Orlando is the No. 1 U.S. destination for meetings and conventions according to Cvent, and with good reason. Orlando is known across the country and the world. It tends to boost attendance, a critical asset for planners who depend on solid attendee numbers to meet the financial requirements of their meetings. It has the second largest convention center in the country and plenty of hotels and accommodations for large conventions. Airlift is excellent not only throughout the United States but also from multiple foreign destinations. It’s the go-to spot for conventions at which families tag along. And it offers wildly successful entertainment options downtown and in its multiple theme parks, which also are known across the globe.
“Association planners will be amazed at all the new opportunities for their attendees before, during and after the conference that guarantee increased attendance.”
— George Aguel
Here’s how George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, puts it: “Orlando is one of the top destinations for association meetings in the world. The associations market is very important to Orlando because of the diversity of attendees it brings to our community and opportunity to spread the visitation to our broad membership of theme parks, hotels, restaurants and entertainment establishments.
“We also have an incredible portfolio of convention hotels that fit a wide variety of budgets,” he continues. “And, as far as accessibility, Orlando International offers more flights with more seats to more U.S. destinations than any other airport in Florida. It’s affordable, too, with Orlando airfares ranking fourth lowest among the 50 largest U.S. airport.
“We also have a wide variety of activities for groups. One of the things groups of all sizes really enjoy is the ability to hold a special event in one of our theme parks, which makes Orlando different than most other destinations. When a group experiences this activity, there is a wow factor for attendees few others can duplicate.
“Even if an association has been to Orlando before, there have been so many changes, including new restaurants, additions to our theme parks and increased level of special activity. Association planners will be amazed at all the new opportunities for their attendees before, during and after the conference that guarantee increased attendance,” says Aguel.
What’s more, the city of Orlando has recently shown its strength and resilience, coming together as never before in the wake of the tragic events of mid-June when 49 people were killed and 53 wounded at an Orlando nightclub. According to Aguel, there have not been any significant indications of travelers, groups or conventions changing their plans since the news of the tragedy reverberated around the world.
Visit Orlando, which has coordinated communications efforts to keep the tourism industry’s message points consistent, prepared a reassuring video that includes touching messages such as this affirmation from the host of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Fallon said, “When I think of Orlando, I think of nothing but fun and joy and families — and if anyone can do it, you can. Keep on loving each other, keep respecting each other and keep on dancing.”
But it cannot be emphasized enough that Orlando is more than its theme parks. When Pamela S. Dallstream, CMP, CMM, director of education for the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), which is located in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, brought in nearly 6,000 attendees for the group’s 45th Critical Care Congress in February 2016, there were no official functions in a theme park.
“Don’t assume that Orlando is only about the theme parks,” Dallstream says. “The meeting facilities at the convention center and hotels are very business oriented. That should be highlighted when advertising meetings in Orlando, even knowing that meeting attendees will bring their families to enjoy the fun theme parks.”
What Orlando did offer the critical care community was something even more important. “The co-chairs of the 45th Critical Care Congress noted that Orlando is synonymous with imagination and a view toward the future,” Dallstream says, “so it was an excellent location for the meeting, which highlighted technology for critical care and education.”
And attendance was definitely on the upswing. Dallstream says that professional attendance at the meeting — physicians, nurses, pharmacists, etc. — increased from 4,413 in 2015 to 4,671 in 2016, and in fact, was the largest number of professional registrants in the 45 years of SCCM Congress meetings.
“So yes,” she says, “Orlando helped increase our attendance.” And that is something many other groups have found as well.
Hyatt Regency Orlando was the headquarters hotel, and the Orange County Convention Center, right across the street, was the base for meetings. Though the convention center is an expansive 7 million sf across two buildings, Dallstream and her group found a way to create easy access between sessions. “All educational sessions and committee meetings were held at the convention center,” she says. “SCCM Congress attendees appreciated our meeting space being centrally located in the center; we used halls and meeting space in the center of the building, making for easier and quicker access between meetings since the space was not too spread out across the building.”
Some events were located at the Hyatt as well, which Dallstream says has an amply supply of meeting space to accommodate their needs, adding that the hotel staff really helped with that part of the Congress. “The convention services staff at the hotel offered to assign meeting space for the groups meeting in conjunction with us since the hotel staff were more familiar with the layout of the meeting space than SCCM logistics staff. This saved SCCM staff a lot of time!”
In addition, the Visit Orlando staff helped the SCCM staff find restaurants for VIP dinners and offered suggestions for overflow housing and for vendors for security, registration staff and so on.
However, Dallstream was disappointed that they were not able to hold a specific course in Orlando that required a specialized medical facility.
“The SCCM holds a course on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) in conjunction with the annual Congress and had hoped to place it at a simulation center in Orlando. We were not able to find a facility in Orlando so utilized a center for advanced medical learning and simulation in Tampa for the course, at the end of the Congress. I learned after our meeting that there might have been a facility to accommodate us in Orlando, at the new medical center. Prior to our return to Orlando in 2020, the SCCM logistics staff will further investigate these facilities.”
For many groups, a location with easy access to Orlando’s various theme parks is a big draw, even if it is not the only one. Cynthia Keeler is the conference logistics chair for the April 2017 annual conference of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor based in Winter Park, Florida. She has organized several national and international conventions in Orlando and believes the destination sells itself on many levels. “Orlando is always a good fit for a conference thanks to an efficient international airport, fabulous weather and beautiful natural surroundings and attractions,” she says.
But theme parks matter, too. Keeler puts a high value on Orlando’s “fun manmade attractions, such as Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Studios.” And, she adds, “Orlando offers hundreds of quality hotels to choose from in all price ranges that are convenient to surrounding attractions. It’s also a perfect place to combine work and pleasure with your family.”
Keeler, who also is the owner of Conus Keeler Productions Inc., says a location with easy access to the Disney Springs area was important for the conference.
“Location was the No. 1 reason we considered the Holiday Inn Orlando-Disney Springs Area as our choice,” she says. “We want our attendees to have easy access to Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort and other tourist options. Secondly, the Holiday Inn staff “had me at ‘Hello.’ ” Veronica Blanco and Kirk Whalen did an excellent job presenting the hotel and its amenities. They quickly understood our group and its needs, budget and mission, and they embraced our fun and therapeutic premise at a price that would be attractive to our attendees.”
In addition to the lodging being walking distance from Downtown Disney and Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, other criteria for the lodging location included complimentary shuttles to all Walt Disney World theme parks and access to golf, among others.
The meeting space at the Holiday Inn also is a good fit for the expected group of 350. “I especially like the coziness and layout of the meeting space,” Keeler says. “As a group, we like to be in close proximity as we change out of workshops and presentations. A lot of relationship-building and meaningful exchanges can happen during these times. At some of the larger conference centers where meeting rooms are spread out, attendees can get lost in the shuffle.”
Keeler calls the Holiday Inn staff very friendly, helpful and willing to work with clients to ensure a successful event. “We also love the upgraded views, complimentary internet, and the in-room coffee, mini-fridge and microwave that Holiday Inn supplies,” she adds.
Keeler is a planner whose experience has shown her that Orlando is a city that absolutely increases attendance. “Whenever we are in Orlando, our attendance is the highest,” she says. “And that has been my personal experience as I produced the World Clown Association Convention several times in the past, as well as the Face and Body Art Convention for seven years.”
And though she acknowledges that Orlando and Las Vegas often go back and forth as the top U.S. meeting destination, she says Orlando offers much that Las Vegas cannot. “Orlando has a family-oriented environment and something for everyone, which Las Vegas really does not.”
For planners and associations considering meeting in Orlando, Keeler has these words of advice: “Stay as close to the attractions as you can and utilize their draw. Luckily, the attractions are spread out a bit, so you have a plethora of great hotel options to fit your organizational requirements and budget. For the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, the Holiday Inn Orlando-Disney Springs Area in Lake Buena Vista met ours.”
The Orange County Convention Center’s (OCCC) ambitious capital improvement plan represents the largest renovation project in the venue’s history. Here is an update of various projects underway.
Rooms at the new Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, the fifth onsite hotel at Universal Orlando Resort, are available for booking as of July 14. The resort, built around a 16,000-sf pool and towering waterfall, features 1,000 rooms and 115,000 sf of meeting space. The resort will connect to the 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which recently expanded its meeting space to 132,000 sf.
At Universal’s Islands of Adventure this summer, “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” will honor that most tragic of movie beasts, King Kong. Guests step into massive off-road vehicles as they set out to explore ancient temples, encountering hostile natives and other terrors along the journey.
Universal’s Volcano Bay, an all-new water theme park opening next year at Universal Orlando Resort, spans 28 immersive acres across four imaginatively themed areas. The park will offer 18 unique attractions, including a multidirectional wave pool with sandy beaches, a peaceful winding river, twisting multirider raft rides and speeding body slides.
New shops and restaurants seem to open daily at Disney Springs. STK, the new steakhouse, had its grand debut at the end of May. A great buyout option for groups, the restaurant overlooks the new Town Center. The Edison centers on a 1920s-era electric company with live entertainment and classic American fare, while Frontera Fresco, a creation of celebrity chef Rick Bayless, is all about authentic Mexican cuisine.
At SeaWorld Orlando, thrill-seeking attendees should check out Mako, a 200-foot-tall coaster named for one of the fastest sharks in the ocean. It’s slated to be the tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster in Orlando, with speeds reaching 73 mph along its 4,760 feet of steel track.
New this year at I-Drive 360 in the convention district are Mango’s Tropical Café Orlando, a nightlife-entertainment destination; Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House with five private dining rooms; Lafayette’s Music Room; and Itta Bena Orlando fine dining and piano club at Pointe Orlando.
Downtown Orlando’s recently completed $207 million, 60,000-seat Camping World Stadium offers something new for meeting professionals and their groups. It includes three high-definition video boards, suite seating and a 20,000-sf deck overlooking the north end zone. In June, NFL and Orlando officials announced that the NFL Pro Bowl will be moving from Hawaii to the Camping World Stadium for the next few years, giving planners a chance to wow their groups and VIPs with access to a game starring the best players in the league.
What’s new, of course, is often the “wow” that everyone is looking for. But truthfully what Orlando has had for years is already out of the park in terms of inspiring and engaging attendees. What’s new is just icing on a cake that has long been the sweet spot for successful meetings of all kinds. AC&F