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Huddle 21: Florida is “open and ready,” says Visit Florida CEO

Huddle 21: Florida is “open and ready,” says Visit Florida CEO
Visit Florida President & CEO Dana Young. (Visit Florida)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Florida is “open and ready” to welcome tourists said Visit Florida President and CEO Dana Young Monday morning (Feb. 8) as the head of Florida's official tourism marketing corporation welcomed attendees, virtually, to Florida Huddle 2021.

Florida Huddle, the Sunshine State’s official travel trade show, runs Feb. 8-12 and will feature a mix of networking opportunities, educational sessions and interactive experiences, all the while highlighting the latest from Florida’s destinations, hotels, resorts and attractions.

Typically held live and in person in Florida, this year’s Huddle unfolds on a virtual platform due to challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not out of the woods yet

“From lockdown, travel bans, quarantines, and all the rest, we here know that the travel industry has borne the brunt of COVID-19,” Young said, adding that Florida is ready to welcome back visitors “as soon as possible.”

“Beaches and parks are open. Restaurants and bars are open. Hotels and vacation rentals are open and ready to welcome guests. Theme parks, like Disney and Universal, are ready to welcome people here,” Young told attendees.

The remarks are in stark contrast to the tone in Canada, which largely remains closed due to non-essential travel advisories, government-imposed lockdowns and recently-enhanced restrictions for international travellers.

Visit Florida President & CEO Dana Young addresses attendees at Florida Huddle 2021.

The coronavirus crisis and how Florida tourism plans to reinvent itself amid travel’s eventual rebound is expected to be one of several topics discussed at this week’s Huddle.

And while Young admitted that “we’re not out of the woods yet,” she was optimistic about the year ahead, citing “positive developments” around the United States’ vaccine roll out, as well as Florida’s own marketing campaigns.

Last summer, Florida launched an in-state campaign that encouraged Floridians to travel within their own state and support local businesses “that were hurting so badly at that time,” Young said.

A sandbar in North Captiva in Southwest Florida. (The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel)

Another activation, launched last fall and still active now, was aimed at domestic drive markets within 700 miles Florida.

“Both of those campaigns have been hugely successful, garnering over 600 million impressions so far,” Young said.

The tourism CEO said that Florida will be expanding its marketing to “previously-untapped markets” in California, Oregon and Washington State, and will also soon amp up initiatives internationally.

2020 started off strong

The latest U.S. travel restrictions – orders recently announced by U.S. President Joe Biden – require international air arrivals to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of flight or proof of recovery from the coronavirus.

Up until the pandemic hit in March 2020, Florida’s Canadian visitation numbers were seeing a gradual increase, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Canadian arrivals sat just above 3.5 million in 2019 and the number was heading in the direction of 4 million, which is what Florida recorded in 2014. 

The first couple of months in 2020 were promising, explained Jacob Pewitt Yancey, director of consumer insights and analytics at Visit Florida at a market update presentation on Monday.

“We were doing better than we were in 2019, but obviously, when COVID hit, that fell off completely,” Yancey said.

Given Canada’s recently-strengthened travel restrictions, which will require international arrivals to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival and spend up to three days of their 14-day quarantine in a hotel (costing upwards of $2,000), numbers from Canada into Florida are down significantly.

Air Canada, followed by WestJet, are the leading carriers still operating flights to Florida, primarily out of Toronto, Montreal and Calgary), with Fort Lauderdale receiving the most capacity (followed by Orlando and then Miami).

A jam-packed week

The agenda for Florida Huddle 2021, which has roughly 700 registered participants, will position Florida for a very successful 2021, Young added.

Other activities taking place this week include a golfing demonstration, a chat with an astronaut (sponsored by Kennedy Space Center), a “how to make the perfect sangria” happy hour event and even morning yoga.

Additionally, on Friday (Feb. 12), travel agents will have an opportunity to participate in master classes via virtual FAM trips that cover specific themes, from adventurous activities to off-the-beaten path experiences.

Tampa Bay (still riding high from Sunday night’s Super Bowl win) will host next year’s Florida Huddle event from Jan. 24 – 26, 2022, it was announced. 

Tampa Bay will host next year's Florida Huddle event. (Visit Tampa Bay)

“We are very excited to be welcoming Florida Huddle and all our hospitality industry friends in person to Tampa Bay in 2022,” said Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay in a statement. “We are no strangers to hosting some of the most epic Huddles and this time around will be very special. 

"Since last time we hosted, Tampa has changed dramatically with brand-new hotels, attractions, restaurants and an emerging downtown core that has become a focus for residents and visitors." 

"We know you’ll love it and we look forward to hosting an industry reunion that we all need.”

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