The year was 1999. Bill Clinton was president, the first LEGOLAND outside of Europe – LEGOLAND California – opened in Carlsbad, and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, was a hit at local movie theaters.
In Polk County, Cypress Gardens was not only king, but also home to the first Polk County Visitors Center.
“At the time, that was where I worked,” said Joni Allen, the current tourism industry sales specialist for Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing (PCTSM). “One day, after having a few out-of-state visitors come in saying that hotel staff had told them there was nothing else to do in Polk County, the idea hit me – let’s educate our hospitality industry.”
Today, that tour – dubbed the Hospitality Industry Professionals (HIP) Tour – continues to educate those who interact daily with visitors. There are typically two or three HIP Tours conducted in a year.
“We have a lot to offer, and a lot more in store for visitors than most residents of Polk County realize,” said Justin Laferriere, the Senior Visitor Services Manager. “And it is proven that exposure to those offerings translates into more of a visitor’s entertainment dollar staying in county.” Laferriere and his staff currently oversee the program as well as all visitor services operations, including the Visitor Information Center at Interstate 4, the soon-to-be-opened visitor station RP Funding Center as well as the existing one at LEGOLAND Florida, various research and data collection ventures, and more than 150 brochure racks and kiosks.
And while the idea behind the tour remains the same, several goals and strategies have been added to create Polk County tourism brand ambassadors.
“Word of mouth is still one of the most powerful tools in our marketing toolbox,” said Laferriere. “Developing informed and inspired brand ambassadors will simply increase economic spend and total impact.”
Another idea that remains the same is to take full advantage of the time PCTSM staff has with area hospitality professionals.
“Once we get folks gathered and in a vehicle, we’ve got a captive audience,” she said. “The idea is to take the folks gathered to some of the big sites – Fantasy of Flight and Cypress Gardens were still around when we started this – while also seeing some of the smaller ones and, still, talking about the ones we couldn’t visit. So while we might visit Davidson of Dundee or the Depot Museum, we’d still get to talk up River Ranch or the historic courthouse.”
Even current HIP coordinator Laura Modrall, the Visitor Services Business Development Supervisor for PCTSM at the Visitor Information Center, still learns something on each stop.
“I was born and raised in Bartow, but each tour is still pretty exciting,” said Modrall. “There are things on the tour that I’ve done my whole life, but there is a whole lot I wouldn’t have been exposed to if it hadn’t been for my job. Most of all, it is fun to learn more about the county, and I love sharing that information with others – knowing they will pass it on.”
Polk County may have more to see today than when the tours started, said Modrall, but the concept hasn’t changed much since Allen started it.
“This last tour we stopped at Safari Wilderness as well as Florida Southern College for the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture,” she said. “We find that so many people who live here have no idea of all the choices this county offers visitors. It is fun watching their eyes open to all Polk County has to offer.”