‘Orlando was built on imagination,” says George Aguel, the president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “And it’s constantly re-inventing itself to remain a top-ranked destination among professionals.”
And Aguel should know. Before replacing the late Gary Sain at Visit Orlando, Aguel spent 22 years as vice president of worldwide sales and service for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, during which he has seen the area continue to cement its status as one of the world’s top tourist and meeting destinations.
“Orlando’s broad range of hotel options, abundance of versatile meeting space at the Orange County Convention Center and nearby convention hotels, low-cost accessibility and vast dining and entertainment options mean far more than just tangible cost savings for meetings,” says Aguel. “This ideal combination of attributes provides an overall experience that encourages attendees to become more engaged in the conversation and inspires ideas that produce positive results.”
All of those attributes are what keep Orlando at the top of most meeting planners’ destination wish lists. The area now boasts a hotel room inventory of 116,000 rooms, and Central Florida hosted more than 3 million meeting and convention visitors last year, a number that is expected to grow in 2013.
Orlando is known for great weather and attractions such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, but even without the attractions “Orlando has great facilities,” says Terry Matthews-Lombardo, CMP, an independent planner based in Orlando, “and at the end of the day, you need to have the product to get conventions to come here. The variety of hotels we have here, along with the incredible diversity they provide in meeting space, keeps conventions coming back to town.”
Orlando’s proximity to such a large variety of tourist attractions has, through necessity, turned Orlando International Airport into one of the world’s busiest airports, making it accessible to groups with national and international memberships. “And as far as price point, we’re pretty competitive with the rest of the country,” says Matthews-Lombardo. “We’re certainly not New York or Chicago. It’s a very negotiable city for hotel rooms and for contracts from a planner’s standpoint, because there are just so many hotel rooms and such a vast array of meeting spaces to choose from.”
The hotel offerings around Walt Disney World are extraordinarily extensive. One of the most popular properties for association convention planners is the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel, located between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The property’s two hotels, owned by Tischman and managed by Starwood, are located on Walt Disney World Resort property, and as such offer a variety of Disney benefits including an onsite Disney ticket desk, complimentary transportation to the theme parks, exclusive additional park hours for hotel guests and more.
The hotels have a combined 2,267 guest rooms, 17 restaurants and lounges, the Mandara Spa, five pools, a white sand beach and two health clubs. The important statistics for meeting planners are the resort’s 329,000 sf of meeting space and 84 meeting rooms, including four major ballrooms — the largest at nearly 50,000 sf — and the ability to offer 110,000 sf of contiguous exhibit space, plus 100,000 sf of outdoor event space. When they opened in 1989 and 1990 the Swan and Dolphin provided more convention space than any other property in the southeastern United States.
Kristi Sokol is meetings manager for the National Kidney Foundation, which has held its annual Spring Clinical Meeting in Orlando — and specifically the Swan and Dolphin Hotel — four times, most recently this past April.
A continuing education conference for nephrologists, nurses, social workers and dieticians, the five-day event usually draws 3,000–5,000 attendees. The convention rotation brings the event back to the Swan and Dolphin every three or four years.
Orlando appeals to her group, Sokol says, because of Disney (many attendees extend their stays to take advantage of the attractions) and because of the airlift into Orlando, “which is important because our membership is coming in from all over the country.”
As for the Swan and Dolphin, “the property is a good size for a convention,” Sokol says. “We fit in there very nicely. The meeting space is compact, but there is enough of it. So you don’t feel like you’re lost, and you also don’t feel like you’re being squeezed into a place. We also like that the property is so close to the parks; our attendees can bring family members and make a little vacation out of it.”
Michelle Randall, CMM, CMP, director of convention and meetings at the National Communication Association (NCA), just finished planning and executing her association’s annual convention in Orlando. Her group also used the Swan and Dolphin, as well as the nearby Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek.
Her four-day convention consists of 60 to 75 breakout sessions, for a total of 1,200 sessions during the course of the event, with each day concluding with a general session. This year’s event drew about 4,000 attendees, most of them communications educators from colleges and universities.
The resort “really worked,” as the host for the convention, says Randall. “It was probably the smoothest convention I’ve ever run. From the convention side of things, they really know what they’re doing.”
Many of the NCA attendees added days before and after the conference to take advantage of the area attractions, but Randall did find that despite holding the conference in a premier tourist destination, her attendance dropped slightly.
“I just think the model itself didn’t appeal to as many people as an East Coast convention normally would,” she says. East Coast meetings usually attract more attendees because of the simple fact that there are higher concentrations of universities and colleges in the eastern United States.
“But we’re usually in a city center, so this was a different model,” Randall says. “People are used to being able to just hop out of the hotel for a few minutes to grab something to eat. But in this case we had to do quite a bit of dissemination of information about how to find dining spots, for instance. So we ended up with fewer attendees than normal, but those who came were very happy with the location.”
Courtney Papp is the meeting manager for the American Society of PeriAnesthesia Nurses (ASPAN), which held its 2012 annual conference at the Hilton Orlando in 2012. The hotel has 1,417 guest rooms and 225,000 sf of total meeting and event space, including 50,000 sf of outdoor event space; three grand ballrooms; nine boardrooms; and 21 meeting rooms.
Orlando makes sense, Papp says, because “it’s a popular — and beautiful — location, and it’s easily accessible.” And when she sources hotels, she wants “everything in-house — the rooms, the meeting space, the exhibits. And the Hilton was able to offer that.”
Like Sokol and Randall, many of Papp’s attendees built in some extra time before and after the meeting to take advantage of their Orlando surroundings. “I know I did,” says Papp, who spent some time with her husband and daughter at Walt Disney World.
The Hilton Orlando is connected to the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), which offers 2.1 million sf of exhibition space. Skybridges also connect The Peabody Orlando and the Rosen Centre hotels to the convention center, and construction has started on a fourth, between the convention center and the Rosen Plaza Hotel, named the Gary Sain Memorial Bridge in honor of the Visit Orlando president and CEO who passed away suddenly in May 2012. The OCCC has just begun a five-year, $187 million capital improvements project. The West Building is undergoing a major renovation, which includes aesthetic enhancements, life safety update, and retrofitting to provide flexible space for groups. And new furniture groupings and an upgraded system for wireless communications are designed to enhance both face-to-face and device-to-device connectivity. The OCCC is the second largest convention facility in America, and each year attracts more than 200 events, bringing in approximately 1.4 million attendees. The convention center was recently nominated as the No. 1 convention center in the U.S. by Business Review USA.
In downtown Orlando, the Amway Center, which opened in 2010, is considered to be one of the country’s most advanced arena-and-events centers. And under construction, with a scheduled completion in fall 2014, is The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which will be the latest of Orlando’s up-and-coming entertainment venues, providing two theaters, a public performance space, outdoor plaza and separate educational facilities.
Orlando’s theme parks continue to expand their offerings, and all of them offer a multitude of special group options within their parks for ready-made themed events. SeaWorld Orlando just opened the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins attraction. And in June Universal Orlando unveiled Transformers: The Ride-3D at Universal Orlando Resort. Harry Potter fans will flock to Universal’s newest offering upcoming in 2014: the all-new Diagon Alley, located in Universal Studios, will complement the adjacent Hogwarts & Hogsmeade attraction in Islands of Adventure with recreations of London sights and experiences as described in the Harry Potter books.
Walt Disney World Resort recently opened the all-new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom Park, the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history. Downtown Disney will undergo a multiyear transformation and morph into Disney Springs by 2016. The destination will feature more than 150 establishments for shopping, dining and entertainment as well as new private-event options for groups.
Along International Drive — nicknamed I-Drive — which runs through the heart of theme park country and past the convention center, a $250 million redevelopment of the Mercado site will debut in the summer of 2014. Dubbed I-Drive Live, the new area will include more than 75 shops, restaurants and attractions, including a 25,000-sf Madame Tussauds wax museum, a 25,000-sf Sea Life Aquarium and a 425-foot Orlando Eye observation wheel.
For those interested in the U.S. space program, over at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit is opening June 29, 2013. The $100 million, 90,000-sf attraction allows visitors a close-up, 360-degree view of the Atlantis. The space shuttle is elevated 30 feet off the ground and rotated at a 43.21-degree angle, with its payload doors open and robotic arm extended, so it appears as if it is actually in orbit.
The attraction features state-of-the-art multimedia presentations and more than 60 interactive exhibits and high-tech simulators demonstrating the complex systems and components of a spacecraft that flew 33 missions and ended up traveling 126 million miles in space in the course of completing almost 5,000 orbits around the Earth.
The big hotel opening on the horizon is the $360 million Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, which is scheduled to debut in 2014. The 444-room hotel will feature 37,000 sf of function and meeting space, including a 14,000-sf main ballroom and a 6,000-sf junior ballroom, as well as a full-service business center. Resort amenities include the existing Tom Fazio-designed Osprey Ridge championship golf course, three swimming pools and a lazy river, and basketball and tennis courts, as well as a complete fitness center.
The new resort also will feature a 14,000-sf spa with 18 treatment rooms, and dining options that will include a main restaurant overlooking the lawn and lake, and a rooftop restaurant designed to give diners a view of the nightly fireworks displays coming out of the Magic Kingdom.
There are several hotel renovation projects that have been, or are nearing completion:
Rosen Hotels and Resorts has renovation news to report for their convention hotels, including the introduction of free wired and wireless Internet in all guest rooms and public areas. Rosen Centre Hotel (1,334 guest rooms; 124,000 sf of meeting space) recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of all guest rooms as well as the presidential and hospitality suites. Rosen Centre’s meeting space includes a new 18,000-sf Executive Ballroom, which also features 4,000 sf of prefunction space; the 35,000-sf Grand Ballroom; 14,000-sf Junior Ballroom; and 24 meeting salons. Rosen Plaza Hotel (800 guest rooms; 60,000 sf of meeting space) recently completed a floor-to-ceiling renovation of all guest rooms as well as hallways and hospitality suites. Rosen Shingle Creek (1,500 guest rooms; 445,000 sf of meeting space) recently enhanced its 50,000 sf of outdoor meeting space with an additional 16,000 sf. There’s also a 40,000-sf outdoor event lot to take advantage of Florida’s great weather. Shingle Creek Golf Club is home to the Brad Brewer Golf Academy.
Earlier this year, the 2,000-room Orlando World Center Marriott finished the first phase of its multimillion-dollar renovation project. The North Tower’s 514 guest rooms, including 10 suites, have been refurbished, as well as another 110 guest suites. And the 13 North Tower meeting rooms have been updated with new carpet, vinyl, air walls and electronic door cards. The Falls Pool & Poolside Function Lawn are being renovated as well and will include an expanded pool deck and lawn, and a new slide tower featuring two 200-foot winding water slides and one 90-foot speed water slide. The hotel offers 450,000 sf of event space, a full-service spa and an 18-hole championship golf course.
The 720-room Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate earlier this year opened the 55,000-sf Osceola County Conference Center. With a 28,800-sf ballroom and accompanying indoor meeting space, the new conference center gives the Omni a total of 128,000 square feet of indoor event space and an additional 70,000 sf of outdoor space.
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando (42,000 sf of meeting space) completed a $14 million renovation of all 750 guest rooms in April. Renovations to the meeting space and ballrooms at Universal Orlando’s Loews Royal Pacific (1,000 guest rooms; 85,000 sf of meeting space) and Hard Rock (650 guest rooms; 6,000 sf) hotels were finished last September. Guest room renovations at Loews Royal Pacific will be completed in stages with the first half scheduled for a 2014 and the rest in 2015.
The newly renamed Wyndham Orlando Resort International Drive is completely refurbishing and upgrading its 613 guest rooms and suites, and is adding a new entrance and lobby featuring a contemporary lobby bar and technology lounge. An expanded conference center will add 25,000 sf of flexible meeting space for a total of 60,000 sf of space. Renovations are expected to be completed by October 2013.
As Orlando continues to live up to its reputation as a top meeting and convention destination with a world-class convention center and an ever more diverse array of hotels, resorts and unique venues, associations that meet here will continue to exceed the expectations of all who experience it. AC&F