DECA, which helps high school and college students prepare for careers in business and entrepreneurship, typically hosts around 19,000 students, parents, teachers, advisers and other stakeholders at its annual International Career Development Conference. But this year when the event took place in Orlando, participation soared to 22,000.
This came as no big surprise to Christopher Young, CAE, chief program officer at DECA. “We’ve “had a long-standing rotation with Orlando and Anaheim because they’re popular destinations for our members,” he says. “Between the hotel package, the convention facilities and the leisure and entertainment options for when the conference is finished, comparisons are really next to none in Orlando for our attendee base.”
“Orlando offers many unique options to help planners create memorable events with incredible backdrops.” George Aguel
Associations looking for all these things and more are hard pressed to find a better destination than Orlando. Elisabeth Sherrell, director of member engagement for the International Compliance Professionals Association, organizes a three-day conference for around 850 people every year. Members are always excited when they hear the conference is heading to the central Florida city. “It has always been a favorite because of the entire Disney experience,” she says. “Orlando offers a lot of entertainment and fairly easy travel to and from the airport. Since we host our event in March, many people from the North look forward to more sunshine. We plan on making it our permanent every- other-year stop.”
Hosting an event in a city with such rich amusement and cultural options has definite perks. “If you want to be within the theme park meccas, you’ve got that right at your fingertips,” says Darla Sharpe, director of marketing for the Caribe Royale Orlando, which is within walking distance of Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and other local attractions. “If you don’t want your attendees immersed in that and you’re afraid you’re going to lose them, there are many hotels and resorts that are so big and robust that they can keep everybody under one roof.”
Besides being fun, local entertainment options can help associations create unforgettable experiences for guests. “Planners are constantly looking for ways to tell their organization’s story in a way that inspires attendees, and our ‘meeting enhancements’ do just that,” says Vince LaRuffa, senior vice president of resort sales and marketing for Universal Orlando Resort. “This is offered exclusively when planners book meetings at our hotels. Imagine having Optimus Prime introduce a keynote speaker or the Minions appearing to energize a crowd of attendees. These are some of the unique offerings that make us a meetings and events destination that’s unlike any other.”
There is no shortage of event venues in Orlando — and the amount of space for gatherings is only increasing. “The Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) is working on a $605 million expansion, which includes new meeting and exhibit space to the North and South Concourses, further increasing the center’s 7 million sf of total function space,” says George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. The expansion includes a new 200,000-sf, column-free multipurpose venue that can accommodate between 18,000 and 20,000 guests, and a new concourse with meeting space and an 80,000-sf ballroom.
“This expansion will allow the OCCC to host bigger meetings, sell more exhibitor space and offer contiguous meeting space,” Aguel says. “The addition of the multipurpose venue will offer groups flexibility at a venue where they won’t have to worry about competing for dates with sports teams or concerts and save on transportation costs.”
DECA’s international career development conference took place at the OCCC. “I call it the Super Bowl of students who are interested in marketing, business, hospitality and finance,” Young says. Students compete in pitch competitions at the local level, with winners from those events going to the penultimate event to pitch their business ideas. Those gatherings, plus the general sessions, workshops, exhibit hall, award presentation and other activities were held in the center’s West Hall. “This was the first year in a long time that we’ve had all of our activities housed in one center,” he says, and that was something people really appreciated.
The largest sessions are best suited for an auditorium or stadium seating, which can be challenging to find. Young says the convention center was very flexible in working with him to design a seating arrangement that would work for the group. They ended up putting a stage in the center of the room and arranging seating around it, which worked well.
DECA is also unusual in that they need around 7,500 double-double rooms to hold high school students and their families. Finding a place that can deliver those rooms, along with proximity to the convention center, would be next to impossible to many cities. “The hotel partners did a really great job of accommodating our special needs and group needs,” Young says. “Even though we had to do transportation from outlying hotels, we really had very few issues.”
The group’s experience in Orlando was a great example of hospitality and entrepreneurship and set an excellent example for the students, Young says. “It gives them a chance to see our mission in action. Even though the programming is over, the learning can still take place because it’s a case study for the areas our students study.”
He adds, “Everyone from a service and hospitality perspective wanted to make sure we were partners. Everyone had the same goal in mind and that was to give our attendees a great experience.”
The next two years will see the biggest hotel expansion in Orlando in more than two decades, with the area’s room inventory expected to grow to 132,066 rooms next year, according to Aguel. One new project is Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites, which opened this year.
“It is our destination’s first property in the value category and will be perfect for rooms-only groups,” LaRuffa says. When its sister hotel, Dockside Inn and Suites, opens next year, Universal Orlando Resort will offer a total of 9,000 guest rooms across four distinct categories as our destination continues its unprecedented growth.”
Disney fans also have some changes in which to look forward. “We have many exciting new items that have recently been added at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, and several coming in the near future,” says Gino Marasco, Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort’s director of sales and marketing. “This year already, we’ve completed a renovation of our Swan lobby, added a new 1,600-sf meeting room at the Dolphin Resort and refreshed our Shula’s Steak House restaurant with a renovation, updated menu and new branding.” A new grab-and-go restaurant in the Swan lobby, similar to the one in the Dolphin lobby, will open soon. In 2021, the property will finish The Cove, a 349-room tower located next to the Swan Resort. It will feature over 22,000 sf of meeting space.
The Caribe Royale Orlando just finished making upgrades to its 120, two-bedroom, two-bathroom villas. Later this year it complete a walkway to connect the villas directly to the property’s onsite conference center. Other projects in Orlando include the new JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, which will have 516 guest rooms and 50,000 sf of meeting space; a new 15-story tower with 500 rooms, a rooftop restaurant and meeting space at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and a new 25,000-sf ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress.
The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) recently hosted its annual conference at the Rosen Centre hotel, a 1,334-room hotel that adjoins the OCCC, and had a very positive experience. The group had never been to Florida, and Tracy Jennifer Costello, Ph.D., chair of the organization’s board of directors, says Orlando offered a great combination of location, quality facilities and entertainment. The destination is centrally located for members living in Florida and Georgia who wanted to drive. For people in other parts of the country, the airport was very accessible.
The 420 people who attended speaker presentations, networking events and an annual career fair were treated to a great experience at the hotel. “The Rosen staff was amazing to work with,” Costello says. “Their conference support team really made the conference easy. They were understanding of the needs we had as an organization and they met them to a T. The rooms were beautifully appointed and everything was truly accessible. I couldn’t be happier with that experience.” The group also liked that there were several restaurants onsite, which made after-hours networking and small group gatherings easy.
NPA worked with Visit Orlando to help non-members interested in visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and other theme parks secure discounted tickets. “They set up a little website that connected people to restaurants that were willing to offer a discount for people with the badge,” Costello says. “That’s really a value-add for conference attendees when you can save a few bucks and do more and have that information before you get to the new city. That was something we haven’t had in the past, so that’s something I’m definitely going to look for as we’re in different cities.”
Aguel also encourages event organizers to reach out to his organization for help. “Planners new to Orlando should take advantage of our Visit Orlando Destination Services Team, who can offer insider tips from working with theme parks and attractions to setting up culinary experiences at our amazing restaurants,” he says. “They work hand-in-hand with planners to create that unforgettable event, taking care of everything from site inspections and RFP services to marketing support and attendance-building programs.”
Orlando is known as the “theme park capital of the world” due to the presence of four large parks: Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and LEGOLAND Florida. The parks present an incredible opportunity for entertainment.
“If you want your event or your group to be able to take full advantage of the Walt Disney World theme parks, you should consider accommodations that are on Walt Disney World property,” Marasco says. “By staying onsite, planners have access to the Disney Event Group to arrange events such as an exclusive fireworks dessert party inside the theme parks. Attendees will be able to take advantage of many exclusive benefits, including Extra Magic Hours and a 60-day window to book attractions through Fastpass+, twice as long as all other theme park guests.”
But it’s not necessary to stay on-property to get a great experience at a theme park. For his last few events in Orlando, Young started working with Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort to set up exclusive opportunities for DECA members. “About 13,000 of our attendees purchased an additional ticket to go to Universal one night,” he says. Thanks to the advance arrangements, the park stayed open late for his group only. They even opened a few attractions that had closed early to give people more to do and to keep the lines short.
“They do a good job of putting your organization’s brand throughout the park and there were a lot of opportunities for our members to take photos,” Young says. “I’ve seen them on social media and they’re in front of say, a theater, where they’ve put DECA on the marquis.”
Theme parks aren’t the only entertainment choice in Orlando, however. “Whether it’s a beach reception at Discovery Cove, a party at the base of a volcano at Volcano Bay, or under The Wheel, the 400-foot observation wheel at ICON Park, Orlando offers many unique options to help planners create memorable events with incredible backdrops,” Aguel says.
According to Sharpe, there are many interesting attractions along International Drive that have been developed in the last five years. She calls out Topgolf, a restaurant and entertainment venue, as well as a number of other good eateries. “There are plenty of chains, but there are so many wonderful venues along Restaurant Row on Sand Lake Road, and the Venetian Chop House in our hotel,” she adds.
Orlando’s downtown has a performing arts center and a few museums, including the Orange County Regional History Center. For people looking for interesting team-building opportunities, she calls out Clean the World, the charitable organization that recycles hotel toiletries and distributes them in developing nations. A slightly out-of-the-way theme park experience is available at Gatorland, which has animal shows, a “trainer for the day” experience and other ways to hang out with alligators and other reptiles.
“The majority of people are star struck at how much we have to offer, so I would always make the recommendation to map out what you want to do before you get here,” Sharpe advises. “There’s so much to see and you’re never going to see everything in one day. Ask the concierge or someone at the hotel to make recommendations for restaurants. Talk to somebody about recommending which parks they like to travel to or where they like to go in the evening. You could never be bored here.” AC&F