Florida offers whatever you’re looking for in a warm-weather state: beaches, golf courses, small inns, mega resorts, historic towns and large cities where multiple cultures have melded to create one vibrant destination. The state has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to sports, entertainment, attractions and, yes, noteworthy cuisine. It’s no surprise that all of that and more make Florida a top destination for meetings. Here’s just a sampling of the state’s many meeting destinations to consider…
Miami is a perfect place to host attendees from Latin America and South America. With assistance from the Greater Miami CVB and Great Hotels of the World, Brian Sullivan, vice president of Gaming USA with Clarion Gaming Group, chose the historic Biltmore Miami-Coral Gables for the group’s annual spring event, Juegos Miami. In the fall, The Biltmore completed the final phase of a $35 million renovation with upgrades to the meeting, conference and banquet space throughout the hotel. “The Biltmore and Miami offer easy access and an environment that works for these attendees,” Sullivan says. “Airlift, nightlife, golf and more allow business activities in a relaxed setting.”
Excellent service is a must, he says. “Our attendance is the C level of the casino industry. This level of attendee understands hospitality and demands high-level service. The Biltmore understands this service level.” Case in point, several functions at the hotel, including breakfast, lunch and evening receptions, delivered exceptional service. “The patio setting, banquet staff and food are very important,” Sullivan adds, “and Biltmore keeps these important services at a high level.”
Networking sessions are the core activity of the event and what drives attendance. The Biltmore and its setting are an important part of what’s offered to participants. For this particular event, Sullivan says, it’s a challenge to move attendees from building to building so the resort’s function space was critical. It easily met their needs. Sullivan believes if planners personally check out The Biltmore, they’ll find it to be one of the best options in the area.
Paul Mandell, CEO and co-founder of the Consero Group LLC, has hosted more than 10 events at The Biltmore, including forums for the Corporate Legal Operations group, Procurement & Strategic Sourcing and Customer Experience. Forums take place in spring, fall and winter. “The Biltmore Miami-Coral Gables is an ideal destination for our events. We tend to assemble very senior executives from throughout the United States and international locations. As a result, the hotel’s proximity to a major international airport provides a strong incentive for us,” Mandell says. “Moreover, Florida’s weather enables plenty of opportunities to be outdoors, which is a significant plus for any event. As to the venue specifically, The Biltmore’s amenities and character make the experience truly unique for all participants, offering an appealing destination for everyone who joins.”
The events include a mix of elements, Mandell says, “from interactive sessions within the conference facilities to outdoor meals. All of the spaces provide a uniquely charming atmosphere, which adds to the experience of the event.” Mandell has been working with The Biltmore for so many years he says it’s hard to remember how his company first made the connection. What he does know is this: “The sales and banquet teams have played a key role in keeping us onboard, delivering top-quality service at every level.”
While there are more cost-effective venues, Mandell says, “The Biltmore offers great value for the price. While the physical elements are superb, it’s really the on-site staff that makes the difference. From the moment of arrival to the time of departure, the entire staff seems fully focused on making the event as great as it can be. This is the real difference.”
Like Sullivan, Mandell has only good things to say about the F&B. “The F&B at The Biltmore is consistently exceptional. I’ve never had a bad meal in any of my experiences there and the staff is always top-notch.” He advises planners considering the hotel to get to know the staff who will be working their event. “Be sure to provide as many details as possible to help the staff help you. By being fully clear about your needs, you give The Biltmore team the best shot at delivering precisely the experience you are seeking.” All in all, he says, “You cannot go wrong at The Biltmore.”
Karen Kingston, CMP, CME/H, associate director of meetings and conventions with E. Braun Medical Inc., chose Trump National Doral Miami for a February sales meeting after a site visit. The hotel recently constructed a 19,000-sf pavilion adjacent to the existing 24,000-sf ballroom, giving planners even more choices. “Miami offers easy access with good flights for our sales and home-office people, who are all over the U.S.,” she says. “And I liked the property and all its meeting space.”
The staff was a highlight. “Good staff is when they’re tasked with a question or problem and it is not their responsibility, but they take care of it anyway,” she says. “That’s the staff at Trump Doral. They also remembered what I liked in terms of coffee, beverages, etc., and always made sure I had what I liked. The staff was so kind and so friendly, which was noticed by all my attendees. It’s a rare event to find a hotel that has all that.”
Another highlight? Food and beverage. “F&B was outstanding and catering staff could not have been more helpful or gracious,” Kingston says. “Planners and attendees will have an outstanding experience, and it will be even better by a repeat.” Her advice to those considering the resort: “Trust that everything you planned will be carried out to the very best outcome. You’re in good hands and your program will be a complete success.”
Planners should also check out the Greater Miami CVB’s program, Miami Shines, launched in June to showcase the city with special offers and deals for planners, and others, through September 30.
Just south of Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood is home to Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, which revealed a $1.5 billion expansion last fall, including the first-ever Guitar Hotel. Additional enhancements include upgraded guest rooms and swim-up suites at the adjacent Oasis Tower and the Hard Rock Live entertainment venue, among others. If you haven’t seen the property in the past few months, you haven’t seen it.
Also in Hollywood, the new Margaritaville Beach Resort has eight bar and restaurant concepts offering everything from casual dining to upscale, to cater to travelers and local residents alike. They include JWB Prime Steak and Seafood, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Restaurant, LandShark Bar & Grill and the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar & Grill. Also, the 11,000-sf St. Somewhere Spa offers incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. The resort’s 23,000 sf of interior function space includes the 10,000-sf Compass Rose Ballroom. There is an additional 7,000 sf of outdoor event space on the 11th-floor terrace of the License to Chill Bar.
A real plus for many groups is that, during the winter months, weather in Palm Beach can deliver a nice break from the cold. That’s certainly true for Mike La Vita, CMP, manager of conferences and events for privately held Commonwealth Financial Network, based in Massachusetts. “Palm Beach is a great fit for this meeting due to the weather when we hold the meeting, which is in February. We ideally want someplace that is likely to be warm and that’s located in the United States, ” he says.
But the warm weather isn’t the only positive. He adds, “Palm Beach has good airlift, especially with the access of [Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International and Palm Beach International airports], and those airports are easy for attendees to navigate.”
The group met oceanside at The Breakers Palm Beach. They used the hotel’s function space and in-house A/V team. “The Breakers has a variety of great spaces to accommodate our business-meeting needs, as well as for evening functions,” La Vita says. “The A/V team did a great job managing our needs across the board.” One function was held at Echo, one of the resort’s restaurants serving up a mix of Asian cuisine. “We held a family-style communal meal at Echo to mix things up during the middle night of our program,” he says. “It was a full restaurant buyout for our guests, followed by an after-dinner lounge on the front lawn at the hotel.”
La Vita calls The Breakers’ F&B among the best he’s experienced in the industry around the world. “It’s not inexpensive, but the culinary team does an excellent job executing and offering a great variety of options.” As in many cases, the relationship built over time also has a positive impact on the meeting. “The Breakers has been a great partner of Commonwealth for years. The hotel overall is amazing. The location on the Atlantic Ocean is outstanding, the rooms are all luxurious and comfortable, and the service is over the top. We also love the hotel amenities, such as the Beach Club and golf course for additional networking opportunities. It’s definitely a treat for our guests to stay there, and the staff make you feel special.”
The hotel, he adds, “has departments that can help with every need. The old saying rings true here: You get what you pay for. It’s not a place for a meeting on a tight budget; but, if you want to wow your attendees and give them a treat, it is an amazing hotel experience.” In particular, La Vita points to conference service managers Randy Kerr and Kevin Johnson. “They’re outstanding to work with. They make sure no detail goes missed and flawlessly coordinate all of the internal departments to make the meetings and events a success. The hotel culinary team is also second to none.”
As for challenges, La Vita says there are none. “Having worked with The Breakers many times, I have to say there were no challenges. They are very accommodating and do everything they can to cater to your needs.” La Vita says he highly recommends the hotel “for high-level meetings and executives, and any event where you want a home-run experience. And,” he adds, “the more you can avoid peak times, the further you can stretch your budget. Although the heat in the summer can be tough, The Breakers is a fantastic location for attendees to visit during the winter months into early spring.”
Golfing groups should know that respected course architect Rees Jones completed a total renovation of the resort’s golf course about two years ago, and the opulent historic lobby was refreshed as well.
This prime convention city needs no introduction, but there’s always something new. Two new hotels are slated to open in 2020: JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa and Universal Orlando’s 2,050-room Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites. Hotels sporting a new look include Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, which announced continuation of a major renovation that already enhanced the lobby and the resort’s 248,000 sf of function space. By fall, all guest rooms and villas will be refreshed.
Dubbed the “Theme Park Capital of the World”, Orlando always has new entertainment venues and attractions popping up. Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando have new attractions opening this year. ICON Park on International Drive also has two new adrenaline-activating thrill rides.
Recently, Orlando announced a wide-ranging new medical concierge program for meeting and convention groups. The program, a collaboration between the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), Visit Orlando and Orlando Health, a local health care system, is aimed at reassuring those who organize and attend conventions in the city. Valid for meeting events through 2020, the program provides personalized medical services and resources to all meetings and convention groups at OCCC. Concierge services include customized medical planning guidance, direct access to personal protective equipment for attendees, medically certified communication materials, 24/7 virtual access to a physician via attendees’ personal devices, an on-site medical expert throughout the event and the availability of coronavirus testing.
The concierge program is a part of the larger enhanced health, safety and hygiene procedures across the destination at theme parks, attractions, hotels, restaurants and the airport. Among the hotel safety and cleanliness programs in place in the area are Hilton Worldwide’s Hilton CleanStay With Lysol Protection, Hyatt’s Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment, Loews Hotels & Co.’s Safety & Well-Being Protocols, Marriott International’s Commitment to Clean and Rosen Hotels & Resorts’ Rosen Total Commitment, a screening and testing plan of action.
The mix of upscale Gulf Coast city and lush natural habitats is reason enough to choose the Naples area, but add sweeping swaths of beach, inviting waters, coastal islands and the proximity of the vast Everglades and this area should be on every planner’s radar. Alisa Peters, CMP, CMM, senior global account manager at Maritz Global Events, also adds Naples’ “quaint, walkable downtown, which is great for business meetings, is quiet and intimate.”
In the beginning of the year, she brought a group from a software company to the Inn on Fifth downtown for a board meeting. They had recently completed a $5 million renovation to all their guest rooms and upgraded the rooftop pool area. One of the assets, she noted, is its location, saying, there are “lovely options for dinner and drinks that are walkable off-site,” in addition to on-site outdoor dining options, which she said were “perfect for a small group.”
She says that the Inn on Fifth was chosen not only for its casual yet business-focused location, but also its excellent reviews, great sense of privacy for a small board meeting and for its attentive service.” Peters calls the sales team “wonderful” and notes that the wireless and A/V in the meeting hall was excellent as well. “They offered a really competitive concession package,” she says. “The Inn on Fifth is a great boutique option,” adding, “Small groups will own the space and the hotel.”
Larger groups also have excellent options in Naples, including the Hilton Naples; The Ritz-Carlton Naples; La Playa Beach & Golf Resort; Naples Bay Resort & Marina; Naples Grande Beach Resort, which just wrapped up a $3 million renovation of its meeting and event space, and The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club.
On Marco Island, JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort offers more than 100,000 sf of oceanfront event space, a spa and 12 restaurants. They added a third tower for adults only following a $320 million renovation. The tower features a separate entrance, adults-only dining experience and more.
Marco Beach Ocean Resort and Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa are options as well. The latter had upgrades last year that included an additional 12,000 sf of enhanced meeting space. Another option is the new upscale Miss Naples, a custom-built 48-ft catamaran available for private events.
Ponte Vedra &
Nanci Gage, when working with Qfix, a medical device company, as a Strategic Meetings Manager, says St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra have a lot to offer. For their meeting at the beginning of the year, they picked the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club for their group. “Our national sales meeting was easy to plan and execute because Ponte Vedra and St. Augustine have so much to offer,” she explains. “We lucked out with an absolutely perfect week weather-wise, so we were able to take advantage of golf at both Ponte Vedra and TPC Sawgrass . . . and how many tour courses can the average person get on? We could walk around downtown St. Augustine safely in temperate weather and enjoy lunch outdoors beachfront along with the city’s Festival of Lights. And the beachfront and club restaurants at Ponte Vedra have a beachside fire.”
Gage says the group typically travels globally to attend big industry events in convention cities but, for this meeting, they wanted someplace less crowded and with easy transfers. “The first impression and last memory happen on travel days, so coming in and out of a smaller airport was a plus — so much easier,” she says. “In these times, I believe all of these selling points become even more important and valuable. This destination is a perfect fit for the ‘new normal’ and beyond.”
The local CVB, Gage notes, helped with the selection process and with promoting the destination to senior leadership, as well as with local tourism gift items and ideas. As for the hotel, Gage says, “We had a great rate for the level of property and rooms, as well as the perfect meeting space, all at an upscale beach resort. The service was amazing. Everyone really made us feel at home.” She calls their meeting room on the beachfront perfect. “As a medical device company, we didn’t need anything flashy or added décor, but the resort itself was the perfect background. I’d love to do another meeting in the conference space.”
Additionally, she says, the hotel was flexible with how the group wanted to set meals in the hotel’s dining outlets. “Food was great and, being a small group, they allowed us to use the hotel outlets for breakfast, even the grab-and-go, lunches and dinners. They were very accommodating and flexible, and I felt that the cost was very average. Based on their flexibility, it was easy to manage the budget.” The group made use of much of the resort. “We golfed as mentioned and had dinner at The Club at TPC Sawgrass in a private room on Taco Night. We let the guys explore St. Augustine on their own one night, which was a great ‘escape’ for them, and the history buff in the group really enjoyed the opportunity to do that. We also went to the Nona Blue grill at Ponte Vedra Beach for a team dinner, which was easy and delicious, and our executive team had a great meal at Aqua Grill. Both were top-notch and easy to get to.”
On another night, the group simply enjoyed the resort. “The guys just hung out on the patios between their buildings.” As for challenges, that was a non-issue. “At first we thought the lift and transfers might be burdensome, but when the trade-off is smaller, more accessible, safe and with no large groups it’s no trade-off at all.” Gage, who currently works for Proton Therapy Partners, a private equity firm in cancer treatment development and consulting services, as an advisor, advises groups to take advantage of all the area offers. “Mix it up and you can hit all the highlights. Don’t worry about time spent in transfers — seriously, miles equal minutes in this location. Explore St. Augustine as it’s a wonderful, walkable city. And take time to walk the wide, sandy, uncrowded beaches to take in a sunset.”
Two new hotels are expected to open in early 2021: the San Marco Renaissance Hotel in the city’s historic center and the Hyatt Place Hotel at Vilano Beach Town Center, both with meeting space.
These destinations are but a few of the possibilities. Delve into Florida’s potential destinations, and you’ll find more than enough areas to meet the needs of multiple meetings and attendees. C&IT