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Bill Prescott, left, Visit Jacksonville board chair, welcomed Mayor Lenny Curry to the annual "Destination Celebration."
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Sep. 17, 201512:00 PM EST

Hundreds gather to celebrate $2.2B tourism industry

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The recent rebound of Jacksonville’s $2.2 billion hospitality industry and the plan to continue its resurgence were topics at Visit Jacksonville’s annual Destination Celebration on Wednesday.

More than 400 business leaders, elected officials and hospitality professionals gathered to recognize the importance of tourism to the local economy at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.

Visit Jacksonville CEO Paul Astleford said tourism generated $2.2 billion in economic impact in 2014. Jacksonville hosted 5.8 million overnight visitors in 2014 and 3 million in the first two quarters of this year, he said.

Compared to 2009 during the depths of the recession when hotel occupancy percentage rate in Duval County averaged in the mid-50s, occupancy measured in July improved by about 40 percent to 73.6 percent.

In addition, the average rate paid per room has increased for the past 22 consecutive months. Hotel room revenue in 2014 was $334 million, a 13 percent increase over 2013.

“The hotels are busy and hotel revenues are setting records,” Astleford said.

Mayor Lenny Curry said the hospitality industry supports more than 22,000 jobs in Jacksonville and his administration intends to leverage the impact of tourism.

“We have all the assets to attract people to Jacksonville,” he said.

Tourism also is having a positive impact on segments of the local economy that aren’t directly related to lodging.

Lyndsay Rossman, vice president of global tourism marketing at Simon Property Group, said 40 percent of the 16 million people who shopped last year at St. Johns Town Center were not from Jacksonville.

Based on the Southside retail center’s census of license plates and surveys, St. Johns Town center last year was the shopping destination for visitors from all parts of the U.S., and tour groups from Brazil, Canada, China and Germany.

“Retail is part of the globalization of travel in Jacksonville,” Rossman said.

Medical tourism also is making an impact on North Florida’s economy. Mayo Clinic, the University of Florida Proton Health Therapy Institute, Baptist Health, St. Vincent’s HealthCare and other Jacksonville facilities account for a combined annual local economic impact of $20 million, said Astleford.

Mayo Clinic Jacksonville has become the third-largest provider of liver transplants in the U.S., said Anne Marie Knight, administrator of community involvement.

The destination marketing plan for the remainder of 2015 and into the future will highlight three topics that have traditionally not been at the forefront of Jacksonville’s message to potential visitors.

Katie Mitura, Visit Jacksonville director of marketing and product development, said the growing local culinary scene; arts, culture and festivals; and active lifestyle and eco-tourism will be at the forefront of the organization’s efforts to attract more people to vacation in Jacksonville.

“Those are three things Jacksonville does really well, but people may not know about it,” she said.

The annual celebration also is an opportunity to recognize people and businesses that have made significant contributions to local tourism.

The Behringer family received the Visit Jacksonville Hall of Fame Award for Peterbrooke Chocolatier and Sweet Pete’s candy store and factory.

The Omni Jacksonville received the Partner of the Year Award, chosen from among more than 400 businesses that help promote Jacksonville as a destination.

The “Bring it Home Jax” Ambassador Award was presented to Jonathan Cantor, senior architect and health care leader at RS&H, for his efforts promoting Jacksonville as a convention destination.

The Margo Dundon Tourism Advocate Award was presented to Wayne Wood for his efforts to establish the Riverside Arts Market and the revitalization of Hemming Park.

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