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Universal prepares for group uptick
November 19 2012

Universal Orlando Resort, along with its joint-venture partners, is busy prepping its hotels for an expected increase in group and corporate demand in central Florida.

  • Renovations to the ballrooms and meeting space at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort and Hard Rock Hotel wrapped in September.
  • The 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort is scheduled to open in 2014.
  • “We know from the research that’s been done that there is a lot of pent-up demand in the moderate category,” Universal’s Vince LaRuffa said.
By Shawn A. Turner
HNN contributor

ORLANDO, Florida—Group and corporate meeting demand is tiptoeing up in central Florida, and Universal Orlando Resort is positioning itself to take advantage of the increase.

Universal, along with fellow owners Loews Hotels and Hard Rock International, completed renovations in September to the ballrooms and meeting space at the 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort and 650-room Hard Rock Hotel. The rooms at the Royal Pacific also will be undergoing renovations, with half the work being done during 2014 and the remainder finishing in 2015. A room renovation plan is also in the works for the Hard Rock property.

In addition, renovations to the 750 rooms at the Loews Portofino Bay are scheduled to finish in December, according to Kathy Cattoor, VP of resort sales at Universal.

Combined, the three hotels, which are located on the theme-park campus, boast more than 130,000 square feet of meeting space; renovations covered such things as the installation of new carpeting and furniture. Executives declined to disclose the cost of the renovations.

Cattoor said group demand is creeping upward. “We are seeing growth, but it’s not booming,” she said, adding that corporate and association business continues to be more short term in nature.

One of the strongest draws for the group business is the same magnet that brings much of the leisure business to Orlando: theme parks. The three properties sit just a water taxi away from the company’s Universal Studios Florida theme park and Islands of Adventure (home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter).

Universal, though, has been careful to not let the trio of hotels morph into theme-park properties.

“We can be (like) a chameleon to the needs of the group,” she said.

And despite a crush of rooms in the Orlando market, Cattoor said the company also has noted growth in its corporate negotiated rate.

“Rates are growing, but we don’t see it going off the charts,” Cattoor said. “Now that business is coming back, there are more luxury hotels (being built). We’re still fighting for the rate growth.”

There are 475 hotels comprising 119,737 rooms in the Orlando market, according to October data compiled by STR, parent company of Further, there are 20 hotels representing 4,314 rooms in the market’s hotel development pipeline, according to STR data.

“People have a lot of choices” in Orlando, Cattoor added.

The supply growth doesn’t necessarily bother Cattoor, however. She sees each new opening as an opportunity to evaluate Universal’s three hotels.

New hotel on the scene
Universal and Loews have plans to add to that supply growth with the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, an 1,800-room property scheduled to open in 2014. The hotel, which also will sit on the Universal campus, will have a retro theme with a late 1950s, early 1960s design, bringing back images of families traveling on vacation in their woodie station wagons.

Vince LaRuffa

The hotel, the fourth in which the company will have an ownership interest, will be more moderately priced than the company’s other offerings, said Vince LaRuffa, VP of resort sales and marketing at Universal. Rates for the new property haven’t been set, he said.

“We know from the research that’s been done that there is a lot of pent-up demand in the moderate category,” he said. “It’s obviously a niche we don’t occupy, too.”

All of the properties are in close proximity to one another, though LaRuffa said they do not cannibalize each other. He said each of the hotels is unique in its own right and are packaged together. Guests are encouraged to explore each of the properties.

For instance, the Hard Rock exudes a high-energy vibe while the Portofino Bay aims for more of a luxury experience.

“We sell our three hotels as a portfolio,” LaRuffa said.

Editor’s note: Universal Orlando Resort provided airfare, hotel accommodations and other amenities including meals for a three-night stay. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of the editorial team; Universal had no influence of the coverage provided.

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