Recovery address. “We are on the road to recovery, so we have to be mindful but it’s time to be optimistic.”