Two of the current top 10 U.S. convention cities are in Florida. Each with a distinctive vibe, culture and attractions, Orlando and Miami showcase the diversity of the state’s meeting destinations — and they aren’t the Sunshine State’s only superb cities for meeting planners to consider. Other Florida cities to make the top 50 best convention cities list are Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Kissimmee. On another list, Daytona Beach and Palm Beach County are also included in the top 25.
But, of course, even a city among the top 10 may not be exactly right for a particular group, and that’s what really matters. Where are the cities that have the right location, size, infrastructure, weather, ambience, hotel brands, CVB, availability and draw for your meeting? That’s where the state really shines. Florida offers so many different options in so many different parts of the state that it can attract and support any size or type of event.
Where is your perfect Florida meeting destination? Tampa on the Gulf Coast of the state and Hollywood on the Atlantic Coast, for example, are excellent meeting destinations, but very different in tone and ambience. What they share, however, is that they’re both locations where Hard Rock properties transformed with combined renovations totaling $2.2 billion, completed last fall. Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Tampa added new restaurants and dining options and a new hotel tower with more than 500 rooms, pools and new meeting space.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s group sales staff. They promptly responded to our initial sourcing request, hosted a very effective site visit for my clients and has been incredibly responsive whenever I or my team have reached out.” Tim Winston
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Hollywood upped its dining and bar options. While impressive, the standout is the new guitar-shaped Guitar Hotel. The 450-foot tower adds 638 new guest rooms to the property. Combine that with the new swim-up luxury suites at the Oasis Tower, for a total of 1,271 guest rooms. That’s where Todd Winston, president and CEO of T Global Partners, a meeting and event planning and solutions company based in Fort Lauderdale, has already booked multiple groups over the next two years, including a group of 800 attendees for a franchisee convention and trade show in the spring. He says the property offers the right amount of meeting and breakout space, as well as the dining and entertainment options his groups require.
About staff at the property, Winston says, “It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s group sales staff. They promptly responded to our initial sourcing request, hosted a very effective site visit for my clients and has been incredibly responsive whenever I or my team have reached out.”
He says that the initial interaction with a property’s sales team sets the tone for how the meeting will ultimately unfold, and in the case of the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood property, that absolutely held true. He has no concerns about the meetings he’s booked there because of “the level of attentiveness they have already shown to my clients and my own team.”
In Miami, things are always moving to a lively beat. Twenty-three hotels opened across the city in 2019, adding a total of 2,671 new rooms. An additional 19 hotels are slated for this year, with a projected addition of 2,469 new guest rooms. Looking to 2021 and beyond, the city predicts 34 more new hotels will open across Greater Miami and The Beaches, bringing a whopping 8,068 additional hotel rooms to the area.
But it’s not all about hotels. Planners with attendees coming from different parts of the world should know that millions of passengers who came through the airport were almost equally divided between domestic and international arrivals, and multiple airlines are scheduled to offer new service to the ‘Magic City’ in the coming months.
Hyatt Regency Miami and Nautilus by Arlo hotel both underwent anticipated renovations last year. The good news for groups that bring family along to conventions is that Eden Roc Miami Beach recently opened a new children’s club and program for ages 4 to 12, as well as additional family friendly experiences. And finally, the new Miami Beach Convention Center wrapped up the main phase of its three-year, $620 million renovation in the fall. The improvements include the addition of 263,000 sf of space, 10 new meeting rooms and LEED Silver certification.
It’s an understatement to say that planners have a huge range of hotels and resorts to choose from in Orlando and the surrounding area. Some groups want to be in or just outside the major theme parks. Others prefer to set their meetings away from the festive — but often more hectic — vicinity of the parks.
Located 10 minutes from Orlando’s airport and a very short distance from the Orange County Convention Center, Rosen Shingle Creek is a full-service meeting destination unto itself, with more than 1,500 guest rooms and 524,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space. It also has an 18-hole, Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, multiple pools, tennis courts and an expansive spa, making it ideal for meetings and conventions. A Universal Orlando hotel partner, guests here have complimentary transportation between the hotel and Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica, which helps planners keep transportation budgets in line.
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate provides stellar meeting and activity options, and is located about 9 miles south of Walt Disney World and 36 miles south of downtown Orlando. The Omni offers planners and their groups 36 holes of championship golf and 15 acres of recreation, and prides itself on being “a premier golf, meeting and convention destination.”
Gary Petty, president and CEO of the National Private Truck Council, brought the group’s National Safety Conference to the Omni in the fall, with 275 in attendance. “Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate was the perfect site for our event of 275 people over two full days,” he says. “The venue is tastefully upscale for a business meeting. Staff service and food quality were the best we have experienced at this event.”
Both the destination and resort figured into the decision to book the meeting there. “The main reason was Orlando as a draw,” Petty says, “and the Omni was the recommended choice by an Omni property at another location.”
The resort’s facilities and spaces were an ideal match for the group’s needs. “Our National Safety Conference is designed as a self-contained event where business meetings, the trade exhibit hall, the receptions, meals and lodging rooms are in a single location. Nothing happened outside the hotel,” he notes.
He offers solid praise for the staff at the Omni. “Virtually everyone at the hotel, from general manager to wait staff, were just exceptional. A few problems with one of our major accounts was solved perfectly in short order. All of our attendees commented on the superb quality of service, the beautiful property, great food and a ‘vibe’ of class and professionalism.”
Petty highly recommends that planners consider and work with the resort. “The Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate wants your business and will work hard to earn it. They do not take the attitude that Orlando sells itself and the Omni speaks for itself. The hotel staff made special accommodations to make our event even more successful.”
Additionally, he says, “Expect nearly a 100% approval rating from your attendees after holding your event at this resort. The only ‘complaint’ we received was from a long-standing member who asked, ‘What took us so long to have a meeting at this great resort?’”
Janella Thaxton, senior event manager for MOMCon, the annual conference for members of Mothers of Preschoolers, is among those who prefer a location close to the theme parks, in this case at the Walt Disney World Resort. The hotel choice for last fall’s conference of 2,500 attendees was the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort.
“We hadn’t been back to the east coast in several years and of course the hotel was a really good location to make it more of a destination for moms to brings their families, which they did.”
She says the good fit was a combination of the destination itself and “a really good hotel package rate.” The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort was also ideal, Thaxton notes, because of its location. “It is in the middle of Walt Disney World and only about 20 minutes from the airport.”
Thaxton and her group found the hotel staff to be a great asset for this meeting. “The entire staff was super great to work with. They were very friendly, kind and flexible. I’ve been doing this for about 23 years and it’s awesome to work with teams that try to customize our event so that we’re not like every other event,” she says. “I love how they were flexible and personalized a few things specifically for our show since it was all female attendees. They were very sensitive to that. The external vendors, decorators and, of course, the resort staff were all wonderful to work with.”
One thing to consider in planning a fall event in Florida is the possibility of a hurricane. Should a weather event occur, you want to know that your own staff as well as resort and destination staff are well prepared to handle the situation and keep attendees safe.
“We were there during the weekend of Hurricane Dorian,” Thaxton says. “All the solutions we came up with for ‘Plan B,’ just in case, all worked out to our benefit. The hurricane ended up not hitting Orlando and moms were able to fly in just fine. The event was great; we didn’t even have any speakers cancel.”
Just northeast of Orlando, the Daytona Beach area boasts more than 200 properties and 12,000 rooms, and has invested more than $2 billion in renovations and construction — from new hotels and renovations to attractions and eateries.
Convention hotels in the area include: Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, which offers 60,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space; Plaza Resort & Spa, offering 40,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space; The Shores Resort & Spa, offering 20,000 sf of meeting and event space; Daytona Beach Resort & Conference Center, offering 17,000 sf of flexible event space; and El Caribe Resort & Conference Center, offering 12,000 sf. Another venue, the venerable Daytona International Speedway, offers 120,000 sf of flexible meeting space.
However, the jewel of the area’s convention and events business is Ocean Center Daytona Beach. The fifth-largest convention center in Florida, it offers:
Just a few miles north along Interstate 95 sits Jacksonville, which offers 22 miles of beaches, a vibrant nightlife and street arts scene, excellent cuisine, parks, fishing, historic neighborhoods and more. Lonely Planet ranked Jacksonville on its list of the world’s “10 Best Value Destinations for 2018,” the only U.S. city to make the list, and Expedia named Jacksonville as one of “21 Supercool U.S. Cities.”
The city’s premier meeting space, the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, offers 275,000 sf of flexible meeting space, plus 78,500 sf of continuous exhibit space minutes from the Jacksonville International Airport and less than a mile from more than 2,300 hotel rooms.
There is an abundance of unique event spaces available, including: the Adam W. Herbert University Center, which offers 43,000 sf of meeting space; the Autobahn Indoor Speedway, an indoor kart track which can be rented for team-building exercises; and the historic, 1,900-seat Florida Theatre, which opened in 1927 and offers nearly 5,000 sf on three lobby levels, an intimate private room and a 40-foot movie screen.
Jacksonville has more than 18,000 guest rooms throughout the Downtown, beaches and suburban areas, and the city offers an array of big-name convention hotels that can accommodate any number of attendees.
Set along the quieter Gulf Coast on Florida’s southwest, Naples is a stylish, upscale town with a variety of boutique and resort hotels, many a short walk from the destination’s sublime stretch of beaches. Naples is just 35 minutes from Southwest Florida International Airport, which provides nonstop service from 39 domestic and four international destinations by multiple airlines. The hotels that can meet the needs of larger groups as well. Several off-site venues include the Naples Zoo; the Artis-Naples cultural campus, with an auditorium that can seat 1,425 attendees; and NGALA Wildlife Reserve, which can accommodate up to 1,000 for hors d’oeuvres and dinner in the company of giraffes and other wild critters nearby. At the Naples Conference Center, groups ranging from 10 to 255 can make use of well-appointed meeting and education space.
La Playa Beach & Golf Resort sits between the Gulf of Mexico and Vanderbilt Bay, and while it’s upscale, it also reflects the ‘barefoot elegance’ ethos of many of the resorts on this side of the state. Last year the resort hosted an event for a group of 165 attendees.
The associations’s meetings are very work-oriented. “The objective was to get attendees to continue and complete work on existing projects,” notes the group’s planner. As for activities, the attendees were on their own to choose from all the resort and Naples offer.
Banquets are the primary dining options the group uses, and the planner says the chef “was very willing to work with us on menus.” In summing up the experience for the group, she adds simply, “All went smoothly.” More importantly, perhaps, the planner and the association appreciate that so many of the same staff are at the resort year after year. “They are very familiar with our group and welcome us back like family.”
Just north of Naples, Lee County communities Bonita Springs & Estero, Cape Coral, Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers, North Fort Myers, Pine Island & Matlacha and Sanibel & Captiva Islands offer away-from-the-crowds beach ambience. Area convention and event resorts include: The Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village, which offers more than 50,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event venues and modern meeting rooms; South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island, which offers more than 31,000 sf of flexible indoor meeting space; and Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa in Bonita Springs, which offers more than 82,500 sf of indoor and outdoor event space. Activities include bird-watching, biking, hiking, water sports, golf and even spring training baseball.
East Coast, Gulf Coast, Panhandle and Northeast; down to Miami and Key West, Florida is a state that makes planning easy because there’s so much to choose from. And though it’s particularly attractive in winter for groups wanting to get out of the cold, summer pricing can also be a bonus for tighter budgets. | AC&F |