It’s no coincidence that Florida ranks perennially as a top dog statewide meeting destination, alongside its chief competitor, Arizona. Like Arizona, Florida offers consistently good weather year-round, formidable airlift and a dazzling array of hotel options, from five-star resorts to affordable major-flag hotels.
“Among the 100 associations that we manage, Florida is the No. 1 destination as a state for all of our meetings,” says Phelps Hope, CMP, the Atlanta-based vice president, meetings and expositions, for Kellen Meetings, a division of Kellen Company. “Weather is obviously a key factor. Accessibility is another one. It’s just easy to get to Florida from anywhere else in the country. And there is quite a variety and levels of affordability in the hotel product.”
There are a number of reasons why so many associations find the Sunshine State so attractive as a destination for meetings large and small, Hope says. “But one important one is the variety of hotel product. We can put our smaller board retreats or high-end or family-based conferences in a boutique property on the beach. And we can take a large, exhibit-hosting, convention-style major meeting with multiple hotels to Florida, too. So you have the full range of options in terms of what is available there.”
Among Florida’s most enthusiastic longtime users is the Louisiana Finance Association (LFA), based in Baton Rouge, whose 650 corporate members are consumer finance companies.
Last July, LFA hosted its annual four-day convention for 300 attendees and family members at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa (598 guest rooms; 32,000 sf of meeting space) on northwestern Florida’s Emerald Coast for the 27th consecutive year, notes executive director Kimberly Baggett.
Why such extraordinary loyalty?
“First of all, the staff at the hotel knows our group and our attendees,” Baggett says. “And we’ve been doing this meeting for so long with them that they know exactly what we want. They know what we expect. So the planning of the event is just seamless from my point of view as the person responsible for it. It’s a no-brainer at this point. And I like that.”
But another key factor is Hilton Sandestin’s location along one of the most pristine and acclaimed beaches in the U.S.
“And there is also something in the area for everyone to do,” Baggett says. “That’s very important, because another practical factor for us is that a lot of attendees bring their families to this meeting. About 75 percent of our attendees treat it like an annual family vacation. And one of the nice things about Hilton Sandestin is that their rooms are set up for families. There are bunk beds in every room. And it’s a very family-oriented property. But there’s also great nightlife literally right across the street, so there’s plenty for kids and also for their parents to do while they’re there. And there’s great shopping at an outlet mall right down the street. The hotel also operates shuttles that bring people back and forth, so there’s no need for a car.”
Convenient location is yet another factor that makes the destination popular year after year. “You want a place that’s far enough from home to make it feel like a vacation,” Baggett says. “But you also don’t want a place that’s so far away that it feels like it takes a vacation to get there. And that’s especially important to us because the majority of our attendees drive in, and it’s just a five-hour trip.”
Highlights of last year’s meeting included a Kentucky Derby-themed dinner and ball staged in two ballrooms on closing night. “We brought in decorations and had the place look like Churchill Downs,” Baggett says. “All the women wore their big hats and we served mint juleps and had a band.”
Another highlight was an afternoon outing for 75 attendees on seven party barges rented from Boogie’s Water Sports for an excursion in Destin Harbor.
LFA also hosted a golf tournament at nearby Kelly Plantation. In addition, Baggett says, many attendees took advantage of the area’s other celebrated golf courses in their free time — another reason why the destination is so popular.
Of primary importance to Baggett, however, is the extraordinary service and support she gets from the Hilton Sandestin staff. “I’m relatively new in my position,” she says. “I’ve only been in the job for four years. And this is our most important meeting of the year. The Hilton Sandestin makes me look wonderful to our members. They make me look like a rock star as a planner. And for me, that seals the deal, because it’s a hotel that makes me look good at my job.”
But equally important, she says, is the fact that LFA’s attendees love the hotel. “The food and beverage is excellent,” she says. “And you can’t find better beaches anywhere in the country. The rooms are wonderful. And the overall service is wonderful. As a planner, I couldn’t ask for a better hotel. It’s awesome.”
Hilton Sandestin, which just completed a renovation of its meeting space, including the 9,504-sf Emerald Ballroom, also features the AAA Four Diamond flagship restaurant, Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood.
Robert Glaser, CAE, president of the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association (NCADA) in Raleigh, hosted the organization’s first major meeting in 25 years last June for 300 attendees at the AAA Four Diamond Omni Amelia Island Plantation (404 oceanfront hotel rooms; 80,000 sf of meeting space) near Jacksonville.
There were three primary reasons for his selection of Florida and Omni Amelia Island Plantation, Glaser says. “No. 1, Amelia Island Plantation is an absolutely beautiful location,” he says. “No. 2, the service at the property is just outstanding. And the third reason is that the food and beverage at Amelia Island — the culinary expertise they bring to your meeting — is just magnificent.”
Another important factor in the equation, however, was the resort’s appeal to attendees. “And in terms of draw, Amelia Island also performed very well,” Glaser says. “One of the reasons is that we structured and promoted the meeting as a family convention,” he says. “And that idea works very well at Amelia Island because of the condo facilities they have. And it drew very well. We had more kids at the 2012 meeting than we’ve had in 20 years.”
NCADA has always welcomed spouses and children at its major meetings, but 2012 was the first time they marketed to families to the extent they did. “And the role that Amelia Island Plantation played in our being able to do that was very important because the ability to book various kinds of condos in various buildings with various setups allowed our family attendees to get exactly what they were looking for,” Glaser explains. “Instead of being in a typical hotel setting, they were in a setting that provided them more flexibility in terms of what they wanted. And that had a very positive impact on our attendance and family participation.”
That’s especially important because the auto dealership industry is very much family-oriented, Glaser says. “That’s why we formally marketed this meeting that way,” he says. “We’ve come to the conclusion that is our sweet spot with this meeting, and things just worked out very nicely because we chose Amelia Island Plantation as our venue.”
As a result, some attendees arrived early with their families and others stayed a few days after the meeting. “And some brought just a few family members, and others brought 10,” Glaser says. “Some used hotel rooms in the main building, and others used multiple condos in the outlying facilities.”
Glaser also had high praise for the quality of the food and beverage and the three championship golf courses at the resort.
“The food at Amelia Island is just outstanding,” he says. “The culinary expertise there is as good as you will find anywhere.”
A highlight of the meeting was an “Iron Chef: Amelia Island” cooking competition. “We had a half-dozen different teams competing,” Glaser says. “And we had the hotel’s chef coordinating everything. It was very well done, and it was just a fabulous event for our attendees.”
Golf also played an important role in the success of the meeting. “Any time you bring together car dealers and vendors, there’s always a role for golf,” Glaser says with a chuckle. “And there was a balance at this meeting, because attendees also wanted to spend time with their families. But it definitely played a role, because the golf course at Amelia Island is pretty awesome.”
Another highlight of the meeting was a ballroom-staged “Family Feud” competition based on auto industry-related questions such as the 10 ugliest cars ever made and 10 hottest muscle cars ever made.
Omni Amelia Island Plantation is now completing an extensive $85 million renovation that includes an expanded 80,000-sf conference center and 155 additional rooms and suites for a total of 404 guest rooms. The resort’s sister property, The Villas of Amelia Island Plantation, offers more than 320 villa units.
And for his part, Glaser says he expects to go back. “Based on the experience we had, we’ll definitely look to get back there in the next four or five years.”
Last October, Mike Horner, director of administration and membership at the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) in Washington, DC, hosted his first meeting in Miami at Turnberry Isle (408 guest rooms; 40,000-sf conference center), a member of the Autograph Collection of hotels.
NAWC had previously held the meeting, which attracts about 350 attendees, in Orlando.
Based on feedback Horner and his executive leadership received after a small meeting at Turnberry Isle, the organization selected it for the 2012 meeting, its annual National Drinking Water Summit.
“At the earlier meeting, which was attended by CEOs of water companies, everyone remarked about what a great venue it was and how it really had everything we needed for our national summit,” Horner says. “So when we were looking for a place to do the 2012 meeting, about a year in advance, we pursued Turnberry because of the previous comments we had gotten after the smaller meeting there.”
The critical factors for NAWC are easy access for attendees from across the country. “And Miami and Fort Lauderdale are both pretty convenient,” Horner says.
But it was the exclusive environment and high-end facilities at the recently renovated Turnberry Isle that cinched the deal for the 2012 conference. “Because senior executives of water companies are our attendees, we look for a certain level of service in the properties we choose for the summit,” Horner says. “And in addition to hearing good responses from the CEOs who had attended the earlier meeting there, we also heard from other people that Turnberry met the high standard that our members expect for our annual meeting.”
Given the tony ambience at Turnberry Isle, NAWC also raised its standard for keynote speakers.
Because 2012 was a presidential election year, and the meeting was being held in October, the organization decided to do something different and dramatic. Horner booked authors and political gurus Mark Halperin and John Heilemann as co-keynoters for the opening morning of the conference. “Our attendees really responded well,” Horner says. “That was the highest-rated of all our sessions.”
Rarely does NAWC bring in such well-known and expensive speakers. “But we’ll probably do it more frequently in future years,” Horner says, “based on the response we got in October.”
Another factor in the success of the meeting was the extremely high quality of the food and beverage service at Turnberry Isle. “It was excellent,” Horner says. “And what happened to us is also an indication of the level of service and support you get at Turnberry. We were supposed to have our opening-night reception outside, but it had been raining all day. But the staff did a great job of waiting until the very last minute, to see if the weather would improve, before moving the event indoors at the last minute. And even though they had to move inside on short notice, they were able to create an atmosphere that was very well received by our attendees and myself as a planner.”
Yet another aspect of Turnberry’s appeal was its world-famous golf course. NAWC hosted a golf tournament on the Sunday morning before the meeting began. About 15 foursomes participated in a shotgun tournament. “We gave away some small prizes, but it was mostly for fun,” Horner says. “It just gives people a chance to get out and have some fun. And if they’re talking business, at least they’re doing it on a golf course.”
And the Turnberry links were a big hit. “Our attendees loved the course,” Horner says.
Kellen’s Hope is not surprised that LFA and NCADA are leveraging the appeal of family-friendly meetings to extend the appeal of their major meetings. And he’s not surprised that given that objective, Florida has been their destination of choice.
“Family-friendly meetings have always been popular with many associations,” Hope says. “That’s always been one of the things that set association meetings apart from corporate meetings. But what does influence that practice is the destinations in Florida. Whether you plan for family members to attend or not, if you hold your annual meeting in a resort environment in Florida, you’re going to get families anyway, because the attendee is going to say to his or her spouse, “We’re going to Disney World this year, so why don’t we take a few extra days and go as a family?”
And he, too, finds time-honored resort properties such as Hilton Sandestin and Omni Amelia Island Plantation as powerful draws for families. “I could name a hundred in Florida,” he says.
Among the most appealing individual destinations for some planners are old-school, classic beach destinations such as Daytona Beach. “When you go to a place like Daytona Beach, you’re getting something completely different,” he says. “It’s a more relaxed environment in more of a resort setting.”
And in a budget-conscious post-recession era, the value proposition Florida offers will ensure its status as a popular choice for many associations.
“The value you get is absolutely another factor in Florida’s favor,” Hope says. “You can also keep going back to Florida every single year and have a different experience every single time. But if you’re looking for good value, you can also find that every single time, too.” AC&F