“Association meeting” and “luxury” may not fall trippingly off the tongue, at least not in the same sentence. But some planners who see their annual events rapidly growing are finding it’s worth stepping it up a bit, not only for a memorable attendee experience, but for that key element when last-minute changes crop up: flexibility.
“This was the most expensive conference we’ve ever produced — partly because of more people, partly because this is not a budget destination,” says Sean Gibbons, CEO of The Communications Network. But for the annual conference of communications professionals at nonprofits and major foundations such as Ford, Gates and MacArthur, “It was worth the extra expense. Lots of people in the network work in difficult circumstances in different parts of the world, and we wanted to show our appreciation: give them respite and rest, and help them feel a little taken care of.”
Nearly 800 attendees sought that respite at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach last September. “There is only one Fontainebleau: iconic, rich with history, magnificent,” Gibbons says. He also appreciates that the hotel is “a sustainable institution that aligns with our values.” For attendees, living out those values included in some cases coming in early for a day of service. Hurricane Irma had passed through two weeks before the conference, and “given the nature of who we are, the timing felt right, to be able to bring business into the city and offer an opportunity to give back.”
Community activity included cleanup for Zoo Miami, working in shelters in downtown Miami and welcoming local university students and at-risk high school students to participate with social media and practicing journalism skills.
“Impeccable” is how he describes the Fontainebleau staff. “They work with tremendous precision and good cheer. The staff anticipates and resolves issues; they are highly skilled, emotionally intelligent problem solvers.” He says there was no negative feedback from attendee surveys; two out of three attendees rated the experience as “excellent.” “The Ai Weiwei chandelier and art in the hotel was a big hit,” he says. Chez Bon Bon, the onsite bakery, also regularly competed with the provided smoothies. And the single most popular destination? The gym.
“Do you know how difficult it is to have 17 board members happy?” Soraya C. Regalado, ACSR, executive manager, Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies, says rhetorically. She’s managed to keep them happy by consistently returning to the 1,000-room Diplomat Beach Resort for the association’s annual convention. The hotel is large enough to accommodate her group — this past August’s convention drew more than 2,000 attendees for a trade show and continuing education classes — yet detail-oriented enough to meet the exacting standards of executives who often travel.
“The staff goes out of their way to make your event the best; they treat you like you are their only client. To me, there’s no greater service than that.”
— Soraya C. Regalado
She first experienced the Diplomat in 2005 as an attendee and was impressed by how smoothly things went, even though the city was expecting a hurricane. Since her first trip, both Hollywood itself and the Diplomat have undergone some facelifts. “The last one has been most amazing; the lobby area, especially.” She says attendees were pleased with how much room there is to “network and mingle and hang out.”
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has also had ample opportunity to compare and contrast over the years. Decades ago, “we held our meetings and conventions regularly at the ‘old’ Diplomat — before it was torn down and rebuilt,” remembers MaryAnn Kelly, assistant to the editor at IATSE. “We had a meeting at the Diplomat in 2016 just before they started renovations. When we returned a year and a half later, the transformation was breathtaking.” More than 1,000 union officers and representatives met for the general executive board meeting and quadrennial convention in July 2017 — the largest showing the association has ever had. The attendees commented on “how well everything was run, and I credit the hotel and its staff for that. The hotel is organized, well-equipped and provides endless possibilities with a signature touch.”
She had several detailed meetings with hotel department heads to review the plans for every meeting, reception and event. “They had suggestions from room layouts to banquet changes. They worked with me on pricing and how to get as much out of an event as possible when you’re on a budget. I truly appreciated their professionalism and patience,” Kelly says.
Regalado found that her convention has grown so much that, for the first time this year, “We sold out (our) room block superfast and the hotel itself was sold out. It’s a nice problem to have!” Add last-minute registrants to the list, and “I’m constantly making addendums to events: food has to be changed, tables have to be added, centerpieces have to be ordered.” The Diplomat staff takes it all in stride, she finds.
“We have a tough audience, solo practitioners,” Dan LaBert, executive director, National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, says of his annual convention attendees. “When they close their office, that means no revenue for them.” As such, they expect a lot: a solid curriculum that improves their practice, provided in an easy-in, easy-out location. The May 2017 annual conference and trade show, complete with plenary and breakouts, set the expectation bar even higher all around: it was for the association’s 25th anniversary. Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort exceeded LaBert’s expectations, and ratings on post-attendance surveys from around 1,000 attendees and 100 exhibitors were higher than for the last three years, when the group met in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
The Swan and Dolphin has a “fantastic reputation of working with associations,” he says of his decision to convene there. “They know associations have ebb and flow in their financial structure and create a win/win for themselves and the client. They treat every client better than other properties do; really put on the white gloves,” he says.
Case in point: “We lost over $100,000 one year; after Hurricane Michelle in Miami, we had to cancel and lose revenue. The Swan and Dolphin was aware and sensitive, and found ways to make the annual convention rewarding for us coming off a challenging previous event,” he says. Not that the resort offered an incredible deal financially, but more that “they took time to learn about us, our background, how we felt about our past situations — to build the relationship and ease concerns. We have high standards, and they knew that, understood our vision and made it happen.”
For the regular run of the meetings, he also appreciated being able to create a kind of “fireside chat” area where attendees could meet one-on-one with plenary speakers, complete with lounge chairs in a half-circle to create an intimate vibe where speakers could “decompress: a casual atmosphere away from the business atmosphere.”
“We will return in 2021 because of this event,” LaBert concludes. “It’s the Swan and Dolphin staff experience and training that made the experience for us. We sold out our hotel block a month and a half before the convention. They figured out ways to not only embrace more reservations but identified properties that they have relationships with that understood that we needed nearby rooms. They have an intake system that’s much more efficient than a lot of big-city hotels.”
In early fall, a few months after LaBert’s event, the resort celebrated the completion of its $140 million transformation, which includes a redesign of all 2,267 guest rooms, which now feature an aquatic theme in white, blue and gray; a new look for the Dolphin lobby: a chandelier made of 9,890 crystals dipping 20 feet from the ceiling over a fountain, as well as a new grab-and-go restaurant, fuel, and a new bar, Phins, that can seat up to 150 attendees. Among other signature drinks, the bar offers a “Smoke and Roses” bourbon-based cocktail — the presentation concludes when the drink is pulled from a hinged vitrine where smoke and spirits mingle.
Other changes include the debut of Lake View, a 2,800-sf event space that, as the name indicates, provides views of the resort’s private lake. The existing 332,000 sf of meeting space has been spruced up and includes additions like electronic reader boards and updated Wi-Fi that can service groups up to 15,000 at once.
Among the resort’s 18 restaurants and lounges is the standout eatery bluezoo, the first Florida restaurant for Chef Todd English of Olives fame. The aquarium-esque decor is the handiwork of architect Jeffrey Beers, who once studied glass blowing with Dale Chihuly and uses those play-of-light techniques in his designs.
Attendees looking for a sandwich menu from Chef Guy Fieri and over-the-top milkshakes can experience Planet Hollywood Observatory, which reopened last year after a $30 million investment. The four-story emporium’s most imposing feature is its 4,500-sf video wall with customizable displays. Among its five areas and 35,000 sf of potential meeting space are a second-floor outdoor space, Terrace, that can receive up to 250 attendees, with a further 250 just indoors at Terra; all told, the space can accommodate some 1,100 attendees.
For attendees who are up for some high-tech high jinks — not directly after meals — SeaWorld Orlando’s first virtual reality roller coaster, Kraken, is now open. Make no mistake: this roller coaster is very real, as is the VR headgear attendees don once seated. An underwater adventure perfectly timed to match the various the swoops and dives of the coaster enhances the ride’s dizzying effect.
For planners who crave the opposite of a wild roller coaster ride, Marriott’s Red Coat Direct program “allows the planner to be in complete control of the meeting from anywhere in the entire complex. Room temperature can be changed, coffee can be ordered, or an unscheduled break built in last minute…all without having to first contact an event manager,” says H.V. “Skip” Shaw, Jr. president and CEO of the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, which has held at least five conventions at Orlando World Center Marriott since 1998. “They are part of our normal rotation,” he says of the city and the resort. Last October, some 1,300 top executives in the industry converged on the resort, which offers 450,000 sf of event space and 1,883 rooms. Shaw notes that the planning included setting up more than 125 meeting rooms for the association’s retailer and manufacturer members. “It feels like family when we return,” he says. “There are so many long-term employees at the Orlando World Center Marriott that it makes our planning and execution seamless.”
The resort “provides us with an ideal place for business meetings as they have endless experiences and amenities available on property including one of the world’s coolest hotel pools, a championship golf course, full-service spa and fitness center, a number of restaurants and lounges and it’s centrally located,” he says.
Shaw says: “We always see a bump in attendance when holding our convention at Orlando World Center Marriott.” In fact, the association plans to return for its 2019 convention.
“Alabama is challenged somewhat in the resort offerings that have a beach aspect, and our membership really wanted something on the beach,” says Beth Witten, managing partner, Blue Turtle Creative. Her firm manages the Alabama Healthcare Financial Management Association’s annual education and networking event, which last September welcomed 160 attendees to Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, a venue the association has been returning to for 10 years. “Hilton Sandestin has all the amenities — really nice rooms, beach, great meeting space. The staff is experienced and has great tenure and knows what our group expects, so we’re not starting over every year with expectations,” Witten says.
“(In a previous year) there was a drought, and the county decided they would ban fireworks. They’ve always been a traditional aspect of our event, so we worked with the staff, their civic partnership with tourism and the county, to say it was important for our group. They really went to bat for us, and in the end we were able to hold the fireworks,” she says.
Witten finds attendees give “really high marks on food. Food is one of those things people remember — if you’re feeding people well, that reflects on their whole experience of the conference.”
She particularly notes how flexible Hilton Sandestin was with her room block: like many association planners, she’s finding that attendees register later and later, even as overall attendance rises. “It’s a testament to their experience in the conference world that they understand the ebb and flow of putting on a conference; they’re not rigid. There’s that trust — they’re still respectful of attendees’ pocketbook.”
To relieve some of the overall financial burden for attendees, Witten negotiates to lower the daily resort fee; since she knows her annual dates, she contracts events over multiple years for more negotiating leverage. And the destination itself is easy on the attendee wallet in the sense that its location along U.S. Route 98 makes it an accessible drive; it’s also 20 minutes from Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, she notes.
“We have sponsors who every year sponsor the same items — fireworks, for example — and they know they’ll be treated with great attention to detail, both from our side and from the staff side.”
The nearby Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort prides itself on teambuilding activities for attendees; its 65,000 sf of meeting space can welcome up to 1,600, and the resort is adept at planning active group participation events including fun runs, and scavenger hunts, as well as fishing and stand-up paddleboard relays on the Choctawhatchee Bay.
Perhaps the standout feature of the new Henderson, a Salamander Beach & Spa Resort is its position right next door to Henderson Beach State Park & Preserve, where sea turtles still nest and the hotel actively cooperates with rangers to keep the space environmentally and turtle friendly, such as with specially designed lighting. For attendees, the 170-room hotel offers access to the park as well as two miles of private white-sand beach; an adults-only pool suitable for elegant events; 10,000 sf of meeting and event space; 20,000 sf of outdoor space including a Sunset Deck with sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico; and the old-school ice cream parlor, Sprinkles.
When the American Veterinary Distributors Association held its annual conference at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club on Florida’s northeast coast in 2011, “our attendees loved the property and wanted to return,” says Jackie King, executive vice president, King Management Group Inc. Return they did, in May 2017 — 212 top-level executives and salespeople ready to learn and network. “It’s five-star, five-diamond level of service,” says King. “The rooms are set up in different ‘houses,’ with regular furniture you would have in your house; many rooms are oceanfront or ocean view.” The two-story houses are close to the ocean and the beach is not overdeveloped, “so you can walk up and down the beach for a long time, just gorgeous.”
Eighty golfers participated in a tournament at the Ocean Course, one of two courses on the property; a fishing excursion also proved popular. “Ponte Vedra Inn & Club was very flexible on adjusting meeting space for us for a new meeting that popped up,” she notes. Her tips for other planners working with budget constraints: “Try to get them to waive or reduce the resort fee.”
The opening event was held at the resort’s Surf Club Patio overlooking the ocean, and the closing event — which included contests, games, indoor buffet stations, outdoor bars and passed hors d’oeuvres — overlooked the West Putting Green. King found the attention to the overall flow impressive. She also appreciated the property’s willingness to work with her budget. The chef made suggestions for adjusting the established menu to use, for example, fish and produce that were in season. “We got very high marks on service and food and beverage from our attendees,” King says.
Food is also a strong draw for the Georgia Bankers Association. “Twice a year we go here; our people love it,” says Susan Kelley, senior vice president. This past September, about 50 attendees including spouses arrived at Ponte Vedra Inn and Club for two days to enjoy a reception and dinner on Sunday, a Monday morning meeting followed by golf or fishing and an evening reception and dinner. Her association has been coming for about six years and is scheduled to continue at least through 2019. “The food is wonderful, and I think that keeps a lot of them coming back,” she says, describing the grilled lobster and steak options and the Mayport shrimp as standouts, and noting the high server-to-attendee ratio. “It’s expensive, but they love it.” She works with the resort to provide lunches for golfers and fishermen, a buffet dinner one night, and a plated dinner the second.
Apart from the food, the bankers appreciate the uncrowded beach and the gym from which they can look out over the ocean from a treadmill. “We call this nice place ‘home’ for our meeting site. The meeting facilities, beautiful landscape, beach and on-site golf along with wonderful food and service keeps us coming back,” Kelley says.
Any property where all 309 guest rooms have been designed by Jonathan Adler isn’t going to be cut-rate, but this hasn’t deterred association planners from experiencing the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, with its more than 30,000 sf of meeting space, including a nearly 10,000-sf ballroom indoors that can be divided into three equal rooms; and an oceanfront courtyard, a lawn and pool terrace for outdoor functions. Kirkland Event & Destination Services, a partner of the hotel, provided the décor for an event it hosted during the July 2017 annual meeting of the Florida Society of Association Executives.
Paget Kirkland, president/owner, says, “The Eau Palm Beach being independently owned allows them the opportunity to say yes to those ‘out of the box’ requests, allowing us to really get creative.” One such request from the FSAE involved literally reconfiguring the box; specifically, the spa, which typically has “hanging chairs over a shallow pool of water. The client loved the space so much so we drained the water from the shallow pool and expanded the space, allowing them to do an amazing Moroccan-themed party in a great space,” Kirkland says.
It isn’t every association that looks first to a private club that boasts its own island, but for certain events, the royal treatment may be just what’s called for. Ocean Reef Club opens its 144-room inn to nonmembers and offers 30,000 sf of indoor meeting space as well as several al fresco venues. A private air strip, marina that offers chartered dinner yachts, a nature center, a cooking school, two golf courses — one built into a wildlife sanctuary, various pools and 12 tennis courts are a sampling of the offerings. AC&F