High-speed rail a game changer for Florida resorts
High-speed rail a game changer for Florida resorts
04 FEBRUARY 2020 8:41 AM

Florida resort operators take note as Brightline/Virgin Trains USA initiates luxurious, fast and reliable passenger rail service between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Palm Beaches. Service is soon to be expanded to Orlando and other areas.

In July 2014, HNN published the column “US lags in high-speed rail,” which noted that while other countries around the world were embracing and expanding high-speed passenger rail service, the U.S. was virtually at a standstill once outside the Northeast.

At that time All Aboard Florida—later to become Brightline and now rebranding as Virgin Trains USA (VTUSA)—was just beginning development. Despite naysayers who said, “It will never happen,” VTUSA is now fully operational and expanding into new markets quickly.

VTUSA is truly revolutionary in the U.S. It is the first PRIVATELY funded passenger rail system to be developed in the U.S. in many decades. Of added historical interest, VTUSA’s parent company is the Florida East Coast Railway. The tracks which carry its trains follow the very same right of way developed by Henry Flagler more than 100 years ago. It was the development of Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway which most historians credit as the reason Florida developed into an internationally-recognized resort destination. Flagler built resorts in South Florida and built his rail line to bring people to those resorts. Towns and cities built up along and around the resorts and the rail line.

To the majority of Americans, traveling by a long-distance passenger train is not familiar. Once upon a time, private railroads provided high-quality, frequent passenger service to all corners of the U.S. Then development of the Interstate Highway System combined with low-cost airline service gave a one-two punch which decimated private passenger train service by the late 1960s.

Amtrak—the U.S. government’s 1971 attempt to rescue what was left of passenger rail service in the U.S. by operating it as a quasi-public (i.e. taxpayer supported) corporation—has had a rough history. But, as another sign that rail travel’s time may be returning, Amtrak ridership has been increasing steadily in recent years, especially along the high-speed Northeast Corridor (Boston, New York, Washington, D.C.). Representatives of VTUSA and resort operators in Florida contacted for this article view this northeast connection as pivotal to VTUSA’s potential success in Florida:

  1. A very large percentage of the 126.1 million visitors to Florida in 2018 (Visit Florida) are from Northeast metropolitan areas where passenger rail service is not only familiar but is viewed as an integral part of everyday life.
  2. The major cities along the VTUSA route form a “corridor” similar to that in the Northeast. VTUSA fills a need for passenger service between cities which are too closely located for air travel to be attractive given the inconvenience of security, check-in etc., and too far apart to drive easily given the almost constant traffic congestion.
  3. Added to the pool of travelers from the Northeast familiar with rail travel, South Florida is experiencing large increases in the number of overseas international visitors (10.8 million in 2018) from countries where high-speed train service is commonplace and utilized heavily.

John Tolbert, president and managing director of the Boca Raton Resort & Club, expressed great optimism about VTUSA’s arrival in Boca Raton—where construction of a new station has just been given the go-ahead. Tolbert, referred to VTUSA’s arrival as a major disruptor of the status quo. He sees the Virgin branding and Virgin’s link to the luxury travel market worldwide as strongly positive. He went on to speak about the rail line linking the best of Florida to Boca Raton, “supercharging” the connection between his Boca resort (which is very close to the site of the new station) and the myriad of activities in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Orlando. A guest at the Boca Raton Resort & Club—or for that matter any resort along the VTUSA corridor—will have access to all the attractions and amenities of those other cities while using their chosen world-class resort as their primary destination and home base.

Discover The Palm Beaches, the official destination marketing organization promoting Palm Beach County, is the “official tourism partner” of VTUSA. President and CEO Jorge Pesquera said that DTPB has been a huge supporter of VTUSA since its inception as Brightline with excitement increasing exponentially when Richard Branson announced Virgin’s investment and branding agreement. According to Pesquera, Virgin’s high-profile presence in Europe as well as its multi-modal operations in the U.S. (Virgin Holidays, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Virgin Cruises, Virgin Hotels and now Virgin Trains USA) are a reason for great optimism as far as the success of VTUSA.

Mike Kovensky, director of sales and marketing at the InterContinental Miami, noted yet another unique contribution to be made by VTUSA operations. He said with flexible pricing, the frequent rail service provided by VTUSA between downtown cores greatly expands the reach of his downtown Miami hotel for procuring talent. For example, connecting to major universities with hospitality programs in Boca Raton (FAU and Lynn) and North Miami’s FIU Chaplin School (via a new Aventura station) helps garner student employment.

Clearly, there is solid cause for optimism. According to Michael Hicks, director of media relations Brightline Trains/VTUSA, total passenger trip counts on the line exceeded the one million mark in July 2019. Based on current projections, the cumulative count should reach two million in early 2020. More than 100 years after the first of Henry Flagler’s trains connected Florida with reliable transportation, VTUSA is reprising that role, bringing Florida and its booming resort business “back to the future.”

Gregory T. Bohan, BS Cornell University, MS Florida International University is a member of the full-time faculty at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Business, instructing in the rapidly growing Hospitality and Tourism Management Program. Prior to FAU, Mr. Bohan taught at the Chaplin School of Hospitality at Florida International University. His professional career includes more than 35 years of hospitality consulting – primarily in the areas of financial structuring and market feasibility. Before embarking on his current, full-time teaching career, Mr. Bohan was Managing Director of Pinnacle Advisory Group’s Florida/Caribbean practice. Earlier in his career he was a co-Principal in charge of the consulting practice at PKF’s New York office as well as developer/owner/operator of full-service country inn in Vermont. He is active in industry affairs and holds position on the Boards of Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association, Hotel Sales & Marketing Association’s South Florida chapter and the Academy of Hospitality & Tourism. He can be reached at Florida Atlantic University via email: bohang@fau.edu.

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