Palm Beach County tourism leaders to focus on hotel development

7:05 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017 Business
Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau. (Gary Coronado/The Palm Beach Post)

After an eight-year stretch of record-breaking tourism growth in Palm Beach County, industry leaders intend to keep business booming by working more closely with developers who want to build new hotels and attractions here.

Officials with Discover The Palm Beaches, the non-profit group charged with marketing the county as a travel destination, plan to focus more of their attention on investors, local governments and business leaders in an effort to maximize the growth of the industry.

As part of the push, county tourism officials also plan to create a long-term master plan for the industry — mapping out where new hotels should go, where attractions are needed, and how to best transport tourists around the area.

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“You have 39 cities doing their own things and there is no master plan that links all of the cities in to a strategic vision for the future,” said Don Kolodz, Discover’s senior vice president of destination development and the man who has been tapped to become the organization’s “destination architect.”

“What we are trying to do is figure out what that road map is for the future,” Kolodz said. “It is really about controlling our destiny.”

Over the years, the county’s tourism organizations have focused much of their efforts on marketing and promoting the county as a place that tourists and meeting-goers want to visit.

Discover, which has a contract with the county to serve as the area’s main tourism marketing arm, is also charged with working to expand the industry here.

“Product or destination development has been part of our responsibilities for several years as stated in our contract with Palm Beach County,” said Jorge Pesquera, Discover’s president and CEO. “What we are doing is shifting from a reactive approach to a proactive initiative aimed at accelerating the attraction of tourism related investments.”

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Glenn Jergensen, the executive director of the county’s Tourist Development Council, which oversees the four non-profit tourism marketing agencies, said the groups have always been willing to work with hotel developers, but the new position will allow officials to pursue investors.

“It has always been sort of ad hoc in the past,” Jergensen said. “This would be more proactive.”

Over the past 10 years, the number of tourists traveling to Palm Beach County has grown by 45 percent — hitting an all-time high of 7.35 million visitors in 2016. Local tourism leaders say the growth in visits, combined with new cultural attractions and efforts to market the area as a vacation destination, has led to a hotel building boom.

As the number of tourists who visit the county each year has grown, so has interest among hotel developers, officials said.

There are roughly 17,000 hotel rooms in the county, up from about 15,800 in 2014, Discover has said.

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More than 700 new hotel rooms are expected to open in the county over the next three years. At least six large chains, including Aloft and Mandarin Oriental, plan to open hotels between Boca Raton and Palm Beach Gardens, tourism leaders have said.

Although tourism is big business here, it is not one of the industries targeted by the county’s business development organization.

“We have reacted to companies and investors who have come in,” said Kelly Smallridge, president of the Business Development Board. “We have not proactively gone out there.”

When approached by potential hotel operators, Smallridge said her group often turns to Jergensen and Discover officials. The Tourist Development Council, she said, tracks several key tourism benchmarks — information that many developers needs before deciding whether to move forward with a project.

Meanwhile, Smallridge’s group has compiled a database of shovel ready sites where hotels and other tourism businesses could rise — a tool tourism officials said will be used to court investors.

“We are just trying to be ready for them with open arms,” Jergensen said.

The tourism business contributes more than $7 billion to the local economy and employs roughly 70,000 people.

Staffing is one of the largest challenges for the sector. It can be difficult for hotel operators to find local people to fill jobs.

As more hotels open, Kolodz said the tourism agencies may be able to help with the staffing concerns by helping to organize job fairs and other hiring events.

The tourism agencies are also looking for ways to expand in The Glades region and other areas that aren’t typically viewed as vacation destinations.