DAYTONA BEACH -- A sea of red fez hats swarmed Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway as local leaders announced a tourism triumph for the area.
Shriners International will bring its national convention -- along with 15,000 to 20,000 people and about $8 million in economic impact -- to Daytona Beach in July 2018, Shriners officials and community leaders announced Monday afternoon. Daytona Beach will become the smallest city to host the event.
"It's a victory for our community, it's a victory for our county, it's a victory for the Shriners," Daytona Beach Mayor Glenn Ritchey said to a crowd of about 200 locals, including 60 Shriners.
The celebration was in true Victory Lane style, with champagne spray, a cake with the Shriners logo and an airplane overhead welcoming the Shriners with a banner. Although speeches were sometimes interrupted by the roar of NASCAR cars testing on the track, the Shriners attending the press conference seemed happy to be at the Speedway, where they might be able to hold their mini-car and motorcycle races during the convention -- the potential for which was part of Daytona's draw.
Gary Bergenske, an Orlando businessman who is set to become head of the Shriners organization in 2017, told the crowd about his reasons for selecting Daytona Beach.
"The torch has passed to a new generation to host the Shriners Imperial Session, to a place where the sun rises over the Atlantic and sets over the Intracoastal Waterway," Bergenske said.
He also described the area as "a place where bikini-clad girls roam the beaches" to cheers and applause from his fellow Shriners.
After the presentation, Bergenske said Daytona Beach had met every requirement his organization set forth, but he added that the site selection committee's decision was based on more than mere technical details.
"What put it over the top was the passion of the people," he said.
Bergenske began discussions with Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau officials more than a year ago about the possibility of holding the convention here. He got to know the area when he bought an oceanfront condominium in Daytona Beach Shores as a vacation getaway several years ago. Even though he no longer owns that condo, he said it was his dream to bring the Shriners to a place he'd grown to love.
Orlando and Tampa were also in the running to host the Shriners' 2018 convention.
Volusia County Chair Frank Bruno introduced Bergenske on Victory Lane's stage on Monday and was quick to plug the county's $82 million expansion of the Ocean Center convention center in 2009.
"If it wasn't for the fact that we expanded the Ocean Center, we would not be getting this convention into Volusia County, and I'm very proud of that fact," Bruno said.
The 2018 convention will take place over eight days, from July 15 to 19. On peak nights, about 5,000 local hotel rooms could be filled with Shriners and their families and friends.
Bagging the convention is a major victory for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has faced public criticism in the past over whether it is doing enough to promote the county-run Ocean Center.
Linda McMahon, interim sales director for the visitors bureau and a major force behind bringing the Shriners convention to the area, said she's glad to see it official.
"I did not have doubts, but you always have to be realistic," she said.
McMahon is already looking toward 2018 and said the next step for the visitors bureau will be meeting with subcommittees and outlining a five-year plan to prepare for the convention.
McMahon and other local tourism officials will also make a presentation at the Shriners national convention this July in Charlotte, N.C., where the organization's members will formally vote to hold the 2018 Imperial Session in Daytona Beach.
Daytona Beach attorney Ted Doran, who chairs the Halifax Area Advertising Authority Board that oversees the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, led the gathering in giving a toast to the Shriners on their decision to hold the convention here in five years.
"To the 2018 Daytona Beach Shriners convention, the best convention the Shriners will ever know," Doran said.