The mere mention of Orlando to anyone who lives outside the state of Florida sets the mental gears whirring around a theme-park vacation.
On the surface, amusement parks might not seem like the most natural backdrop for serious meeting business. Yet Orlando is solidly established as one of the top conference destinations in the world, with events held at the nation’s second largest convention center as well as meeting spaces at more than 450 hotels that cater to groups of all sizes and all budgets. Orlando’s year-round visitor experience encompasses a dizzying range of leisure options for meeting downtime, from golf at more than 150 courses to kayaking through wild waterways inhabited by alligators and manatees. It’s no wonder the city experienced a record 68 million visitors last year, up from 66 million in 2015. And for meetings, Cvent has ranked Orlando as the No. 1 meeting destination for four out of the last five years.
But here’s Orlando’s secret: Whether for a day or an hour, what Florida visitor doesn’t want to sneak off and see in person Harry Potter’s Wizarding World or careen along the tracks of Space Mountain? The theme parks aren’t all fantasy and coasters: Head to SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove and you’ll swim with bottlenose dolphins by day and finish off the evening with a beach luau.
Jeanne Torbett, CMP, CMMM, president, Superior Media, Meetings & Management Inc., says the theme parks are one reason her meetings in Orlando for two rheumatology organizations have been such a success.
“Both our groups bring their families to our conferences, so there is always something in the area for them to do while their physician family member is in class,” says Torbett. “They have Universal Orlando, Disney and Sea World at their fingertips.”
And the hotel meeting facilities seal the deal. “Orlando has a venue for every kind of meeting, from tiny to huge,” Torbett adds. “And because there is so much competition, they are beautiful and priced right. The choices are better than anywhere else in the nation. We hold conferences in other states, and no one can beat Orlando for the spaciousness, beautiful rooms and lobbies, restaurants and personnel.”
Last July Torbett held a combined meeting of 500-plus attendees for the Florida Society of Rheumatology and Florida Allergy, Asthma & Rheumatology Society in Orlando. For state organizations, Orlando is about as central as it gets in Florida, but Torbett was also bringing these groups to a specific hotel for the third time.
“I have managed physician societies for over 25 years and, to date, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the Universal Orlando Resort is the only venue we have used more than once,” explains Torbett, who says she is currently negotiating with the hotel for 2021. “We cannot say enough about the staff. Most of them have been with this facility since it opened many years ago, and it shows. They work so well together it’s like they can finish each other’s sentences.”
Torbett cited the hotel’s catering as being a standout. “We hold meals and breaks in both the exhibit hall and classrooms plus receptions in the foyer areas. No matter where we ask them to do the meal setup it is done to our specification and done with style — the food is always delicious.”
Torbett notes that the footprint for Loews Portofino Bay is in a U-shape, and meeting rooms are at the bottom of the U. “We have a few elderly attendees who asked to be placed in sleeping rooms closer to the meeting rooms. The hotel accommodated their request, no problem.”
Loews Portofino Bay is one of five onsite hotels connected to the Universal Orlando Resort, ranging from rock-star luxury (Hard Rock Hotel), to tropical flair (Loews Royal Pacific Resort) to a setting with a Caribbean vibe (Loews Sapphire Falls Resort). The 5,200-room complex contains 295,000 sf of indoor meeting space and 97,000 sf of outdoor space. Plus, all five hotels are within walking distance or a quick shuttle ride to the Universal theme parks and Universal CityWalk, the resort’s shopping, dining and entertainment district.
“Since you can take a boat or bus from the hotel to Universal’s CityWalk we held our board/faculty dinner there, at Emeril’s Orlando,” says Torbett. “It was so easy. No one needed to get in their car and try to find a restaurant in a city they were unfamiliar with.”
Torbett didn’t arrange for a private event inside the theme parks — something the Universal Orlando Resort can assemble — but many of her attendees’ families spent time at the parks. For those staying at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel or Loews Royal Pacific Resort, free Universal Express passes allow guests to skip the lines on most rides and attractions (theme park admission required).
New happenings at Universal include the recent opening of the water theme park Volcano Bay next to Universal’s new Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Inspired by various Polynesian islands and cultures, and anchored by the 200-foot “Krakatau,” Volcano Bay is replete with a bevy of water-based thrills as well as after-hours private event options.
Universal Orlando also recently announced new Meeting Enhancements including characters (such as the Minions), customizable performers and unique entertainment elements to engage attendees and help deliver specific messages and reinforce conference theming.
Orlando’s central position in the state also works for the annual conference of the Florida Adoption Council, which is a repeat customer for the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Orlando at SeaWorld.
“We have chosen to have our conferences in Orlando or its surrounding areas due to accessibility for professionals from all over the state as a good central meeting spot,” says Mary Wheatley, executive director of Heart of Adoptions and Heart of Adoptions Alliance. “But it also has easy access to a large airport for those that fly in to attend the conference from other states.”
While cost and location were the primary draws that initially lured the adoption organizations to the DoubleTree at SeaWorld, Wheatley says the efforts of the staff there keep them coming back.
“Convention services as well as preconvention sales are phenomenal at this property,” explains Wheatley. “Their individualized attention stood out from our first visit a few years ago, and they still ring true every time we plan another annual event at this facility. Get to know them, as they can be true miracle workers and save the day in a matter of moments when needed.
“After having events in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and numerous ones in Orlando, we have found this property to be the most accessible in terms of meeting locations in relation to hotel rooms,” Wheatley adds. “It makes it so easy on attendees that need to run up to their room to change, handle a conference call, or take a quick break. This feature is just one more convenience that keeps us coming back year after year.”
Spread across a lush 28-acre property and located within walking distance to the Orange County Convention Center, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Orlando at SeaWorld is in the process of completing a renovation that will add the 20,000-sf Majestic Ballroom, slated for completion in November, and 20,000 sf of outdoor courtyard space, divisible into five event spaces, set to open late August. When complete, the hotel will boast a total of 100,000 sf of indoor/outdoor event space.
Wheatley says the hotel already has enough venues onsite that her smaller (100-attendee) meeting can schedule all of its events at the hotel. But that doesn’t discourage guests from exploring further afield.
“Orlando has so many options for outings and events for adults — not just for family-friendly or child-focused activities,” says Wheatley. “In addition to the nightlife areas on Disney properties, our attendees have enjoyed doing Magical Dining in September at a variety of locations around Orlando.” (Magical Dining is an annual, month-long event that discounts a three-course, prix fixe dinner to $33 at more than 70 top restaurants and sends $1 for each meal sold to an Orlando charity.)
As Wheatley confirms, it’s more than amusement parks that make this city tick. And a chief attribute cited by most meeting planners is Orlando’s fly-in access.
In addition to being a natural hub for events targeting guests from Florida and the Southeast, Orlando International Airport (MCO) is served by affordable, nonstop flights from 81 cities in the U.S. Orlando’s appeal as a vacation destination also has helped the airport land service from major international cities. Today MCO is served by such major overseas carriers as Avianca, British Airways, Emirates, LAN, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, flying in from 52 international destinations (20 of them seasonal).
Orlando International Airport is embarking on a major new expansion. For the year ending September 2016, MCO handled 41.5 million passengers at its North Terminal Complex, and arrivals are increasing at a record pace. With the airport’s capacity currently maxed out at 45 million passengers, the need for expansion has become more urgent. In November the airport’s board authorized a new $1.8 billion South Terminal Complex to add 16 gates and increase capacity to 55 million passengers annually. Construction could be complete by the summer of 2020.
Such access is vital for some of the events overseen by Debbie Zaparoni, director of conference management for Kassalen Meeting & Events.
“We have an audience with international representation from several different countries at the conference,” explains Zaparoni, regarding the annual conference of the International Association of Clinical Research Nurses. “Ease of international flights to Orlando is much appreciated by attendees flying from outside of the U.S. This really makes a difference when people are trying to plan their travel budgets, not only with flights, but also with ground transportation options.”
Zaparoni held her October 2016 event at the 626-room Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort. Zaparoni says the big draw for her conference was Orlando and the proximity of the Disney amenities, reached via frequent and free shuttle bus. Having the event situated within walking distance to the Disney Springs shopping and dining complex also was conducive for networking and meeting breaks.
“Being at the Wyndham was one-stop shopping,” explains Zaparoni. “You could get there and never need a car while having all of your needs met right there — dining, entertainment, spa, comfort, relaxation, beautiful grounds and weather. Also, no matter young or old, everyone is drawn into the appeal of the theme parks in the area.”
The main tower at Wyndham Lake Buena Vista offers 232 lake-house-themed rooms, with an additional 394 rooms located in the less-expensive five-story Wyndham Garden wing, which is ideal for SMERF groups. Including the 12,000-sf Horizons Ballroom, the resort offers 25,000 sf of meeting space, with 21 meeting rooms and an outdoor venue.
“We prefer to utilize a hotel’s meeting space for several reasons,” says Zaparoni. “The costs of room rentals can be negotiated against sleeping room profits. Also, all activities are contained in one venue. It’s easy to take the elevator from guest room to the meeting rooms without too much walking or navigating through different buildings.
“Economical is also one word that should be mentioned” in relation to Orlando, Zaparoni adds. “We plan meetings all over the world. In no other city can one stay at a fantastic hotel in a great resort setting for under $150. I can’t mention price enough.”
But the resort’s convention services are what may have secured Zaparoni as a future repeat customer for Wyndham Lake Buena Vista.
“All of the staff provided first-class, personalized service to our group and made our event flow smoothly and without issue. The convention services, banquets and audio-visual staffs were all outstanding — they were with us every step of the way. Someone was by the desk checking on us constantly. It was almost like having additional meeting planning staff onsite.
“As far as the level of staff involvement, accessibility and expertise, the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista exceeded our expectation,” Zaparoni concludes. “I went back to my office and said ‘we need to take another group back to the Wyndham.’ ”
Ease of access also made Orlando a “great fit” for the Phillips Southern Buying Show, a 1,000-attendee convention held by Phillips Pet Food & Supplies.
“Our event draws from the whole country,” says Jessica Ciecwisz, Phillips’ marketing and event planner for the October 2016 meeting. “There is a ton of available flights into Orlando, making it a really easy decision on attending.”
The company hosts all of its annual buying shows in resorts, not convention centers, choosing the 2,267-room Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort for this year’s event.
“You get a different feel with resorts than you do with a convention center,” suggests Ciecwisz. “Convention centers have a lot more space and more private meeting rooms, but there is a lot more planning and exposition services needed, which cost more money. The Swan and Dolphin exhibit hall space was very large and gave Phillips the opportunity to grow this program here for years to come. Their facilities are very event friendly and the staff is great to work with.”
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort recently completed a comprehensive $5 million renovation of its total 329,000 sf of meeting space at both the Swan and Dolphin properties. The makeover is part of the Swan and Dolphin’s multiphase $140 million redesign, including all 2,267 guest rooms. The Swan’s guest rooms were finished in 2015; the Dolphin’s rooms will be completed by the end of this year; and the $12 million lobby redesign will be done by this fall.
“The rooms — no matter what hotel block you are located in — are super close to the event facility,” adds Ciecwisz. “There are no long walks down really long hallways to get to the exhibit hall. It is right off the main lobby of the hotel. And we loved how the resort is so centrally located on Disney property.”
Guests of the Swan and Dolphin enjoy some valuable extras normally availed only to those staying at a Disney-owned property. They can take advantage of extended theme park hours, as each day one of the four Disney theme parks opens an hour early or stays open up to two hours after regular closing. And Disney’s scheduled boat launches and bus transportation throughout the resort are available to Swan and Dolphin guests.
“We have done events with both Walt Disney World and Universal Studios,” says Ciecwisz. “Each theme park really works with you to create the event you want and provides great insight into other ideas you would not think of.”
What tips do these experts have for meeting planners considering an Orlando event? Jeanne Torbett sums it up:
“If you have the ability to do so, spend a week in Orlando and do six or seven site visits. Use the internet to find all the venues in the size that would work for you, then get on the phone and call to make sure they have the availability for your dates. Then, set up the sites and view them all, checking to see which venue would work best for your conference.
“But be sure to have your phone and take pictures of each hotel or they will run together once you get back to the office and are trying to make your final decision.”
And don’t forget to grab a few selfies with Mickey Mouse while you’re at it. AC&F