In the past five years, the metro Orlando area has added approximately 7,100 hotel rooms. Universal Orlando alone accounts for half of that expansion — and according to experts in the tourism market, it’s still not enough.
The opening of Universal’s Aventura Hotel gives Universal more than 6,000 rooms on its property, a 250 percent increase since 2013. Expanding too rapidly doesn’t appear to be an issue. Paul Sexton, vice president of Orlando hotel services firm HREC Investment Advisors, says the real issue is other developers aren’t building or expanding hotels fast enough to match the growth in visitors to Orlando, making it a necessity for Universal to expand on its own.
“If Universal did not have those additional rooms, they would have a problem getting people into their parks,” Sexton told Orlando Rising.
Research on the Orlando hotel market paints a similar picture. Hotel industry data obtained by Orlando Rising found the number of hotel rooms in the market has increased by only 1.1 percent between July 2013 and July 2018. But the number of visitors to the city has jumped by more than 26 percent since 2013, according to Visit Orlando, the city’s tourism association.
With such a large gap between supply and demand, occupancy rates in and around Orlando have remained high. According to the latest Visit Orlando lodging statistics report, the occupancy rate through July 2018 was 81.6 percent. In the International Drive area, which includes Universal hotels, it’s just below 84 percent. In year-to-date statistics for the whole U.S., the occupancy rate is 67.1 percent.
One factor hampering hotel developers from meeting demand, Sexton said, is a lack of available land. Universal no longer has that problem after acquiring more than 500 acres near the Orange County Convention Center.
“That’s going to be a 20-year build out, I’m sure,” Sexton said. “They’ve got plenty of land to balance out the amusement side as well as the hotel side.”
Universal won’t be landlocked anymore once the Endless Summer Resort opens next year. The first phase is currently under construction on the site of the old Wet ‘n Wild water-park. When completed in 2020, the resort will not only undercut Disney’s “value” hotels on price but also add another 2,800 rooms to Universal’s inventory.
Universal’s expansion appears to have been successful in enticing guests who may have otherwise spent their vacations at Walt Disney World hotels. Michelle Bulmer, co-owner of Mouse & Muggle Travel Company, says she’s seen demand for on-site hotels at Universal increase over the past several years from those repeat Orlando visitors.
“In my experience, these are clients who have previously stayed on Disney property and are looking for something a little different now that their children are older, or because someone in their family is obsessed with Harry Potter,” Bulmer said.
In fact, Bulmer’s clients now prefer Universal hotels over Disney. Disney may win on theming, but in her experience, customers come away impressed by the Loews brand of luxury, proximity to the parks and perks like the Unlimited Express Pass at its three most expensive hotels.
This presents a problem for the Endless Summer Resort. Being separated the existing Universal Orlando Resort may turn off returning customers, Bulmer says, unless Universal builds another theme park. It may be more successful in pulling in guests from the neighboring International Drive hotels.
“I think this is the answer to convincing the off-site guests to try on property after all,” Bulmer said. “Most clients who don’t mind paying a little more for their hotel experience will still choose from the options that keep them closer to the parks.”
Looking ahead a few years, Universal’s hotel expansion plans carry the same risk as any multiyear development: What if there’s an economic downturn?
Recessions have impacted major theme parks before, like when Disney closed blocks of rooms as attendance slumped in late 2001. In Sexton’s view, that’s a chance Universal or any hotel developer will have to take.
“What it really comes down to is whether the lender will take the risk,” Sexton said. “Right now, lenders are happy to take that risk.”