Forget what you know, or think you know, about Florida. It’s not a static destination. Some things never change — the sun, the sea, the sand, the easy access — yet much about this diverse state continues to evolve, making it a go-to destination no matter how many times an association has been here.
Nowhere is that truer than Orlando, which set an all-time record for U.S. destinations by welcoming 59 million visitors in 2013, including 1 million people attending 109 trade shows. “Even if an association has been to Orlando before,” says George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, “there have been so many changes, including new restaurants, additions to our theme parks and increased level of special activity.” And there’s more to come, including a five-year, $187 million capital development program at the 7-million-sf Orange County Convention Center, which will make the facility even more user-friendly.
“The association market is important to Orlando,” Aguel continues. “And association planners will be amazed at all the new opportunities for their attendees before, during and after the conference that guarantee increased attendance.”
Among the new opportunities: Hyatt Regency Orlando, converted from the former Peabody. Elaine Howard, vice president with the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), booked the hotel prior to the changeover for two February conferences, the MBA CREF Multi-Family Real Estate Finance Meeting and the MBA Servicing Conference, each with about 2,400 attendees.
Overall, the meetings went very well. “We encountered some hiccups due to transition from the Peabody hotel systems to the Hyatt systems,” Howard says, “but we were able to identify and solve any issues that arose.”
MBA often meets in Orlando, and Howard calls the city a good fit because it has so many hotels and because of the weather. But she also points to Orlando’s evolving landscape. “We like to see all the growth that is taking place near the convention center in terms of restaurants and nightlife for the attendees to enjoy after a long day of meetings,” she says.
MBA has already booked Orlando in 2015 and 2016. “I highly recommend Orlando as a destination,” Howard says. “I also highly recommend the Hyatt. The management and staff bent over backward to accommodate our group, the food was very good and the meeting space is ideally laid out for large groups.”
One of the Hyatt’s attributes is its walkway connection to the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). Other hotels attached to or adjacent to the OCCC include Rosen Plaza, connected to the West Building by the Gary Sain Memorial Skybridge, which opened in September. Rosen Plaza is updating its fine-dining restaurant, Jack’s Place, slated to finish in June. Sister property Rosen Centre is opening a new poolside restaurant this summer, Harry’s Bar & Grill. The Hilton Orlando is connected by walkway to the OCCC’s North/South Building and features 225,000 sf of meeting and event space, and all you’d expect of a full-service resort.
Options for themed events are endless. Up to 4,000 attendees can gather on the causeway between the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotels for a private event modeled after the hotels’ annual Food & Wine Classic. And meeting in Walt Disney World Resort or Universal Orlando Resort gives groups a chance to book their own theme park for an evening, always an attendee draw.
This summer will see the debut of several new theme park attractions: Universal Orlando will extend The Wizarding World of Harry Potter across both of its theme parks with the addition of Diagon Alley. Walt Disney World opens the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the end of May within the newly expanded Fantasyland. SeaWorld introduces a nighttime Shamu show. And Duplo Valley opens at Legoland Florida.
Also new at Universal Orlando Resort is the recently opened Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which offers a value-priced option for attendees bringing families for an extended visit.
In January, talks revved up on possible construction of a new downtown convention center. Meanwhile, the Prime Osborn III Convention Center, a favorite of SMERF and other groups, with 156,184 sf of space, is still going strong. Upgrades include a new menu. And several hotels have been refurbished, giving Jacksonville new luster.
“Association members who visit here will find Jacksonville is a great destination for many reasons: many opportunities to enjoy the waterways and beaches; many venues set upon the water; and an abundance of attractions, hotels, restaurants and shopping to enjoy,” says Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville.
Associations including golf within meetings have no trouble drawing attendees to the Jacksonville area, home of the World Golf Hall of Fame and The Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, Convention Center and Beach Club, which together provide 101,000 sf of function space and two championship golf courses.
Astleford also points to the city’s culture-rich downtown and entertainment districts, and to its wealth of outdoor activities and venues, including 1,100 miles of river and Intracoastal Waterway coastline and 22 miles of beaches. “All this makes it easy,” he says, “to plan a meeting where many attendees with different interests can be entertained at the same time in one place.”
Robert “Buddy” Allen, senior director of administration for Chicago-based Prevent Child Abuse America, adds more reasons for associations to book business here, including ideal weather, an airport that is easy to get in and out of and “a very helpful and financially supportive CVB.” Since 2010, his group has had several meetings here, and the National Conference for America’s Children takes place in May.
“Visit Jacksonville helped support the conferences in 2012 and 2014,” Allen says. “We met with Karen Townsend and her group several times, and came up with clear objectives on how to promote our conferences. They were also instrumental in helping us get weather insurance for our conferences held in the hurricane window of Florida. We hadn’t even thought about this, but the state of Florida provides free insurance, and the CVB helped us get registered for the program.”
“The (Jacksonville) CVB and the Hyatt Regency Riverfront worked hand-in-hand to make a very successful conference. I would personally recommend both.” — Robert “Buddy” Allen
The Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront was Allen’s base. “The Hyatt was very responsive to our original RFP, and the sleeping-room rate worked for us. We’re a national nonprofit and those in our network are very accountable for their funds, so we have to keep our pricing down,” Allen says. One downside for Allen is that he wishes he’d better understood the location of the beaches from the beginning. “One misconception of Jacksonville is that it’s right on the ocean and the beaches are within walking distance. The beaches are a good hour’s drive,” he notes. But Jacksonville’s people offset any negatives. “The CVB and the Hyatt Regency Riverfront worked hand-in-hand to make a very successful conference. I would personally recommend both,” Allen says.
It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the sizzling culinary scene in Miami. In its winter bulletin, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau highlighted some 10 new restaurants opening between December 2013 and spring 2014, with celeb chefs Bobby Flay and Michael Mina in the mix. A major renovation for the Miami Beach Convention Center has been proposed, with little information yet available. But the center continues to host many association meetings. Not surprising, lively multicultural Miami is popular with international attendees.
New builds and refurbishments keep the city’s hotel scene hot. The JW Marriott Marquis Miami opened just three years ago and continues to impress groups with its cool amenities, including the 19th-floor basketball court, bowling alley, billiards room and indoor golf school. And the venerable Fontainebleau Miami Beach recently unveiled its expansive BleauLive Stage, an outdoor venue accommodating 2,500 guests.
Wayneston Harbeson, vice president of operations and event services for Los Angeles-based NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives), has brought groups to the Fontainebleau for the past four years. “If you are doing a program in Miami,” he says, “the Fontainebleau is the best option in terms of meeting space, flexibility, room product and giving your attendees a true iconic Miami experience.”
And there’s the staff. “You can have the most beautiful, technologically advanced building in the world,” Harbeson says, “but if you don’t have the right people, it’s just another building. The Fontainebleau has the right people.
It’s hard to believe that a few years ago Miami wasn’t even on the map for Harbeson. “Miami has the most amazing CVB,” he says. “My representative, Ileana Castillo, is hands down the best in the business — she is the Beyoncé of the CVB world!” Castillo finally convinced Harbeson to join a FAM, and he was blown away. “It was the best FAM, and I loved how the city partnered with the hotels to give us a clear picture,” he says. “I left feeling excited about the city and two months later I booked. We’ve been there for four years and our attendance grows every year.”
The January 2014 show, NATPE Miami, drew 5,000 attendees and was the most successful show yet. But 2015 and 2016 are yet to come.
“Miami has undergone a renaissance. It is a trendy, visual and exciting destination,” Harbeson says. “And it’s nice when it’s winter everywhere else and you can attend our January conference not only to attend but also to escape. We use the weather in marketing efforts with beautiful beach shots, and the conference pretty much sells itself.”
“When it comes to selecting a destination, association planners must consider location and convenience; but most importantly a place that delivers on ‘the experience,’ ” says Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover Palm Beach County. “The Palm Beaches offer a diverse collection of cities and towns that truly represent the best way to experience Florida.”
And much is new. Construction began in May on the 403-room Palm Beach County Convention Center Hilton Hotel, which will be adjacent to the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach when it opens in 2015. The center has 150,000 sf of meeting space, including a 100,000-sf exhibit hall. And opening this year in Jupiter, 20 minutes north of West Palm, is Harbourside Place, a multi-use development with entertainment, retail and accommodations.
Sherry Herbert, vice president of events for New York, New York-based Graves Ventures LLC, publishers of Black Enterprise magazine, brought two groups to Palm Beach County in 2013. She offers high praise for the CVB, particularly Doug McClain and Connie Hunter. “They were available for questions, joined me on site visits during our search process and stayed actively involved,” Herbert says. “The CVB supported us in getting the word out about the event and provided resources we utilized pre-event and onsite. During the event, they provided signage as well as volunteers at our check-in desk to answer questions about the area.”
Twenty years ago, the first Black Enterprise Golf & Tennis Challenge took place at PGA National Resort & Spa, and in 2013 the Challenge returned there. The resort’s $100 million revitalization wrapped up in 2013 and included upgrades to the 379 guest rooms and 40,000 sf of meeting space. Also added was a new outdoor venue, Lakeside Lawn. One fun option for groups: a glow-in-the-dark putting contest.
Earlier in the year, the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit met at opulent and famously pink Boca Raton Resort & Club, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, which offers 835 guest rooms and 150,000 sf of meeting space.
Herbert’s groups of 950 and 750, respectively, enjoyed both hotels, chosen for space and location but even more so for their customer service. “What separates the best hotels from the rest is customer service,” Herbert says, “and each of these hotels delivered quality service.”
While Herbert says planners should be prepared for short rain showers and what she considers high prices for airport transportation, she has no reservations about returning. “The fact that we are going back in to the PGA National Resort & Spa in August shows that we’ve had great experience with excellent partners who care deeply about the county they promote.”
Tampa hosted the 2012 Republican National Convention, and not even hurricane Isaac could defeat the city’s team or spirit. With 14,405 rooms and 542,184 sf of meeting space within the city, Tampa offers much, and it’s getting better.
The Tampa Riverwalk, a 2.2-mile waterfront walkway connecting downtown attractions, should be finished this year. Already on location is the Tampa Convention Center, making the Riverwalk a perfect spot for attendees to explore between meetings. The convention center, which was approved as an Energy Star Partner in 2013 and is working toward LEED certification, is adjacent to Sail Pavilion, a 360-degree waterfront bar and performance venue. Opening this spring is Ulele, a new brewery and restaurant in the refurbished Tampa Heights Water Works building.
“Associations make up a significant portion of our conventions and meetings,” says Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “The association market brings such large groups to our area that they actually have the ability to ‘take over’ our city, including our waterfront convention center and downtown hotels.”
Downtown also offers interesting waterfront venues for teambuilding and offsite events, including The Florida Aquarium, Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa Museum of Art, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
With three airports within an hour of Daytona Beach, including Orlando International Airport, getting to the oceanfront city is a breeze. And Ocean Center Daytona Beach, with more than 205,000 sf of meeting space steps from the sand, makes meeting a breeze, too.
“We go the extra mile to provide attendees reasons to discover Daytona Beach as a premier meeting destination,” says Sharon Mock, interim executive director, Daytona Beach Area CVB. “We offer everything from teambuilding to family excursions, and our team treats each planner as if his or her group were the only one in town.”
Daytona’s well-known Speedway is getting a $400 million overhaul, including new seating and 60 luxury trackside suites, due to be completed by 2016. Daytona’s first oceanfront roller coaster opened last August, a nice diversion for attendee adrenaline junkies with free time. But the area’s most compelling attraction may well be its affordability, something every planner can appreciate.
Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island are at the core of Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast. New here are upgrades to the 602-room Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. The resort completed a $12.5 million renovation of its lobby and public space, restaurants, Spa Tower guest rooms and spa, all part of a multiyear, $30 million restoration that has enhanced every part of the resort and guest experience. The Hilton offers 32,000 sf of meeting space.
The 2,400-acre Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort offers a variety of accommodations, meeting space, entertainment, golf, teambuilding and multiple restaurants. It’s also host to culinary, music, wine and art festivals, which provide ready-made entertainment for attendees, and Sandestin is ideal for groups that include family. Two conference centers offer a combined 65,000 sf of meeting and function space.
In Fort Walton, the Emerald Coast Convention Center provides a sense of place with local artwork and a seaside setting. Twelve meeting rooms range from 450 to 10,800 sf, combining to create the 21,000-sf Emerald Grand Ballroom.
We’ve barely scratched the surface. In January, the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, southeast of Jacksonville, unveiled a resort-wide renovation that included enhancements to its 56,000 sf of function space. Guest rooms and villas were refreshed; the villas double as meeting space for executive boards and other groups of up to 12.
Also near Jacksonville, Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort announced its $85 million renovation in March. The 1,350-acre resort has a splashy new entrance, refreshed guest rooms, new restaurants and the 16,800-sf Magnolia Ballroom, part of the resort’s 80,000 sf of function space.
When work is complete this year, $250 million will have been spent on improvements at Trump National Doral Miami, including new restaurants, villas, ballrooms and outdoor venues. The resort has 100,000-plus sf of function space. The famed Blue Monster golf course reopened in February, making golf fans everywhere happy.
In trendy South Beach, Loews Miami Beach Hotel, four blocks from the convention center, opened Lure Fishbar in December and Exhale Spa in April. The hotel’s ballrooms will begin renovations this fall.
As noted above, Universal Orlando Resort has opened Cabana Bay Beach Resort and is expanding The Wizarding World of Harry Potter with Diagon Alley. In addition, its CityWalk entertainment complex is adding eight new culinary establishments. Also at Universal, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel completed a property-wide renovation that gives a new look to everything from the artistic façade of the buildings to the 750 guest rooms. Attendees with family along should consider a Despicable Me-inspired suite.
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate partnered with Osceola County to open a new conference center in 2013, bringing the indoor meeting space to more than 128,000 sf complemented by 52,000 sf outdoors. Omni groups can arrange events in Disney parks and receive discounts on ticket pricing.
Bonnet Creek and its 482-acre nature preserve is accessed from within Disney World yet is a world apart. Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek and Waldorf Astoria Orlando each have their own meeting space, 132,000 and 43,000 sf respectively including outdoor venues. Hilton guests can book the Waldorf’s opulent spa with its new HydraFacial treatment, and play golf at the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club.
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek continues adding to its green initiatives. Groups can join in multiple ways, including requesting that leftover food go to Second Harvest.
Same old? Not in the Sunshine State. Planners owe it to themselves and their attendees to check out Florida again. And again. AC&F