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Some Lessons for Happy Valley from Orlando

by on February 25, 2020 5:00 AM


Perhaps you heard late last year that our longstanding Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau (CPCVB) took the opportunity to re-brand itself. Having gone through a leadership change just a little less than 18 months ago, and flush with the expected revenues from a long-overdue hotel tax increase, the bureau decided a name change was in order as well. 

My fellow Tuesday tag-team columnist Joe Battista hosted the event announcing this re-branding. The CPCVB went to bed one night a regular old Visitor’s Bureau and woke up the next day as the exciting Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. Well that’s adventurous!

So it is that I find myself in late February visiting Lake Buena Vista, Florida – better known as the home of Disney World – pondering if there are any tidbits of information our newly-minted Adventure Bureau can glean from what has to be the most successful transformation of an American city that doesn’t involve legalized gambling.

Orlando and State College have similarities in their business model. Both have one employer that is the reason the area exists in its present form. Then there are a multitude of smaller players attempting to capitalize off that attraction. That the scale in Orlando is significantly greater just adds zeros to the equation – the basic concepts are the same.

Also similarly to Happy Valley, the stalwart Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the de facto tourism association for the most visited destination in America, changed its name in the not-too-distant past. Nine years ago they rebranded as Visit Orlando after decades of existing under the traditional Visitors Bureau moniker. The reason for the change was to clarify exactly what they want tourists to do – visit Orlando. 

As I sit here in beautiful 70-degree weather enjoying my good fortune at missing more of the winter cold of Happy Valley, what are some possible lessons Happy Valley can learn from the meteoric rise and growth of the sleepy community of Orlando? And as we think about these lessons, also think about how we want Happy Valley to pursue potential increased tourism. 

For example, the Orlando metro population has grown from around 350,000 people back on Oct. 1, 1971 – the day Walt Disney World opened – to almost 2 million people today, primarily because of that tourism. It’s extremely unlikely Happy Valley will grow five times as large over the next 50 years though. How unlikely? While Orlando was experiencing 500% growth the past 50 years, Happy Valley grew about 60%, not even close to doubling in size. However that still provides some overarching lessons if we do want to grow tourism. Three that I can think of.

First is improved highway access to Happy Valley. Six years before Disney World opened, Interstate 4 from Daytona Beach to Tampa was completed and provided highway access to Orlando from the north via the I-95 corridor. The Florida Turnpike connected with I-4 and provided highway access to Orlando from the north via the I-75 corridor. These roads were crucial to promoting Orlando as a drivable destination, which is crucial to draw tourists. Happy Valley is still not completely accessible by highway from the two most populous cities in its own state – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – let alone for potential tourists from any other states, although some strides have been made for accessibility. 

Second is, improved air travel access and amenities. For comparison, what is now known as Orlando International Airport was McCoy Air Force Base until 1975, four years after Disney World opened (now you know why your luggage tags to Orlando are labeled “MCO”). In 1962 the Air Force created a joint-use agreement with the city of Orlando for passenger jets to use the base because the local Orlando airport’s runway was too short for large jets. By 1968 all passenger jets flying to Orlando were landing at the Air Force base. When the base closed in 1975 the site was redeveloped and grew into today’s modern airport that handled more than 50 million passengers in 2019, which is obviously a boon to the tourist industry. Happy Valley’s own University Park Airport recently inaugurated large-jet service but still does not even have a single jetway – the enclosed metal path between the terminal and jets that keeps passengers out of inclement weather when boarding and deplaning.

Third is making sure to have a focus on adventures for families – which primarily means kids. Walt Disney stated that the backbone of their whole business was catering to families. As to why that’s important and how it translates into tourism, one just needs to spend a few minutes anywhere in Disney World – or any of the theme parks in Orlando. Kids are everywhere. Parents will spend money on their children for tourist-related reasons. But since we don’t expect to build theme parks in Happy Valley, continually searching for other family-related opportunities is important to drawing in this tourist market. One example would be building a much greater sports facility infrastructure in Happy Valley — something that’s taken a small step forward with new developments like Nittany Valley Sports Centre and C3 Sports. Parents routinely travel great distances for all manner of youth sports tournaments. 

Again, Happy Valley’s population isn’t going to grow five times over the next 50 years due to increased tourism – many of us don’t want it to anyway! And the first two lessons above have been longtime items on the local civic-development wish-list. But if our adventurous Adventure Bureau is to pursue its mission, we will need to take a few baby-steps to help it. Luckily we can look to the lessons that Orlando has so generously mapped out for us as guidance – both good and bad – in our efforts to keep our Valley Happy.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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