Although some corporate planners would not consider theme parks as a first choice for hosting a meeting, event or incentive, others understand that today’s larger theme parks are like small cities, complete with hotels, shops, restaurants, parking and transportation options — even event planning services — making them the perfect choice, especially for corporate events where families are welcome.
The logic of using the parks for corporate events can be seen more clearly using Europe’s Euro Disney, the continent’s most-visited tourist attraction with 14.8 million visitors last year, as an example.
A significant number of these visitors are business travelers attending corporate events, as Euro Disney is the fifth-largest convention facility in France. The resort hosts around 850 corporate events each year with clients including Nestlé, Air France and McDonald’s, and they are not there just to have fun. Disneyland Paris, which includes Disneyland Park and movie-themed Walt Disney Studios, comprises seven onsite hotels, 55 restaurants, a 27-hole golf course, two convention centers, 95 meeting rooms and two special event spaces. That’s a total of 5,800 hotel rooms, and more than 207,000 sf of event space.
Euro Disney hosts major shows and conferences with average group sizes ranging from 500 to 1,000 guests, with the largest corporate events attracting up to 5,000 guests a day. Disneyland Paris’ conventions division caters to a large international clientele, which alone accounts for 20 percent of its revenue. What’s more, earlier this year, Disney announced a 2 billion euro multiyear expansion for Disneyland Paris that will begin a phased rollout in 2021.
In the U.S., Disney, along with several other large, corporate-run theme parks, are enjoying new revenue streams by using Euro Disney as the model for how a theme park can attract corporate clients by giving them what they need most: a safe, clean and friendly destination with all the amenities (and more) of a large well-run meetings resort or urban hotel.
Missy Schrupp, director of meetings, events and travel for the Minnesota-based International Dairy Queen Companies, was thrilled when her group of 2,400 participants used Anaheim’s Disneyland for their January 2018 final night, after-dinner party.
“We had a final night after-dinner party in the park, where we occupied Stage 17 and the Backlot area including the Hyperion Theatre in Disney California Adventure Park,” says Schrupp. Disney California Adventure Park is the second theme park at the Disneyland Resort, located adjacent to Disneyland. It opened in 2001 as Disney’s California Adventure. “We had many Disney characters in Stage 17 for our attendees (adults and children) to enjoy, including a country and western band in the Backlot area, which was great, and then as a finale we had Chicago perform in the Hyperion Theatre. In addition, the park provided desserts and beverages for our attendees, both adults and kids.”
One of the benefits for corporate planners using theme parks is that booking multiple hotels is often quite easy, providing conveniently located venues. “We used Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel,” says Schrupp. “It was all so convenient, and an easy way to keep track of our group for transfers to other attractions in the area. We offered optional sightseeing activities in the Orange County area, as well as a post trip to Huntington Beach for three nights. These were all optional activities to enhance our overall program.
“Our actual Expo included general sessions with the Disney Institute presenting on one of the days; breakout session; a large exhibit hall; a silent/live auction event with dinner for our charity; and the final-night dinner with the park party after. We used the Anaheim Convention Center for our exhibit hall, general session and breakouts.” Schrupp says that working with the Disney team in California was a major reason why the event was so successful.
“The Disney planners were very helpful in providing the resources we needed. The planners know their venues extremely well, so it makes the process easier and more efficient.”
— Missy Schrupp
“This was a first for us to use this park, but in past years we have done park parties at Walt Disney World Orlando. We feel that for some groups, a theme park is a great destination.” She continues, “The only concern I had, but ended up great, was that we usually use our own entertainment company when hiring big name entertainment, like the band Chicago,” Schrupp says. “But with some of the restrictions presented with a theme park party as we started this process, it made more sense to have Disney source the entertainment, and they did a great job for us.”
With flexible meeting and event space spanning over 180,000 sf, the Disneyland Resort has hotels, two theme parks and the Downtown Disney District, all within walking distance. They also arrange seasonal events, including New Orleans Square Mardi Gras and the Happy Lunar New Year multicultural tribute, as well as team building activities such as the “Walk in Walt’s Disneyland Footsteps.”
The Disneyland Hotel is the main venue for large conventions, meetings and milestone events with 136,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space, more than 970 guest rooms, including 71 suites, a 18,000-sf grand ballroom, a 28,968-sf exhibit hall, 52 breakout rooms, 3,000-sf Blue Sky suite ideal for board meetings and receptions, accommodating up to 40 guests, six dining venues and outdoor space for events of up to 4,000 attendees.
With three theme parks and the Universal CityWalk dining and entertainment complex, Universal Orlando Resort offers five onsite hotels — Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort — offering a total of 5,600 guest rooms. The Loews Meeting Complex — comprised of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which are connected by a bridge — offers groups and planners 295,000 sf of indoor meeting space and 97,000 sf of outdoor space.
The Loews hotels have separate meeting entrances, business centers, registration desks, ballrooms, banquet halls and private meeting planner offices at each property, and each is within walking distance of the resort’s theme parks and the Universal CityWalk dining and entertainment complex.
Julie Kinch, CTC, CIS, manager of global meetings, events and travel at Extreme Networks, organized the company’s four-day annual global conference and awards banquet at Universal Orlando in October 2017. Extreme Networks, which delivers software-driven networking solutions that help IT departments deliver stronger connections with customers, partners and vendors, has four North American headquarters, including Toronto. “Most of our group of 700 stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay property and used their wonderful conference spaces and other venues at that hotel,” says Kinch, “including our welcome dinner and general sessions, with a great CityWalk block party organized at the end of our stay. We also used the park’s nearby Hard Rock Hotel for some of the group.”
Although many corporate groups use theme park venues for their family-oriented events, the annual global conference for Extreme Networks is mostly kid-free, with only a few participants bringing family members with them.
“All the executives who attended the conference really enjoyed meeting within the theme park environment.”
— Julie Kinch
“It really gets old taking groups to the familiar city business hotels. They want to do things in their free time, whether it’s going out on their own for dinner and sightseeing in Orlando, or staying within the park and taking in the shows and the exciting atmosphere.
“Working with the Universal Orlando teams that were assigned to our group was fantastic,” she continues. “They knew exactly what to do as far as logistics, setting up the function spaces and dining arrangements wherever we went. The Portofino Bay property really exceeded our expectations. I was a little concerned that the hotel would be too leisure-focused, but it was really perfect for our large, corporate group. Our fall 2018, annual conference will be held in Prague this year, to give many of our European partners a closer destination, but we will be back at Universal Orlando and the Portofino Bay in 2019, based on the general consensus of the 2017 group following the event,” says Kinch.
In addition to the Loews Portofino Bay and Hard Rock Hotels, other Universal Orlando venues and activities included in the Extreme Networks event included The Groove, Munchie Station, Red Carpet, Stilt Walkers, after-hours theme park events, and lots of F&B functions.
New attractions at Universal Orlando include Volcano Bay, an all-new water theme park; Fast & Furious: Supercharged, a new high-octane experience ride; Universal’s Aventura Hotel (opening August 2018), a 600-room property offering the destination’s first ever rooftop bar; The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, a new full-service restaurant, bar and confectionery at Universal CityWalk, with a menu that includes steak, seafood, crepes, milkshakes, gourmet chocolates and one-of-kind desserts, all within a 19th century-themed, Steampunk-inspired dining establishment.
Available exclusively to planners who host meetings at Universal Orlando’s onsite hotels, Meeting Enhancements allow planners to create experiences that directly connect attendees to the meeting message. Universal Orlando characters can be used for meet and greets, meeting openers, speaker introductions, meeting interruptions, excitement builders, ice breakers and more.
The park welcomes corporate groups of 100 or more with special packages that include admission to Busch Gardens along with an all-you-care-to-eat lunch buffet featuring the park’s special barbecue specialties and a one-hour exclusive seating at Gwazi Pavilion.
Corporate groups can participate in team building experiences, and exclusive areas of the park are available. For larger groups, an entire park buyout with a minimum of 3,000 guests is very doable. These large corporate groups will have unlimited access to all the rides, experience up-close animal encounters, visit the games area and still have time to take in the gift shops within the park.
Catering options are available, including an hors d’oeuvres reception or private dining in one of the air-conditioned venues, such as Dragon Fire Grill or The Serengeti Overlook Restaurant, or dine-around certificates can be purchased for corporate guests to use at the restaurants throughout the park.
The Serengeti Overlook has great views of the Serengeti Plain, home to free-roaming African animals and is a great place for corporate events, meetings and evening parties for 50 to 250 guests. Serengeti Overlook’s outdoor patio is also a perfect place for a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres and drinks before heading inside for dinner.
The Dragon Fire Grill, located in the center of the park, is an excellent dining venue for evening functions of 300 to 700 guests. The fully equipped stage at Dragon Fire Grill allows for receptions, dinners and award ceremonies.
Another popular venue for corporate events is Adventure Island, with its sandy white beaches and Key West atmosphere, group events are relaxed and provide water-soaked excitement for all ages, with corporate groups of 500 to 4,000 accommodated.
“Groups enjoy more than 70 rides and attractions, award-winning live entertainment, games, a zoo and a water park at Hersheypark,” says Kristin Maneval, director of group sales for the park. “Hersheypark can host corporate picnic events for groups of 40 to 10,000. After hours, private events are also available to be customized to the corporate group’s needs.”
Meeting space is abundant at the official resorts of Hersheypark: Hershey Lodge offers 665 guest rooms and 100,000 sf of meeting and exhibit space, as well as teambuilding programs. Hotel Hershey has 276 guest rooms and 25,000 sf of meeting space. And Hershey Country Club features 10,672 sf of meeting space overlooking two of the club’s three golf courses, and the Picard Grand Pavilion.
A perfect venue for the family incentive in Orlando, or as a planned activity for meetings and conferences, there are many options to choose from when booking SeaWorld for corporate groups, including high-energy bands or djs, Island Trio, Jazz Band and caricature artists as part of the group experience.
Various areas within the park offer specialized activities. At Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin (300 to 1,200 attendees), guests are surrounded by the sights, sounds and encounters found in Antarctica, and participate in a one-of-a-kind ride and an incredible group adventure, combining close animal connections with state-of-the-art interactive ride technologies.
At the Discovery Cove (100 to 500 guests), a tropical atmosphere is complete with a paradise of rocky lagoons surrounded by lush landscaping, tropical reefs, winding rivers, a resort-style pool with waterfalls and white-sand beaches. Planners can create a private evening on the Laguna Grill patio and beach area with theme options that include a Caribbean night, luau or beach party. There is also the option of swimming with dolphins, rays and tropical fish and hand-feeding exotic birds in the free-flight aviary.
The Key West and Manta areas (up to 1,200 attendees) are great for private receptions and networking, and include Stingray Lagoon, Dolphin Cove, Manta and Manta Aquarium. In addition, the Sea Harbor Pavilions (100 to 1,800 guests) are four open-air pavilions around a spacious central courtyard, ideal for buffet style functions and receptions.
“In September, 2017, we had a corporate incentive with family members attending,” says Lisa Hurst, planning manager for meeting and event services at a multinational professional services network, headquartered in London. “Our events at SeaWorld Orlando were held for three Friday nights in a row, with 800 attendees the first and second nights, and 1,800 persons on the final night.
“The first two weeks we had our groups stay at Disney’s Grand Floridian property, with the last group staying at both Disney’s Grand Floridian and Loews Portofino Bay properties,” Hurst says. “The groups enjoyed the local Disney and Universal theme parks during their days in Orlando, and everyone had a fabulous evening together at a SeaWorld park buyout on their last night.
“The sales process for our multigroup, multinight event at SeaWorld was relatively easy, and once the contract was done an operations manager at the park was provided to ensure the program was executed flawlessly, which it was, and this was very important to us,” says Hurst. “This group, and others, have been to SeaWorld previously, and always enjoys the events there. The park’s event staff is very flexible, very organized, and willing to do whatever it take to ensure the guests experience is amazing.”
Hurst says that planners should remember to use their normal checklist before booking large groups for theme park events, including researching the function spaces provided by the various parks being considered and checking weather history in the destination, especially in Florida. “Make sure your space will be adequate for the group size. Make sure the space being offered is appropriate for the time of year — a water park is not always ideal during hurricane season,” says Hurst. “Be sure to review the contract with your operations/event manager with the venue, you do not want to miss any of the contracted details.”
In a world where colleagues of all levels are encouraged to socialize with one another and more CEOs are doing away with their stiff suits, theme parks provide the perfect playground for business events. Reminiscences of happy childhood experiences, roller coasters and fairground games can bring out the best in us. In fact, a day at a theme park can do so much more than just any average day out, so it’s a wonder the corporate world only recently started taking advantage of these unique spaces in their mission to impress and inspire. C&IT