Florida — the world-famous “Sunshine State,” beloved by tourists from around the world — enjoys a special status in the association meeting industry: It boasts more high-quality and unique individual destinations than many other states. And what all of them have in common are two of the things meeting planners invariably say they look for in a destination: beautiful weather, including warm winters, and a strong value proposition.
No matter what kind of infrastructure, hotel product or amenities a planner seeks, her or she can find them somewhere in Florida.
Although Florida now boasts a list of popular meeting destinations, Orlando stands as one of the top two association meeting and convention destinations in the U.S., along with Las Vegas. And like Las Vegas, as a result of its formidable and ever-improving infrastructure, it often hosts major citywide conventions.
Jennifer Richards, director, convention services, at the American Diabetes Association (ADA) in Arlington,VA, used Orlando last year as the destination for the ADA’s five-day, four-night annual meeting, which drew 14,337 attendees. She had previously used Orlando for the same meeting years ago.
“Based on the size of our meeting and the number of hotel rooms we need on peak nights, there are a relatively limited number of destination options for us in the U.S. that have all of the things we need,” Richards says.
Airlift was also a major factor in the selection of the destination. “More than half of the attendees at our annual meeting are international attendees, so being in a major city with huge airlift is very important,” Richards says, adding that the cleanliness and ease of navigation of Orlando International Airport is another key benefit.
The other major factor in Orlando’s favor is the number of meeting-quality hotels that are available. “And that’s especially true of the four or five major hotels that are near the convention center,” Richards says.
ADA does not designate a headquarters hotel, but Richards chose the Hyatt Regency Orlando — formerly the legendary Peabody Orlando, located directly across International Drive from the Orange County Convention Center — as housing for her executives and senior staff.
They also held a board meeting there. “It’s a great property,” Richards says.
For her room block, she used many other hotels, all located along the International Drive corridor. The overall planning and layout of the convention district are a major factor in Orlando’s appeal for citywide meetings, she says — the ability to book enough hotel rooms for a citywide convention within a reasonably short distance of the convention center.
And the size and quality of the Orange County Convention Center also ranks highly on Richards’ list of important amenities. “It’s one of the largest convention centers in the country,” she says. “And we use a lot of convention center space, including an exhibit hall and breakout rooms for about 15 concurrent sessions. It’s also a very clean convention center. They also really want to work with you. Our meeting manager was very knowledgeable. We had a great experience there, including in the exhibit hall.”
Yet another factor in Orlando’s favor, Richards says, is its CVB, known as Visit Orlando. “They’re wonderful — very accommodating and easy to work with,” she says.
Given her experience — twice — for her most important meeting of the year, Richards gives high marks to the Magic City as a destination.
“Because it’s such a large destination, and it has so many hotels, it’s a great destination for large meetings, but even for smaller ones,” she says. “The hotels are easy to work with, and you don’t get that in every city. So that’s a huge factor, in my opinion. It’s a very accommodating destination. It also has a lot of great restaurants and attractions like The Wheel located in ICON Park, a 400-foot tall observation wheel that overlooks the convention center district from International Drive. And there’s always something new and exciting.”
Another Florida destination that has become a powerful player in the association meeting market is Miami. After the South Beach neighborhood of Miami Beach emerged as one of the most glitzy and glamorous tourist destinations in the world, and the Miami Beach Convention Center underwent a massive expansion and modernization, the city saw its association meeting business start to spike.
Jenni Kilpatrick, CAE, an account executive at Svinicki Association Management Inc. in Milwaukee, WI, held her first meeting in Miami last spring, a five-day, four-night medical conference for 957 attendees, including exhibitors and guests.
“The client association that held the meeting has an interesting destination selection process,” Kilpatrick says. “A destination is proposed by a member, who is also running for the position of local meeting host. And then the entire membership votes on the hotel. The individual who proposed Miami grew up in Miami and really loves it, so that’s why she wanted to bring the meeting there, even though she no longer lives there.”
After experiencing Miami, Kilpatrick is pleased that she discovered it.
The Loews Miami Beach Hotel served as the group’s hotel. “The meeting host who proposed Miami as the destination also proposed the hotels to be considered,” Kilpatrick says, noting that Loews Miami Beach won the business after an RFP process and a site inspection trip.
“One obvious key factor was that the Loews had enough of a room block to accommodate the meeting,” Kilpatrick says. “Generally speaking, for this meeting we don’t like to book room blocks in more than one hotel. The members prefer to be all under one roof.”
She also cites the hotel’s location, toward the northern boundary of the fabled and wildly popular South Beach neighborhood, as “stellar.” Its meeting space was also ideal for the client, she says.
“We were able to offer the general session programming and the exhibit space within a concurrent pattern. There was no separation between floors or anything like that. And the quality of their outdoor function space was also a big factor. For example, we were able to have our opening night reception outdoors on the lawn looking out onto the beach, and we were also able to have our banquet in a space featuring a balcony with a beautiful view of the beach and ocean. But one of the primary factors that led to the Loews was the quality and functionality of its meeting space.”
She also praises the room product at the Loews Miami Beach. “The sleeping rooms are beautiful,” she says. “They’re also very comfortable. The soft goods were great. Everything was very clean.”
She gave a similar review to the food-and-beverage. “It was outstanding,” Kilpatrick says.
But what her attendees liked most about the hotel was its location directly on the beach and its easy walking distance of just a few blocks to South Beach’s most famous hot spots. It was the world-famous beach that made the meeting such a pleasant, fun experience for attendees.
“The beach sells,” Kilpatrick says. “People just loved it. But our attendees also loved Miami as a whole, because there is just so much to do. And the weather is just beautiful and South Beach, which is entirely walkable, also has a very interesting culture. And the food scene is incredible.”
Yet another Florida destination popular among association meeting planners looking for a timeless and classical beach experience is Palm Beach. Among the amenities that give it its old world charm is what is arguably the ultimate offsite venue — Donald Trump’s The Mar-a-Lago Club.
Kelly Spann, CMP, meeting manager at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) in Sterling, VA, had her first experience with Palm Beach late last year, when she hosted a three-day, two-night fall management conference for 165 attendees at the Forbes Five Star, AAA Five Diamond Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa which is situated on a secluded private beach. In the 2015 Conde Nast Traveler “Readers Choice Awards,” the Eau Palm Beach — which also features a Forbes Five Star Eau Spa — was recognized as Florida’s top resort. It now boasts more than 30,000 sf of expanded and updated meeting space.
What cinched the deal for Spann and ICCFA was what she calls “a strong response” to her RFP, which was followed by a site inspection trip. “We looked at all of Florida,” Spann says, “But the factor that led us to decide on Eau Palm Beach was their overall offer and the quality of the property.”
Not surprisingly, the feedback that meeting attendees provided after the conference lived up to the accolades the resort has earned.
“All of the feedback we got from attendees was incredibly positive,” Spann says. “People just loved it. They loved the sleeping rooms, and all of the meeting space is new. And then, of course, there’s the fact that Eau Palm Beach is a five-star resort, so the service was at the level we and our attendees are looking for.”
Spann cites the room product as particularly noteworthy. “The rooms are large and bright, very cheerful,” she says. “The bathrooms are big. They all have a balcony. And the decor is just fun and very ‘beachy.’ This was the first time in five or six years that we’ve experienced a resort with sleeping rooms of the quality you find at Eau Palm Beach.”
Likewise, she heaped praise on the resort’s F&B. “Our attendees also had nothing but good things to say about the food and beverage. It was excellent.”
She also notes that the level of customer service rises to the standards of the resort’s lofty standing with Forbes and AAA.
“Everything was fantastic,” Spann says. “Every time I asked a question or needed something, they were on it right away. I’m the kind of planner who will usually do things on my own rather than wait around for something to happen. But at the Eau, no matter what I needed, they were right on it, so that made my job very easy. And in terms of their service to me as the planner, they were also excellent. For example, instead of hot coffee, I like iced coffee, so they made sure I always got that without having to ask. They just paid attention to all of the little things that really set one property apart from others when it comes to service.”
She notes that because the Eau Palm Beach is privately owned and not part of a chain, the owners are very much involved in maintaining an exceptional level of service. “And as a result of that,” Spann says, “the service we got for this meeting was, hands down, the best I’ve ever had.”
Located north of Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast, Daytona Beach is another classical Florida beach destination that offers a more laid-back ambiance than its more famous counterparts in the state.
Marlinda Fulton, executive director of the Central Florida District Dental Association (CFDDA), headquartered in Orlando, hosted her organization’s spring, two-day, two-night educational meeting for dentists last year in the time-honored destination. It was the first time Fulton had used it.
“Our educational meeting moves around within the central district of Florida,” she says. “And our president, when that particular meeting was held, was from the Daytona Beach area and wanted to keep the meeting within his affiliate area.”
Together, Fulton and her president chose the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort as their venue. “We both met with the hotel and really liked it,” Fulton says. “He was also familiar with the hotel, because he had stayed there before and really liked it. So we did a site inspection trip together. We really liked the location, because our attendees love the beach. So we knew it would be a very popular venue.”
One of the key reasons the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort won the business was because of its pricing and value proposition, Fulton says. “The room rates were reasonable, so that meant dentists could bring their families and staff at an affordable cost. Value is especially important for this meeting because the association encourages member dentists to bring their spouses and children as well as their team members, such as hygienists.”
Daytona Beach was particularly appealing to family members because of its status as an iconic Florida beach destination and there is so much for families to do while spouses are in meeting sessions, Fulton says.
One big benefit of the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront: it’s convenience to local restaurants.
Fulton and her attendees also liked the room product. “The rooms were nice,” Fulton says. “I had a lovely room. I was very pleased. So were our attendees.”
The hotel’s meeting space also worked very well for her meeting, she says. “It was renovated fairly recently, so it’s very fresh.”
She also cites the Hilton’s customer service as exemplary. “I give kudos to the staff,” she says. “They worked very well with us on everything from A to Z. They were very accommodating and I heard very positive feedback from our attendees.”
As for the destination, Daytona Beach made a lasting impression on her from her first exposure to it. “People just loved Daytona Beach,” she says. “They loved going to the beach. The views from the hotel were spectacular. And the destination was very, very well received. Because of the response it got, we will definitely be going back in the future. I can say that with 100 percent certainty.”
Although it is not as well known as its sister destinations in the Sunshine State, Naples — on the Gulf of Mexico in the southwestern corner of the state — is its most sophisticated and cultured destination. One reason for that: It’s the No. 1 home to retired CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Mike Donaldson, CMP, manager of member services and meeting planner of the Florida Attractions Association (FAA) in Tallahassee, used Naples for the FAA’s four-day, three-night Annual Conference last summer for more than 300 attendees from Florida-based attractions and CVBs, as well as tour operators and industry suppliers. The last time FAA had met in Naples was 2004.
For the meeting last year, the FAA selected the Naples Grande Beach Resort, one of the city’s most exclusive properties.
“We just fell in love with the property when we went on our first site visit,” Donaldson says. “I loved the meeting space and loved everything about the resort. I had been there for previous conferences held by other organizations, so I knew it was a great property.”
The Naples Grande Beach Resort’s guest room product is exceptional, Donaldson says. “The rooms are beautiful. They have large bathrooms, and a lot of the bathrooms feature large sunken tubs, which was a nice surprise for a lot of attendees. Everything about the rooms was just lovely.”
He singled out the hotel’s food and beverage for particularly enthusiastic praise.
“For example, we held our opening night dinner in the Vista Ballroom,” he says. “We did a Mexican buffet and the food was out of this world and so was the presentation, with so much attention to detail. I’ve experienced good food at other hotels in Florida for our annual conference, but I wasn’t prepared for how outstanding the quality of the food was at the Naples Grande. And that was true of every meal we had at the resort, not just the opening dinner. It was out of this world.”
Although FAA hosted almost all meals onsite, two highlights of the meeting were offsite events. “We went offsite one night for what we called ‘A Taste of Naples,’ which was a dine-around program that consisted of organized group dinners at some of the best restaurants in downtown Naples,” Donaldson says. “And the reason we did that is because Naples has such a great upscale local dining scene. Then, on closing night — which we do every year — we went offsite for a dinner and evening at a local member attraction. This year, it was the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, which is a fantastic venue.”
As a Florida planner, Donaldson urges his national counterparts to take a look at Naples if they are unfamiliar with it. “The biggest appeal of Naples is its sophistication and culture,” he says. “It’s very beautiful. It has beautiful beaches and a fantastic dining scene. It’s also not as congested as other major Florida destinations. And there are lots of things to do, like eco-tourism. It’s also very clean and safe. It’s just a very unique destination that has a lot of appeal for attendees. And most importantly, it’s a very good draw, from a meeting perspective. In fact, the attendance at this year’s meeting was the highest we’ve ever had. It set a new record. And that’s the name of the game when it comes to meeting destinations.” AC&F