Orlando was founded in 1875, almost 100 years before the first theme park arrived. The city has history, quality infrastructure and a slew of meeting-friendly hotels. Most importantly, it welcomes and supports business. The fact that there are also theme parks to help drive registration is just icing on this sunny cake.
The biggest choice for planners may be where in the city to meet.
Located 25 minutes from Orlando’s airport and 20 minutes from Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World Resort, the 862-room Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate is a destination in its own right. Maribeth Nash, corporate events manager with Missouri-based Origami Risk, provider of risk-management software, says, “It’s the best resort in the area and they were willing to work with us on our price point and needs. We also liked that it was a little away from Walt Disney World.”
The company’s User Conference last year drew 450 attendees. All functions were on-site, and Nash says “The resort is large enough that you don’t need to do anything off-site and can still feel like you’re getting variety.”
The hotel delivered on all fronts. “The space was perfect and private as we had the entire Osceola building to ourselves. And attendees and colleagues are still talking about the amazing food.”
“It’s the best resort in the area and they were willing to work with us on our price point and needs. We also liked that it was a little away from Walt Disney World.” -Maribeth Nash
Nash calls the staff the best she’s worked with. “Everyone was on top of things 175 percent. From contract negotiations to running our program, to room coordinator, everyone went above and beyond.”
The only hitch was that most attendees checked in at the same time, but not all rooms were ready. Nash suggests planners address that ahead of time and develop a solution.
The experience was so positive the company has booked the resort for 2020, and Nash highly recommends it for others. “Your group will love the space, the resort and the food. You’ll absolutely love the staff and how easy they make your job.”
In the International Drive area, Hilton Orlando can accommodate large groups on its own, but is also adjacent to the OCCC, making it ideal for a conference of 2,000 managers in December. The meeting planner says Orlando ticks off many boxes, including good airlift and fares and hotels with sufficient room nights and meeting space.
The planner’s group used the OCCC for its plenary as well as some meals, and, the planner notes, “Weather in December has been chilly the past two years so unfortunately outdoor options have not worked.”
In spite of the hotel’s convenient location, the planner says, “We felt the logistics required to get attendees to and from the convention center weren’t ideal. A lot of money was spent on transportation for the day of the event along with rehearsals the day prior.”
That aside, the planner says, “Based on our past experience with the hotel, the selection was ideal for us.” The planner gives the hotel an excellent rating for everything from the contracting process and the sales contact and conference services manager (CSM) team to rooms, cleanliness and customer service.
The hotel also provided ‘five-star’ food and beverage, presentation, creativity and service, the planner adds. “The hotel worked with us planning creative dinner options. All meals had ‘be-well/healthy’ options and luncheons were well received with healthy options and creative components. The banquet staff and captains are the finest in the Orlando area.”
As for meetings, the planner says, “We basically used all the hotel meeting space as well as hotel vendors for power and Wi-Fi, but brought in an outside production company for A/V.”
One caveat for booking here: “With space always at a premium,” the planner advises, “make sure contracted hotel rooms and space are adequate for your meeting.”
Scott Washburn, president and CEO of Nevada-based Event Consultants LLC, has brought 3,000-5,000 attendees to Orlando for the past several years. The ConnectWise IT Nation Connect, a conference for companies that sell, service and support technology, is based at another International Drive property, Hyatt Regency Orlando.
“Orlando is a great location due to ease of air travel and easy access for drive-in attendees,” Washburn says. “It’s also family friendly, so many attendees have family join them before or after the conference or even during. There’s so much to do in Orlando for all ages.”
Additionally, Washburn says, “The Hyatt’s location is great with a lot of hotels nearby, many in walking distance, for overflow rooms. And there are great restaurants in the hotel and within walking distance.”
Washburn’s group used every inch of the Hyatt Regency convention space, hospitality suites, restaurants and lounges. “It all tied together very well,” he says. “The Hyatt has large convention space and a large number of breakout rooms. The multilevel meeting space and multistory windows in the foyers make it feel very open, even when packed full of people.”
About the staff, Washburn adds, “The convention, banquet and meeting-support staff in the convention space really know their stuff. They’re accessible at all hours and are great at everything they do. They know how to interact with busy convention attendees, VIPs and planners. The front desk check-in process is monitored well, and additional check-in staff, greeters and bell staff are pulled in as needed.”
The group also books off-site events at SeaWorld and Universal Orlando for this conference, just two of the city’s draws. Orlando has so much to offer, in fact, that Washburn advises planners to “Always plan for early arrivals and stay-over attendees as many people like to enjoy the many attractions in the area.”
With multiple hotels, Universal Orlando Resort works well for large groups. In January this year, Lisa Pratt, owner of Pinnacle Events Inc., brought in 4,100 attendees for the company-wide celebration of a Massachusetts-based global software company.
“Our goal was to find a destination and venue where we could house all of our attendees in the same location and have meeting space and entertainment options close by so our international staff wouldn’t have to spend time being bused from location to location after traveling so far. Orlando and Universal Orlando Resort met both of these requirements. There’s also great airlift from Boston and our international locations.”
The group used Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Universal’s Aventura Hotel. With the annual meeting and functions on property, transportation was easy as Universal’s own transportation system accessed most areas.
“We had a private block party at Universal CityWalk, where we had the use of nine fabulous restaurants, and one event at Universal Studios. Attendees got a chance to experience all the rides and attractions at the theme parks, including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.”
Additionally the group had a free day during which attendees could choose from a variety of off-property options such as an alligator airboat tour, skydiving, shopping and visiting Kennedy Space Center. DMC 360 Destination Group helped facilitate the details. Pratt says this was “a great addition to the program.”
Most meetings took place in the 247,000-sf Loews Meeting Complex, connecting the Sapphire Falls and Royal Pacific resorts; a few utilized space at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel. “We were so impressed by the cleanliness of the bathrooms, the quality of the buffets and the overall space given the magnitude of our program,” Pratt says. “We’ve had smaller programs in the past where keeping the bathrooms clean, the buffets full and the food presentation up to par was an issue. Not here — the food presentation, variety and consistency at the hotels was incredible. The chefs also did a great job helping us accommodate dietary constraints, including allergies, kosher and halal meals.”
Pratt chose Universal Orlando and Loews hotels based on a successful meeting at Loews Portofino Bay years ago. The key was that she maintained relationships from that meeting.
“I kept in touch with our sales person. When I sourced this program, the meeting space at Loews Sapphire Falls wasn’t built, but she and her assistant helped me lay out every one of our projected breakouts, general sessions and meals to ensure the meeting could fit in the space that didn’t even exist yet. My faith in her assessment of how we could make it work, along with the time spent mapping it out, made me confident in recommending it as an exceptional option for our program.”
Pratt says there were a few hiccups, including a shortage of matching chairs for a 4,100-person dinner. “The hotel provided options in a timely manner so we could quickly react.” The solution: They borrowed chairs from one of their other hotels.
Pratt has high praise for the staff and facilities. “The staff was kind, engaging and went above and beyond, including managing a dinner and reception for 4,000+ people all sitting and eating at once. It was flawless. We were concerned about Wi-Fi capabilities given our numbers, but that was flawless as well. We were able to use the same access code for Wi-Fi in all meeting spaces regardless of the hotel.”
Planning this program was a long process made easier by solid partnerships. “The catering and convention services team spent years working with us to execute a flawless program,” Pratt notes. “Our convention services manager worked tirelessly with us to plan every detail from concept to completion.”
Pratt’s best advice for other planners: “Work collaboratively with your vendors. All of our partners worked incredibly hard on this project and were as invested in its success as we were. Key is creating a respectful, collaborative relationship where everyone is valued and all needs and priorities are considered. At times we could help the hotel by releasing space we didn’t need, for example — when you’re booking 3 1/2 years out, things change. That way they weren’t holding guest rooms we were never going to fill, which helped them meet their business goals. And we needed things that weren’t contractually agreed upon from the start, such as transportation support between hotels. Given our relationship and willingness to work as a team, the hotel helped with these kinds of needs and provided valuable support and solutions.”
Hotels in Lake Buena Vista’s Disney Springs area are owned and managed independent of Walt Disney World. One is Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Disney Springs Resort Area, where Sea Tow Services International Inc. met last year. The annual conference draws 125-150 attendees.
Cindy McCaffrey, vice president of program development for Sea Tow, says the Orlando area works well because 28 of the company’s 100 U.S. franchises are in Florida, with the remainder across the country.
She calls Wyndham’s staff key to this property’s success. “It starts with the GM, trickles down through sales and on to the convention services and banquet team. This is the third annual meeting we’ve held at the property, and the first time ever we have repeated a location, let alone booked one three times.”
Noting that the hotel’s meeting space has recently been renovated, McCaffrey says, “Our meetings, breakouts and vendor showcase flow beautifully within the space at the Wyndham. Our group used the meeting space and outdoor pool area for the majority of functions and meals as well as the vendor showcase. We also utilized the restaurant during the breakfast buffet. Our attendees like to start the day with a nice hearty breakfast and the Wyndham offers that and more. The character breakfast is always a hit when our attendees bring family along.”
She adds that the property is very willing to work with planners who want outdoor functions by the pool. “We had a couple of boats on trailers on display and they worked with us to make sure our attendees had access and the perfect view of them. Also, the food is not ‘typical’ hotel food. It’s tasty, abundant and always displayed with care and creativity.” And she says although the hotel is close to Walt Disney World, “It’s not so close that you can’t run a business meeting.”
Yet theme-park proximity has advantages. “You don’t need to worry about planning evening activities” McCaffrey says. “They’re right there waiting for attendees to explore.”
At a recent Promotions & Profits Retreat at another Lake Buena Vista hotel, Holiday Inn Orlando-Disney Springs Area, attendees gathered for a BalloonCoach.com event. “Our attendees and staff were delighted that the Holiday Inn is in walking distance to Disney Springs’ main hub of activity for shopping, meals and entertainment in the evening after a busy day in classes,” says Joette Giardina, owner of BalloonCoach.com and marketing director at PartyPeopleEvents.com. Other positives are easy access to a 24-hour grocery store, fast food and sit-down dining outside of that area, and Giardina notes that her staff was “easily able to go out for dinners off-property for small meetings.”
The group had lunch at the Holiday Inn daily as well as dinner the final night. “Every meal was presented well and tasted amazing,” Giardina says. “I got rave reviews from happy staff and attendees. It’s great,” she adds, “to have a reasonably priced hotel with delicious food, clean rooms, a relaxing pool and extremely friendly staff,” along with such easy access to all that the area offers.
In addition to the hotel providing flexible meeting space for the group, Giardina says the hotel staff is excellent. “The entire team was welcoming and informative on my original site visit, providing timely responses to all my requests,” she says. “And customer service during the event was excellent. Everything about the experience was top-notch and we’re looking forward to returning for our annual event.”
Attendees felt the same way. “My attendees appreciated they could do things budget friendly or spend all they wanted in the theme parks.”
Another choice for planners is the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, where a company in the medical meetings and education sector held its annual conference last year. This was the group’s third year there, and with the exception of 2021, the company is booked through 2026. Teresa Lovich, former event planner, says the conference outgrew its former location in Hollywood, Florida, and Orlando offers opportunity for expansion.
“There are many different opportunities to be creative and to grow without having to be stuck in a convention center,” she says. The company has “four tracks, breakouts, half a dozen receptions and a full-blown exhibit hall, so it needs space. Unless you go to Vegas, there isn’t really anywhere else that could house the programs.”
Plus, she adds, “There’s the quality of the lodging, the hotel itself and the fact there’s so much access to restaurants, shopping and nightlife. Attendees like to bring their families and they like everything the location has to offer.”
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin was one of five Orlando properties considered. The company “ … needed a lot of space but we also wanted to make sure we were taking over that entire space,” Lovich says. “When you have a medical meeting, it’s not feasible to have it bleed into somebody else’s conference. Ultimately, it was almost a 50/50 split between the Dolphin and another hotel, but what really played into the choice was opportunity for branding. The main source of income wasn’t registration, it was corporate support. The company does a lot of branding, and at the Dolphin you can literally brand that entire hotel; there are so many unique opportunities and that was a big plus.”
Starting over at a new hotel can be challenging, Lovich notes, because you have to explain how you do things. When it came to the group’s room coordinator, that wasn’t necessary. “We didn’t even have to tell her. She knew and ran with it.” In fact, Lovich calls the entire team “phenomenal.”
The company used “every inch of space” at the Dolphin, but what Lovich loved were the options for creativity. “You can get as creative as you want or go as simple as you want. The hotel team will help you with anything. As big as the property is, once you get there, it’s a very easy flow. And I like the opportunities with different restaurants on-site — you don’t have to go off-property if you don’t want to.”
Lovich says the only challenges had been with her own team due to the growth of the conference, but the Dolphin even helps with that. “The goal with this conference has always been to stay in a resort hotel setting and not take it to a convention center,” she says. “The Dolphin allows them to do that. That’s a great thing for planners to know. If you do get that big, you still have the opportunity to spill over to the Swan side, which is nice.”
Planners simply can’t go wrong with Orlando. There really is something for everyone. C&IT