According to tourism association Visit Orlando, the central Florida city received 62 million visitors in 2014 alone. Most had one goal in mind: exploring its theme parks. The city is home to more than a dozen of them, including Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.
But while the city often makes it to the top of holidaymakers’ shortlist, it might not necessarily a favourite for site selectors. “Our conundrum is that people know us, but most of them just for one thing – theme parks,” says mayor of Orlando Buddy Dyer. “We are grateful for tourism jobs, but we want people to be aware that there is more to our economy than that.”
Hence the city’s “Orlando: you don’t know half of it” campaign in December 2014, an effort to showcase the city’s non-tourist side. Just 10 years ago the slogan would be nothing more than a marketing gimmick. “Most of our investments were in construction and tourism,” says Mr Dyer. “But the financial crisis showed that we need a more diverse economy to be resilient as a city.”
In 2009, with the crisis at its worst, unemployment in Orlando trebled to 10.8%. Luckily for the city, it has since fallen to 4.5%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and US Department of Labor data shows Orlando’s metro area leading the nation in job growth in 2015.
Mr Dyer suggests medicine and the digital gaming industry as key growth sectors for Orlando. “Where we had cow pastures 10 years ago, now we have Medical City,” he says. This is a 2.6 square kilometre health and life sciences park expected to add 30,000 jobs to the local market when fully functional. Since May 2015 work has been in progress on transforming the Amway Arena indoor entertainment complex in downtown Orlando into Creative Village, a 275,000 square metre mixed use development, which aims to attract high-tech and digital media companies.
Data from fDi Markets shows how cross-border investment flows reflects the changes in Orlando’s economy. Between 2003 and 2015 the most popular sector for inward FDI in Orlando was software and IT, followed by business services and medical devices. Hotels and tourism ranked fourth with only three projects and an estimated $17.8m in the same period. However, the overall number of projects attracted to the city since 2003, at 49, hardly makes Orlando an FDI magnet. While the city might not be a foreign investment hub just yet, Mr Dyer points out that becoming a recognisable brand among holidaymakers took time. “We did not become a tourism hub overnight. The same goes for other sectors,” he says. “And we are working hard with trade missions and site selectors to get noticed.”
Member of the Florida Senate