Years after plans for a true high-speed (over 150 mph) rail in Florida were quashed by political infighting, four of the state’s most visited cities are about to be linked by the privately owned Brightline train. Starting in mid-2017, rail service will connect Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with a second phase to Cocoa and Orlando projected to be built by the end of 2018. When completed, the “higher speed rail” (the term used to describe rail speeds between 90 and 125 mph) journey from Miami to Orlando will take three hours, an hour less than by car. People who want to travel between these cities, even for a day trip, will have this new transport option, which will boost tourism further between South and Central Florida and also make the journey more convenient for residents and business travelers. Ticket prices will be less than the cost of flying to Orlando from the other three cities.
Florida is the second-most-visited state in the United States, with over 100 million out-of-state and international visitors per year. The vast majority are domestic travelers, who make up more than 85 percent of visitors, and in 2015, domestic travel was up by 5.6 percent from the previous year. Of the international visitors, Canadians constitute the largest portion, with 3.8 million visiting annually. Even facing confirmed Zika cases in parts of Miami, the state saw an overall year-on-year increase in domestic visitors in 2016.
“We have hundreds of miles of beaches on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, year-round mild temperatures, most major theme parks and attractions—there is something for everyone here,” says Robert Stolt, vice president of business development at RCI, who resides in Orlando.
The perennial appeal of Florida makes it home to more vacation ownership resorts and timeshares than any other state. According to the Economic and Fiscal Impacts of the
Florida Timeshare Industry, prepared by Ernst & Young for the ARDA International Foundation, there are 371 resorts in the state with a total of nearly 60,000 timeshare units (excluding fractional resorts, private residence clubs and destination clubs). The timeshare industry accounts for more than 106,000 jobs and $14.9 billion of output. The state government is generally responsive to the industry as a whole, recently unanimously passing a bill that modernized and clarified the state’s timeshare law, for example, plus added to some lawsuit protections.
This hospitable environment and the state’s support of projects like the Brightline train are also important to resort owners, developers and investors. “Florida’s continued investment to improve the infrastructure that handles the largest amount of visitors each year is key to our decision to invest in our resort,” says Stephen W. Bradley, authorized member of Timescapes Resorts, the owner of Calypso Cay Resort, in Kissimmee. “The state’s reasonable tax structure, openness to structured development growth and international promotion for the leisure and business visitor are areas that make the difference.”
One of the most visited cities in the United States, Miami saw a 6.4 percent year-on-year increase in 2015 in overnight visitors, with a total of 15.5 million visitors. The two most popular locations for travelers to stay are Miami Beach (at nearly 50 percent) and downtown Miami (at nearly 19 percent). And revitalizing downtown Miami is Brightline’s main terminus, MiamiCentral, a transport hub and mixed-use retail, office and residential development being built on the site of Miami’s former train station. The depot will link Brightline passengers with commuter rails and the city’s Metromover, trolleys and buses and will add to the city’s reputation as a tourist magnet.
Overall development in Miami continues apace, from new hotels in Mid-Beach to retail and residential complexes along the Miami River, the city’s latest waterfront hot spot. Six restaurants and 550 hotel rooms were approved last year, as well as residential projects such as One River Point, which will comprise two 60-story condo towers linked at the top by an air bridge and a private club. Mixed-use developments such as River Landing will rise along the river while Riverwalk, a public promenade, is currently being built. Luxury yachts ply the Miami, tying up at restaurants like Seaspice or the newly opened River Yacht Club, which has a garden, restaurant and rooftop terrace, plus a members-only marina.
A rise in affluent visitors is creating an economic boom and significant investment in the greater Fort Lauderdale region, which received 14.3 million tourists in 2015. The average annual income for domestic visitors to this area is over $112,000, far above the national average and an increase of 15.5 percent from 2012. Meanwhile, a $2.3 billion expansion and runway extension to the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport led to a 26 percent increase in international traffic between 2013 and 2014.
With 70 consecutive months of growth and a current hotel occupancy rate of 81 percent, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County are seeing new construction projects and redevelopment of oceanfront properties filling the pipeline. Overall, more than $700 million in hotel development is underway, with more than one thousand new rooms set to come online in the next two years, such as those in the new Meliá Costa Hollywood and the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach and Ocean Resort Residences. In addition, 10 existing hotels are planning over $222 million in improvements and renovations. The region also hosts high-profile events such as Riptide Music Festival, food and wine festivals and fashion events. A new mode of transport such as the Brightline will ferry travelers to and from these events from other nearby cities, and the ease of connectivity will create more options of things to do for visitors.
West Palm Beach
The Palm Beaches are within driving distance of South Florida’s three major international airports (Miami International, Fort Lauderdale International and Palm Beach International Airport) and is an accessible, affordable beach and vacation destination. Visitor numbers grow every year, and in 2015 the area had a record-breaking 6.9 million visitors and was forecast to better that number with 7.2 million in 2016. In the past year there have been 11 new resort and hotel property openings, and in 2017 the area will get a luxe lift with the opening of a Mandarin Oriental hotel and residences in downtown Boca Raton in Palm Beach County.
With more than a million travelers bypassing the Palm Beaches while traveling between Orlando and Miami every year, the hope for the Brightline is that it will encourage people to stop and stay awhile. “We have been big supporters of Brightline since the beginning, because we believe this is a wonderful alternative for people to get to the Palm Beaches,” says Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover the Palm Beaches, the official tourism marketing corporation for Palm Beach County. “This new service presents a great opportunity to introduce our area as an alternative destination perfectly situated between those two major gateways.”
The region hosts events like the annual SunFest, a major outdoor music festival, and Sandi Land, a holiday celebration in West Palm Beach that features music and light shows and a Christmas tree sculpted from 600 tons of sand. Baseball fans can visit the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, a spring training and event complex, when it opens in 2017. It will be home to the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals.
With a record-setting 66 million visitors (60 million of them domestic tourists) in 2015, Orlando is the most visited city in the United States. Another record 33 million room nights were sold the same year, and hotels are adding rooms in response to the demand. The theme parks continue to add new rides and attractions, and 2015 was the first full year of tourism numbers benefiting from the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley, which has proved to be incredibly popular with millennial tourists, particularly men, at Universal Orlando Resort. According to Foursquare data, the Universal parks in both Florida and California draw in more men than their competition. Universal Orlando Resort will open a water park this year called Volcano Bay and a new ride, Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, which will take guests through the subway tunnels, up skyscrapers and past famous NYC landmarks.
Also in 2017, Walt Disney World® Resort will open an Avatar land in Animal Kingdom, plus Toy Story and Star Wars attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are in the works. Orlando’s culinary scene is more sophisticated than ever, and the city will soon open a purpose-built soccer stadium for MLS team the Orlando City Lions for the start of the 2017 season.
The Brightline’s second-phase extension to Orlando depends on completion of the Orlando Intermodal facility that is being constructed at the Orlando International Airport, as well as construction of the new higher-speed rail tracks from Cocoa to Orlando. “The reaction of resorts and hotels has been very favorable,” says AnneMarie Mathews, spokesperson for Brightline. “It’s a way for them to attract more guests because they will have an easy and convenient way to get from city to city.” New transportation links such as this give resort guests and owners more options during their stay, which is a boon to developers. “People will be able to go from Miami to West Palm Beach or West Palm Beach to Orlando much more easily,” says Stolt. “The Brightline service will put the best of Florida within reach of many resorts in South and Central Florida.”
While one challenge for developers and investors is the price of land, especially beachfront property, most timeshare purchasers want urban destinations, and the supply of resorts doesn’t meet the current demand. While it might be harder for independent developers to enter the timeshare industry in this region, it has key targets for larger club developers to add dots on the map to complement their clubs. “We have seen great development strides in recent years, primarily from large branded clubs whose members demand these destinations as well,” says Stolt. “It’s expensive to develop urban areas, so the cost of the product will reflect this in the sales price.”
One of the most promising groups of potential owners, according to Stolt, is millennials. “The sheer size and buying power of this generation means that they’re not just future timeshare purchasers, they’re a vital part of today’s market,” he says. He adds that appealing to their tastes and desires is key. “Developers who design a sense of adventure into their brand experience will be the most appealing. Millennials also strive for a healthy lifestyle, so the Florida experience is the perfect place to balance activity with entertainment. Flexibility is also key, since they don’t make their travel plans nearly as far in advance as past generations of owners.”
A combination of time-proven appeal and new and exciting projects such as Brightline, plus continued support from the state and local governments, mean a rosy future for the Sunshine State. “Our industry is strong, and so many developers have established roots here that it just makes sense for them to continue to have a sales presence,” says Stolt. “As long as the sun continues to shine, tourists will be drawn to the great state of Florida.”
Image credit: Courtesy of Brightline