Florida holds enormous appeal for groups with its sweeping white beaches and alluring Atlantic and Gulf coasts. While much about Florida is the same throughout — sun, sand, water, sports, entertainment and incredible ease of access — its regions and towns are happily dissimilar, giving planners and associations a huge choice in where to meet. Large city, beach town, golf resort, theme-park resort, big-brand hotel, upscale, sultry, Latin, sophisticated — it’s all available. What’s your pleasure?
From the Florida Keys and Miami north to Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Melbourne, Florida’s southern Atlantic Coast encompasses many of the state’s most storied cities and beaches. Sophisticated and eclectic, this coastline is no one-size-fits-all meeting destination. It’s diverse, and the biggest problem for planners wanting to meet here may be which city to choose.
For Kate Battiste, CMP, senior meeting planner with the American Nurses Credentialing Center, part of the American Nurses Association, the choice landed on one of the state’s newest hotels, the 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach, the only hotel in South Florida connected to a convention center — The Palm Beach County Convention Center. Although the group’s ANCC Pathway to Excellence Conference will not take place until April 2018, planning is already well underway.
Battiste notes that the conference, which typically draws about 1,200 attendees, has a large number of female attendees, and that fact impacts the destination choice. “We have a mostly female audience, and the city seems perfect for our demographic,” she says. “We like the destination feel, the intimacy of the city and that it is very female-attendee friendly. It’s also beautiful and very easy to access. With the new trains coming online soon, it will be even easier.
“We like the destination feel, the intimacy of (West Palm Beach) and that it is very female-friendly. It’s also beautiful and very easy to access.”
— Kate Bashore-Battiste, CMP
“The city isn’t huge, and our conference won’t be one small fish in a sea of many,” she adds. “We feel we can get the attention we need to make the conference great.”
In terms of the planning thus far, Battiste says site visits have been very helpful. “We were invited to visit the location twice, and that has helped us visualize the flow of our meeting. Dori Jensen with Discover the Palm Beaches, Maria Walker DOSM Palm Beach County Convention Bureau and Brooks Atwater, senior sales manager at the Hilton have been very responsive to any questions I have had. It was great to see how convenient the airport is and how walkable the city is. Also, seeing how short the distance is for the connection between the Hilton and the convention center was great. You can’t judge that on a map. The two properties really flow together well. The site visit is so valuable in getting a realistic picture of the convention center and the city.”
The northern half of Florida’s Atlantic coast is dominated by two distinctly different destinations: Jacksonville and Daytona Beach.
Jacksonville, set where the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean meet, is a modern, sophisticated metropolitan area. It’s the 12th most populous city in the United States and offers everything you expect from a big city — plus fabulous beaches just a short distance from the thriving downtown riverfront area. It provided an ideal setting for the annual meeting of United States Aquatic Sports, the national federation representing USA swimming, diving, syncro and other aquatic sports.
Ellaine Cox, convention coordinator for the organization, which meets annually in September, says the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront is a favorite hotel for the group and a great fit. “We chose Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront because we knew that the staff would do whatever it takes to make each and every convention a very positive experience, not only for our delegation but for the entire convention committee.
“Laura Kowalski in sales and the Convention Services Manager Diane Liberty were both outstanding. From the GM to the servers in the restaurants, to the sales folks in the gift shop, everyone at Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront went above and beyond to make everything a good experience. Amazing staff!”
Cox says that the group had “minimally 30 concurrent breakouts changing in time and setups all day long, and Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront was always ready for the next meeting regardless of necessary changes. From small meetings to House of Delegates to 1,000 for the banquet, nothing was impossible. It is an attractive hotel, and we have never had AV issues of any kind. We had several social functions, luncheons and receptions with broad menu choices. The food was outstanding. The hotel was also very willing to work within our budgets for food and beverage.”
The city, too, is a good destination for this group. “Jacksonville is a good fit for our association in terms of the location, airlift, ease of access, cost and quality of lodging entertainment. On top of that, Visit Jacksonville went above and beyond to help us in any way possible to make the visit a good one,” Cox says.
The hotel provided everything the group needed in terms of event and function space, and Cox says she relied on Visit Jacksonville and the hotel to make recommendations and assist with local entertainment, which they did. She also notes that the hotel’s location was a big plus when delegates wanted to get outdoors in free time. “Our delegation loved to run along the waterfront.”
To other planners considering the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, Cox advises, “Plan big and plan for fun! Whatever you can’t think of, the hotel staff and Visit Jacksonville will make sure you’re covered!”
About 90 miles south of Jacksonville, Daytona Beach is best known for its annual NASCAR race. But the city offers more than that, including 23 miles of beach, and a boardwalk and pier with oceanfront dining and amusement rides. It’s also a place where business is taken seriously.
Daytona is an ideal meeting destination for the Association of Florida Colleges (AFC), which has gathered there on more than one occasion. “We like Daytona because it is in the central part of the state and near one of our colleges,” says Marsha Kiner, associate executive director, MS, CAE. “It is also close — about 45 minutes to an hour — to the Orlando International Airport. The hotels offer affordable rates and provide outstanding service. We also like that there are numerous restaurant options in the area beachside. The seafood is fresh and the atmosphere is inviting. Our members love to visit Daytona Beach.”
Kiner says AFC has held large meetings with 200-plus attendees as well as smaller meetings of 12 to 30 in Daytona, and at different times of year. “Daytona’s location makes it an ideal beach site for conferences. If you’re looking for a hotel that will cater to your specific needs, you’ll find it in Daytona Beach,” she says.
The Shores Resort & Spa is one such hotel. “It’s a great hotel for a large meeting or a small retreat,” Kiner says. “I’ve held both at this property and they were both successful. It’s a property that I return to over and over again. You can’t beat the location’s beauty and central location.”
Kiner describes The Shores as “an understated upscale beach resort” with great customer service and meeting facilities. “It’s affordable luxury at its best,” she adds. “From the moment you enter the property you are met with welcoming smiles and excellent service. The catering staff is great and the bar staff is excellent as well. The property is not so large that your attendees will get lost. You have options for outdoor events and the ambience is breathtaking.”
Kiner says she has not taken advantage of what the CVB offers but adds, “I would reach out to them for additional information and items for my attendees if I were unfamiliar with the area.”
Her only other suggestion for those who might meet in Daytona Beach or at The Shores is, “Be clear about your needs upfront, and ask for what you need to make your meeting successful. The Daytona Beach area has great hoteliers who will gladly assist you in creating a successful meeting experience for your clients.”
Florida’s laid-back Gulf Coast, with Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, Naples and Sarasota among its well-known destinations, draws many meetings. The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs, just south of Cape Coral and Fort Myers Beach, is one of the area’s primary meeting resorts. With 454 guest rooms and more than 75,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor space, it offers planners lots of choices.
Darlene W. Somers, CMP, with Association Management Center and senior meetings manager for PRISM (Professional Records & Information Systems Management), the nonprofit trade association for information management companies, brought the organization’s annual meeting with 300 attendees to the hotel in May. She notes that the hotel is a short distance (about 25 minutes) from Southwest Florida International Airport, which “offers a hassle-free travel experience due to its smaller size.”
“Our attendees were able to enjoy the amenities offered by the hotel during a ‘sanctioned’ recess time. They came back refreshed and relaxed and ready to learn.”
— Darlene W. Somers, CMP
PRISM previously had held a meeting at this Hyatt with excellent results. “Our attendees were eager to return,” Somers says. “The Hyatt is large enough to offer all the amenities we need, but small enough that our group of 300 can ‘own’ the hotel. Pretty much everyone our attendees meet in the hotel is with our group, so networking is effortless.”
Additionally, the meeting space works well. “The meeting space is just steps away from the lobby,” Somers notes. “The footprint of the meeting space feels small, but it has everything we need for exhibits, general session and multiple breakout rooms.”
And then there’s the service. Somers calls the service at the Hyatt “phenomenal,” adding, “Our attendees are seasoned travelers, and we always get compliments on the service when we are at the Coconut Point property.”
In 2016, the group changed up the agenda a bit, giving attendees time to enjoy all that is offered at the resort, with excellent results, and Somers recommends it as a possibility for other planners. “This year we tried something new,” she says. “We added a ‘white space’ to our agenda. This was a three-hour time frame one afternoon with no conference events planned. Because of the plethora of activities at the Hyatt (spa, golf, tennis, fishing, beach, pool) our attendees were able to enjoy the amenities offered by the hotel during a ‘sanctioned’ recess time. They came back refreshed and relaxed and ready to learn.”
The Panhandle in Northwest Florida offers an ambience both similar to and entirely different from the rest of Florida. Its weather patterns and proximity to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi make it feel more like what we think of as “the South,” and, unlike the rest of Florida, it’s a summer destination — especially for residents of the Southern states. Region III of the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) met in Sandestin along Miramar Beach in May, drawing 274 attendees. Kay Gilstrap, a member and chair-elect for Region III, helped plan the meeting.
“Region III of NCURA is the Southeastern Region (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands),” she says “Our annual spring meetings are known for excellent professional development and networking opportunities; however, we’re also known for outstanding locations for our meetings. We meet at beach locations regularly because we find we have excellent attendance when we do.”
The group comes almost entirely from universities, educational institutions and non-profit hospitals, meaning budgets for members to travel are limited. “Having our meetings in locations that are desirable and easy to travel to, whether by driving or flying, is very important,” Gilstrap says. “Even more important is to have our meetings in locations where the guest-room rates are reasonable and where we can keep the registration at a low rate. We are a nonprofit group, so we price our registration to cover the cost of food, beverage, AV and other essential services for the meeting. Miramar Beach met all of those requirements.”
The group was based at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, which offers more than 600 guest rooms, 40,000 sf of meeting space and easy access to all that Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort offers. “The price of the guest rooms, the ease in getting to the location and the ability to keep our registration costs down, all made the Hilton a good choice,” Gilstrap says. “Additionally, the fact that everything is connected so you do not have to go outside to get from the guest rooms to the meeting rooms was very important. We received many positive comments about it from our attendees.”
Among the staff, Gilstrap says, “Terri Marsh and Jennifer Catani were great to work with. They truly cared that the meeting was a success. Martin Manley also made everything so easy during the meeting! The people that work with you on your meeting truly care that it is a success.”
Almost everything went very well. “The décor was modern and comfortable, and everything was very clean,” Gilstrap says. “The AV guys were great to work with. Any issues that popped up during the meeting were addressed quickly and efficiently, AV and otherwise.”
There were some concerns related to the food, particularly the vegetarian meals. “There was not enough variety offered in general, but the vegetarians basically had the same lunch each meal,” Gilstrap says, but adds that the restaurants on the hotel grounds were excellent, so attendees had options. “We had a good number of people elect to eat at the restaurants. I would take that into consideration in the future when determining food selection for the meetings.”
One thing she wishes she had done differently relates to rooms. “I wish I had known to block more rooms for Friday and Saturday nights for our workshops. We ended up with folks staying about a mile away on those two nights and then moving to the meeting hotel on Sunday. We lost some room nights because several people elected to stay in the other hotel. We have workshops on Saturday and Sunday. The regular meeting is Sunday evening to Wednesday at noon.”
Gilstrap notes that each chair-elect in the organization writes a summary of their meeting and provides a recommendation as to whether or not to return. “Because of the ease of working with Terri and Jennifer, along with the positive survey results from attendees,” she says, “I recommended that we have a future meeting at this location.”
The bottom line for groups considering Florida for a meeting is that the state is big enough and diverse enough to meet the needs of any group in terms of budget, rooms, meeting space, ambience, access and location.
The opening this summer of ME by Melia in downtown Miami marks Melia Hotels International’s first-ever U.S. property. The sleek, uber contemporary hotel has 129 rooms and 14,000 sf of event space and prime outdoor areas. The 14th floor Sun Deck with two pools and a bar, plus a new interpretation of famed STK Miami steakhouse, add to the compelling mix. The hotel is located near American Airlines Arena and Miami Worldcenter.
The mid-century modern oceanfront Confidante debuted in April in Miami’s mid-beach neighborhood. Offering 363 guest rooms and 16 suites, along with two heated swimming pools, private cabanas and bungalows, two restaurants and a spa and salon, the hotel has everything guests could want — including 35,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor function space. The hotel is located on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach and is part of The Unbound Collection by Hyatt.
The acclaimed Nobu brand and singular Eden Roc Miami Beach will come together as Nobu Hotel Eden Roc, another hotel-within-a-hotel from partners Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Academy Award-winner Robert De Niro and Hollywood producer Meir Teper. Following an extensive renovation and landmark restoration, the new hotel opens this fall. Among its amenities: restaurant Nobu Miami at Eden Roc. The hotel will feature 214 guest rooms and 35 suites, four penthouse event spaces and four pools. A 22,000-sf spa and fitness facility, a farm-to-fork restaurant and more than 70,000 sf of stylish meeting and event space should impress attendees.
Trump National Doral Miami completed a $250 million renovation aimed at restoring the hotel to its former glory. The resort now features 643 refreshed guest rooms and suites in eight villas. Eight food and beverage outlets give guests plenty of choices and, of course, the legendary Blue Monster and three additional courses are still waiting to test the mettle of golfers, who now also can take advantage of a new True Spec Club Fitting Center Lab and a Jim McLean golf school. The resort also offers 100,000-plus sf of meeting space, including indoor and outdoor venues.
Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, Northeast Florida’s largest convention hotel with more than 116,000 sf of meeting space, has completed its multimillion-dollar renovation of all 951 guest rooms while adding six hard-walled meeting rooms on the fourth level of the property’s Terrace Building. The renovation also included corridors, the rooftop fitness center and Regency Club Lounge, which now provides additional space for small meetings, networking areas and workstations overlooking the city skyline.
The Shores Resort & Spa has an all-new oceanfront Tiki Hut that’s available for groups of up to 20. One fun way to kick off an event: A sunrise breakfast at the Tiki Hut, complete with live music.
Across the Sanibel Causeway off the Southwest Florida Gulf Coast near Fort Myers is Sundial Beach Resort and Spa on the barrier island of Sanibel, a slice of authentic, laidback Florida. Sundial offers unique outdoor event space with water views as well as the new Resort Centre, which is the largest meeting venue on Sanibel Island, boasting 12,000 sf of flexible space that accommodates up to 300 guests.
Opening November 17 in Destin on Florida’s Panhandle is the brand new Henderson Beach Resort, managed by Salamander Hotels & Resorts. Overlooking the Gulf Coast’s emerald green waters and celebrated sugar sand beaches and adjacent to a coastal nature preserve, Henderson Beach Resort offers 30,000 sf of indoor-outdoor meeting and beach event space.
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort opened at Universal Orlando in July. This fall, the hotel adds 115,000 sf of meeting space to Universal Orlando, including a 41,000-sf ballroom and 30,000-sf hall. The space connects by air-conditioned bridge to Loews Royal Pacific Resort, providing a combined 247,000 sf of meeting space in the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando. AC&F