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Jax Daily Record Friday, Apr. 8, 202205:10 AM EST

Jacksonville's convention comeback

Visit Jacksonville is focusing on smaller groups, offering incentives to boost the city’s hospitality business after the pandemic slump.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

Just a few months into the slow return to life as it was before the coronavirus pandemic, Jacksonville hotels are returning to a level of business not seen for more than two years.

Weekend leisure travel is putting Duval County at the front of the trend. 

In February, hotel room occupancy was 75.1% and room revenue was $40.5 million, the highest on record for the second month of the year.

When the final numbers are tabulated, March occupancy and revenue are expected to surpass February and set a record.

Michael Corrigan, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville, attributes the strong local recovery to multiple factors, including that Florida led the nation in terms of lifting pandemic restrictions that hindered leisure and business travel months before other tourist destination states.

“Jacksonville and the state have been open for business for a while,” Corrigan said.

Leisure travel accounted for 62.4% of business in February, reflecting the national post-pandemic trend.

Group travel business accounted for 9.8% of hotel guests, and that segment also is recovering.

In March, nearly 5,000 visitors representing 13 convention groups booked more than 6,000 room nights.

April looks even better, with 13 groups contracted for more than 9,600 room nights.

Corrigan said much of the conference and convention business under contract in the next year was booked before the pandemic began because large groups plan their itineraries as much as five years in advance.

Helicopters made use of the lawn adjacent to the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront Hotel for the American Mosquito Control Association 2022 Annual Meeting.

The American Mosquito Control Association’s 2022 annual meeting was one of the larger groups in March. More than 700 attendees booked about 600 rooms over eight days at the Hyatt Jacksonville Regency Riverfront.

Association spokesman David Brown said Jacksonville was chosen before the pandemic and the Hyatt was booked for its facilities and because it has enough rooms to accommodate the group at one property.

“Everything we need is on-site. Some places, you have to go from building to building. We didn’t have to do that in Jacksonville,” Brown said.

The Hyatt had an on-site amenity that was not available when the convention was booked – the open space next to the hotel where the former City Hall Annex stood before it was demolished in 2019.

The lawn at Bay and Newnan streets became a helicopter display, allowing the convention’s aviation vendors to show off the latest technology in aerial mosquito control.

“Not a lot of cities have a helipad next to the hotel. It was an unusual experience and a valuable tool for our members and for public outreach,” Brown said.

Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. was one of the smaller groups visiting Jacksonville in March. The group booked about 380 rooms for 275 delegates over the four-day membership training academy.

Fraternity spokesman Alfonza Mobley said Jacksonville has been a destination for the group since 1998.

“We get our bang for the buck in Jacksonville. It’s already suggested that we come back – maybe next March,” Mobley said.

While large groups select meeting sites years in advance, smaller groups often plan meetings within a few months and Visit Jacksonville is enhancing its focus on that part of the market, Corrigan said.

The Duval County Tourist Development Council approved an incentive program available through Sept. 30 for groups that book as few as 50 rooms. The program is designed to fill rooms not under contract by larger groups that meet at Downtown’s convention hotels and instead bring small groups to suburban select service properties.

Corrigan said Visit Jacksonville will work for the next six months to offer incentives to smaller groups that are making the decision now to meet in person.

Visit Jacksonville also expanded its convention sales and services team by four members.

National Account Manager Laura Gonzalez focuses on the sports tourism market to promote Jacksonville as a destination for youth, amateur, collegiate and professional sports as well as sports conventions.

Lauren Hickox, assistant destination experience manager, assists visitors through Visit Jacksonville’s Visitor Centers and those visiting with a group with requests for information, referrals and trip-planning services.

Destination Experience Manager Paloma Martin is a liaison with local businesses and provides referrals and amenities to individual travelers, groups and meeting planners who are coming to Jacksonville.

Convention Sales Marketing Manager Kelly Sanderson is responsible for marketing initiatives and strategies associated with helping the Visit Jacksonville sales team bring conventions and groups to the city.

Michael Corrigan, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville.

“The small group market is coming back first. We want every meeting space filled,” Corrigan said.

The total annual economic impact of tourism in Northeast Florida was about $3.6 billion before the pandemic, according to Visit Jacksonville.

The market’s resurgence after the coronavirus pandemic is expected to return it to about $3 billion in 2022, Corrigan said.

“We are making the most of our opportunities to turn them into future opportunities.”

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