Landing on what he thought was an island beach on April 3, 1513, Ponce de Leon claimed “La Florida – The Flowering Land” for Spain. Historians dispute just where Ponce landed, some believing it was somewhere between St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach, and others finding evidence he first found terra firma on Melbourne beach south of Cape Canaveral. No matter the longitudinal landing spot, Florida celebrates its 500th birthday this spring with a year-long commemoration called Viva Florida 500.
St. Augustine, of course, lays its own claim to Ponce de Leon fame with historical favorites such as the 125-year-old Ponce de Leon Hotel, now home of Flagler College; Fountain of Youth Archeological Park; the Ponce de Leon Landing Re-enactment; and more. Visit Florida offers more information about statewide events at www.VivaFlorida.org.
Meeting planners have a long tradition claiming successful meetings from coast to coast across the state of Florida, and those who want to incorporate a little Viva Florida into their meetings might choose St. Augustine and the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, Convention Center and Beach Club (301 guest rooms; 101,000 sf of meeting space). The AAA Four Diamond resort provides a complimentary shuttle to and from historic St. Augustine, America’s oldest city founded in 1565 and named to National Geographic Traveler’s “World’s Top 20 Places to See” list last December. Attendees can visit America’s only existing 17th century fort Castillo de San Marcos; quaint St. George Street, Old Town Trolley Tour, Spanish Quarter, St. Augustine History Museum, The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse and more.
Renaissance World is next to the World Golf Hall of Fame, which together with the resort offers 101,000 sf of function space. La Terrazza is a recent addition to the resort’s outdoor event space, accommodating groups of up to 2,000 people and featuring advanced technology to rival an indoor ballroom. Groups now enjoy privileges at the exclusive Seranata Beach Club overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, an easy complimentary shuttle ride away.
On Amelia Island, just outside of the city of Jacksonville, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort has embarked on an $85 million makeover scheduled to be completed this spring. The conference center will gain 30,000 sf — inclusive of a 16,800-sf ballroom and new prefunction and exhibit area — for a total of 80,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space. The addition of 155 new guest rooms including 26 suites will bring its guest room total to 404 oceanfront rooms. Directly off the hotel lobby, the new outdoor area will offer the largest pool deck in Northeast Florida with tiered lounge seating. The resort also will feature floor-to-ceiling windows with Atlantic Ocean views and additional restaurants.
Just south of Jacksonville in Ponte Vedra Beach is the famed Ponte Vedra Inn & Club (250 guest rooms; 25,000 sf meeting space) built in 1928 and joined by the Lodge & Club in 1989. The AAA Five Diamond property’s amenities include the largest spa in north Florida at 30,000 sf, 36 holes of golf, including links-style with ocean breezes, 15 tennis courts, an oceanfront gym, four restaurants, three lounges, eight shops and boutiques, and four heated pools in a beachfront setting.
Michael Pelehach, president of Shuster Corporation in New Bedford, MA, used two words to sum up one of the top reasons he likes to meet in Florida. “Easy access,” he says. “From almost anywhere in the country you can get into Tampa or Miami without having to do a lot of bouncing around.”
Pelehach’s most recent Florida meeting experience was an April sales conference that he planned at Saddlebrook Resort (540 accommodations including hotel rooms and one- and two-bedroom suites; 95,000 sf of meeting space) while he was with his previous employer. His 65 attendees came from throughout the U.S. as well as from as far away as England. He came across Saddlebrook while doing a Web search and decided to give them a call. “The first person they put me in contact with was (senior sales manager) Mark Marker. His approach and tone were very welcoming, very warm, very open. There was no pressure at all on anything.”
Pelehach was initially concerned about how far the resort was from the airport (about a 30-minute drive, he says). “But Mark assured me that they could help us out with transportation. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere, because sales guys, of course, like to stay up late when they’re at a sales meeting and head into town. I wanted to have a more controlled atmosphere. The resort had everything that we needed. It was remote so guys couldn’t jump into a car and go to the bars or anything like that, and it worked out very well.”
Saddlebrook’s room setup was also a major factor in Pelehach’s decision. “What we try to do to save money is put guys in the same room,” he explains. “You can’t really do that at a lot of these other resorts because you’ve just got a hotel room. In the case of Saddlebrook, we had two-bedroom units. They’re almost like a condo where each person had their own bathroom and bedroom so they had their privacy, and then the living room and the balcony were the shared spaces. Nobody had a problem with it. We were able to do it as economically as possible.”
The resort also worked well for all of Pelehach’s meeting needs. “We had some guest speakers come in. Saddlebrook had the flexibility to be able to set up for all of the different events that we were having, whether it was dinner poolside or guests coming in and utilizing the conference room. The setups were done very well. They were done very quickly and efficiently. All of that made for a very, very good meeting.”
Pelehach also liked Saddlebrook’s recreational amenities. The resort is home to two Arnold Palmer-designed golf courses and the Saddlebrook Golf Academy headed by Steve Bann and Dale Lynch. “We had a golf outing and the golf course was fantastic,” he says. “The staff at the golf course was terrific. They were very helpful, very accommodating. We had a couple of guys play tennis. The tennis facility is outstanding there.” The resort has a total of 45 tennis courts along with an extensive tennis program, which also makes it a tennis fanatic’s dream.
His group also enjoyed the food. “When people leave a sales conference and they go back home, the family doesn’t usually say, ‘How was the sales conference? How were the presentations?’ They say, ‘How was the food?’ Saddlebrook prides themselves in their food. They’ve got their own bakery. They’ve got their own butcher shop. They have the flexibility and ability to do pretty much whatever we wanted to do. Sometimes it was cooked right in front of you. We had a cookout where you went up and said, ‘I’ll take that steak’ and they’d grill it for you. The food was fantastic. I really think that’s one of the differentiators between Saddlebrook and a lot of the other places.”
On the Gulf along the Paradise Coast is the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club (317 guest rooms; 34,000 sf of meeting space), the only beachfront resort in Southwest to claim an onsite golf course. Originally built in 1927, the 18-hole championship course was enhanced and refurbished in 2011. HB’s on the Gulf is the city of Naples’ only beachfront restaurant and a popular draw for sunset-watchers. Another “only” claim to fame comes with the resort’s most recent renovation, just completed last month, which included the opening of Naples’ only Gulf-view, beachfront ballroom, the 5,000-sf Everglades Room, featuring a wall of windows. This latest project marks the completion of a three-year makeover of all guest rooms as well as the complete renovation of the resort’s Gulf-side meeting rooms and prefunction space. Upgrades over the last five years included the expansion of the Sunset Beach Bar & Grill and beachfront pool complex. The resort, family owned and operated for three generations, is nearby the tony 5th Avenue shopping and dining district.
For Ron Black, director of human resources for Southern Pipe & Supply headquartered in Meridian, MS, the theme for his Florida meetings might as well be “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” His company has been hosting three recognition events at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa (598 guest rooms; more than 32,000 sf of meeting space), located in Florida’s Panhandle, an average of once every three years for the past 25 years.
“The primary events that we hold there are our recognition events for our top managers, top salespeople and top customers,” Black explains. “It’s a phenomenal location physically, and they do a good job. Needless to say, we would not return as much as we do regardless of how beautiful the beach and the grounds are if the people weren’t high quality and didn’t deliver a great experience for me as the planner, and, more importantly, for our guests attending.
“I think without question, the No. 1 thing about the resort is that it is directly on the beach,” he continues. “There’s a large section of beach. There is a resort area called Sandestin, so the Hilton is a resort within a resort. It is the only property of its type, literally from Pensacola to Panama City, that is directly on the beach, right on the Gulf.
Black’s three recognition events, which are typically attended by anywhere from 60–85 couples, include the Chairman’s Weekend for customer appreciation, the Champion’s Club for store managers and the President’s Club for the company’s sales team.
“Our events are strictly all fun,” he notes. “We believe in giving people a lot of free time. Typically, for our events down there we offer deep sea fishing trips, we offer golf. Within the Sandestin resort they have 72 holes of golf. You can walk out of the Hilton and practically be on the golf course, and they are great golf courses. We also offer visits to the spa, and sailing has really become popular over the last several visits.”
Black also puts a unique twist on the traditional hospitality suite. “They give us a part of the pool area that we rope off and call it Club Southern Pipe. Every afternoon that we’re there, from noon to five, they give us this area. We’ll put live entertainment out there, a guitar player doing Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, that type of music, and our people just kind of come and go. We have dedicated servers. At all of these events, everything is carte blanche. They can charge anything to eat, drink — anything they do at the resort — to their room and we take care of it.”
He explained that the Hilton’s main bar and restaurant, Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill, has been totally rebuilt after being destroyed by a fire about two years ago. “The fire at Barefoot’s offered them the opportunity to literally come back and redesign it. It’s 100 times better than it used to be. It’s now this massive open-air bar and restaurant with seating inside and tons of seating outside. It’s a great place.”
Black continues to tweak his programs. “We try to change things up, but at the same time we keep the constant things that we know people enjoy doing. We do take events to the beach at times. The resort does a great job of doing dinners on the beach. We’ve also taken folks down to the beach for a bonfire and to roast marshmallows and do s’mores. Instead of doing Club Southern Pipe up at the pool, we’ve done it on the beach and made it a sports theme with volleyball and races in the sand and sandcastle building competitions. They have a great recreation staff that’s got more ideas than you can possibly use.”
When guests want to enjoy some nightlife, Black explained that they can head to an entertainment district within the Sandestin resort area called Baytown Wharf. “If you’re staying at the Hilton, there’s a Sandestin shuttle that picks you up at the door of the Hilton and takes you to Baytown Wharf and brings you back. They’ll also take you to the golf courses.” He added that the hotel provides shuttle service to another popular attraction, the nearby Silver Sands Outlet Mall.
“We’re trying to give them the highest quality trip that we can give them. Once you set foot on the property, we pay for everything. You could eat and drink yourself into oblivion,” he laughs.
The Hilton Sandestin is completing a $5 million winter renovation project, which includes a redesign of its 32,000 sf of meeting space, a facelift of its signature AAA Four Diamond restaurant, Seagar’s Prime Steak and Seafood; and a completely redesigned Kids Krew children’s program area.
Ron Black summed up another advantage of holding his recognition events at the beachfront Hilton Sandestin. “You can get the best of both worlds. You can go there and have a very laidback weekend or you can leave there more tired than when you got there. It depends on what you’re trying to do.”
Every five years, Southern Pipe takes its three recognition programs to Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (867 guest rooms; 40,000 sf of meeting space), the flagship resort at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, and children are included. “The only exception (compared to the company’s other programs) is that when we go to Disney World, we cannot afford to give everyone carte blanche charging privileges. We look at average costs per person that we spend at these other places, and we give people a Disney gift card that potentially has a value from $1,000 to $1,500,” he states, explaining that guests can then use the gift card to cover the cost of parking tickets, dining and other activities.
Walt Disney World Resort recently introduced several new entertainment options for private group events. The new Test Track Presented by Chevrolet combines the themes of innovation, performance and creativity into an activity where attendees create their own virtual car concepts then board “SimCar” ride vehicles to race through a series of performance tests. Another new option is the Splitsville Luxury Lanes located in Downtown Disney that opened in December. The upscale, retro-style boutique bowling venue offers more than 50,000 sf of entertainment space on two floors and includes 30 bowling lanes, billiards, live entertainment and upscale dining.
December marked the opening of the Storybook Forest and Enchanted Forest — the first phase of Disney’s new Fantasyland expansion project. The expansion — the largest in the 41-year history of the Magic Kingdom — will open in phases through 2014. Its new attractions, dining and shopping venues are set among waterfalls, grottoes, bridges, forests and circus big tops.
Universal Orlando Resort posted a banner year in 2012 with the debut of several new adventures and attractions. For example, last June, Universal Studios debuted Universal’s Superstar Parade, a daily affair with extravagant floats and hundreds of street performers; and Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories, which brings to life some of Universal’s most iconic films on huge waterfall screens, with visual and audio special effects and pyrotechnics.
Other new additions: “Despicable Me Minion Mayhem” is a 3-D experience at Universal Studios that incorporates characters from the hit film of the same name. “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” at Islands of Adventure now features a state-of-the-art 3-D projection system, new music score and Spider-Vision glasses.
Universal CityWalk recently rolled out Hollywood Drive-In Golf, two 18-hole miniature golf courses based on classic drive-in era horror and sci-fi movies; and a revamped show from Blue Man Group, which now features a new show environment, musical score and interactive technology.
What really generates enthusiasm, however, is Universal’s wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the Islands of Adventure. Groups can book specialized, catered experiences and entertainment at locations such as Hogsmeade, Hogwarts castle and Three Broomsticks tavern.
The three onsite Loews hotels are updating their offerings: Renovations to the meeting space and ballrooms at Loews Royal Pacific (1,000 guest rooms; 85,000 sf of meeting space) and Hard Rock Hotel (650 guest rooms; 6,000 sf of meeting space) were completed last September; and guest room renovations at Loews Royal Pacific will be completed in stages, with the first half scheduled for a 2014 completion and the rest in 2015. Hard Rock also will update its guest rooms at a future date. Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (750 guest rooms;. 42,000 sf of meeting space) finished renovations to all guest rooms last month, with some Kids Suites to be updated by this spring. Construction of the new, more moderately priced, family-friendly 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort will be completed in 2014.
For an overall meetings perspective of Orlando, Visit Orlando recently relaunched its meetings website (www.orlandomeeting.com) with the latest news on venues and attractions, plus accommodation listings, planning tools, online RFP submission forms and more. There’s also a link to Visit Orlando’s Twitter feed for industry updates and announcements.
More Orlando resort news of interest to groups:
Rosen Hotels and Resorts has renovation news to report for all three of their convention hotels, including the introduction of free wired and wireless Internet in all guest rooms and public areas. Rosen Centre Hotel (1,334 guest rooms; 124,000 sf of meeting space) recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of all guest rooms as well as the presidential and hospitality suites. Rosen Plaza Hotel (800 guest rooms; 60,000 sf of meeting space) recently completed a floor-to-ceiling renovation of all guest rooms as well as hallways and hospitality suites. Rosen Shingle Creek (1,500 guest rooms; 445,000 sf of meeting space) recently enhanced its 50,000 sf of outdoor meeting space with an additional 16,000 sf. There’s also a 40,000-sf outdoor event lot to take advantage of Florida’s great weather. Rosen Shingle Creek last year opened Banrai Sushi and Tobias’ Flats & Watering Hole. Later this year Mi Casa Tequila Taqueria will open, the resort’s 15th dining/lounging option.
The Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate just last month debuted the new 55,000-sf Osceola County Conference Center, which includes a 28,000-sf ballroom, open prefunction area and event lawn. With this new addition, the 720-room resort now offers more than 128,000 sf of indoor meeting space, including two ballrooms and 46 meeting rooms, and an additional 52,000 sf of outdoor event space.
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek (400 guest rooms; more than 25,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting/event space), which opened in 2011, is offering several creative group activities to enhance teamwork and communications. For the “Krush!” activity, attendees are divided into teams that compete to create the perfect wine blend along with a name and logo for their new vintage. Wyndham Grand also can arrange an Iron Chef-style competition called the “Texas BBQ Brisket Challenge” as well as “Mixology 101” where groups of 40 or fewer compete to create a signature cocktail for their event.
Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center (1,406 guest rooms; 400,000 sf of meeting space) unveiled a $50 million renovation last spring that included upgraded guest rooms, networking venues and executive meeting spaces. New are the 10,000-sf Coquina Lawn for hosting outdoor events, the Cypress Springs Family Fun Water Park, Wreckers Sports Bar and adults-only South Beach Pool.
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel (2,265 guest rooms; 329,000 sf of meeting space) rivals the Gaylord Palms for its ability to host supersized meetings. Meeting space includes 110,500 sf of contiguous convention/exhibit space and four ballrooms. Groups also have the option to use the expert services of Disney Event Productions.
The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek (1,000 guest rooms; 122,000 sf of meeting space) borders Walt Disney World Resort and shares the adjacent Waldorf Astoria Orlando’s golf club and Guerlain spa.
A gem in Daytona Beach Shores is the luxury oceanfront Shores Resort & Spa (212 guest rooms; 20,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting/event space) the only AAA Four Diamond oceanfront resort in Central Florida. Meeting space encompasses oceanside executive boardrooms, a private beachfront terrace, grand ballroom and sky-level meeting space with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. Highlights for groups can include oceanside fire pits, the boutique Indulge Spa, surfing lessons, fitness-led beach walks and more. The Shores is now offering free round-trip transfers to the Daytona Beach Ocean Center convention facility just a short drive away.
Jeff Nelke, vice president and general manager of Access Destination Services in Hollywood, FL, shared one idea that some of his clients have embraced during the past year. “We’ve seen some of our corporate clients taking advantage of doing evening activities to replace what were traditionally dine-arounds,” he explains. “They’re able to share in the bonding experience and collaboration, since spending time together is a goal of a lot of these meetings, particularly with mergers and acquisitions and things of that nature.”
He shared an example. “We do a Cuban heritage tour where we turn it into ‘Havana Nights’ where we’ve done dinner as a chance to get a little bit of the history, then salsa dancing at a fun club that I don’t think a lot of people would have visited on their own. We’re trying to create some unique experiences that way. We’re still dining at a restaurant, mainly just for budget purposes, and this creates the idea of doing an offsite event on a dine-around budget. It’s certainly something that was different and well-received.”
He also noted a change in booking windows that he has seen recently. “We have definitely seen a pickup in activity, and planning is becoming more paramount. Over the last two years, it’s been easier to get the things that you want in terms of availability, and we’re starting to see things book up much quicker. We’re starting to (say), “You’re coming in January, February or March? Great! Is that 2014 or ’15?’ Whereas in the past, you were able to go two to three months out and find availability for the venues and things that you would like. We definitely see that as a trend. Before, it was easier for meeting planners to pull that rabbit out of their hat at the last minute because of availability. It’s going to require a little more planning as we go into the 2013-’14 season. You just can’t wait as long if you know what you want.”
When asked which offsite venues are the most popular in South Florida, Nelke replies, “We’ve seen the use of a lot of our Miami Beach nightclubs, particularly Mansion, Opium and Bamboo here on the beach. They are great facilities if you need to take advantage of some audio-visual production because it’s built in and the nightclub scene doesn’t really get going until 11 o’clock or midnight, so we’re able to use the facility. Our corporate dinners would usually be from 7 to 10 or 7 to 11. It’s a great way to take advantage of high-end audio-visual production for entertainment, let’s say for an evening gala. To bring that into your hotel can be expensive, where this would be incorporated into your rental fee because it already exists, and many of those clubs are old theaters that are converted into nightclubs.
“They run the trend,” he continues. “Some are popular one year and out of business the next, so you have to make sure you’re working with good planners. As far as the facilities, you get a little bit of the vibe of the Miami Beach nightlife. When people come to South Florida, they think about the water, and the cosmopolitan culture, at least in South Beach. As you move up to Palm Beach, you have the rich history of the Flaglers, the Rockefellers, and the Kennedys, what they brought to the area. There are also the indigenous things like our Everglades, things of that nature. So (booking a nightclub) touches on one of those major experiences.”
Nelke discussed why it’s important to strike a balance between planning events at the host hotel and going offsite. “We always feel that part of signing a good hotel contract is keeping them involved in the hotel for a couple of nights to help maximize room rates. But the last thing you want to do is spend every waking moment in the hotel. This is a great way to see the destination, as well, for the evening events.”
One of the most significant developments in Miami’s meetings scene is Trump Hotel Collection’s purchase of the iconic Doral Golf Resort & Spa (700 guest rooms; 86,000 sf of meeting space) last summer. Through the fall of 2013, Trump will be investing more than $200 million in a property-wide renovation that covers the resort’s guest rooms, and all four golf courses including the legendary Blue Monster course. The resort will remain open during the renovation.
PGA National Resort & Spa (379 guest rooms; 40,000 sf of meeting space) in Palm Beach Gardens just north of West Palm Beach recently completed a comprehensive $100 million revitalization project. All guest rooms have received a complete makeover, and guest room corridors have also been refreshed with new carpeting, lighting, wall coverings and artwork. The Lakeside Lawn, which overlooks a lake and the resort’s golf courses, has been established as a permanent special event venue, and the Palm Terrace restaurant is now available as a poolside venue for evening events. In addition, Tom Fazio II has remodeled The Haig — PGA National’s original 18-hole course that was designed by his uncles. The resort’s 19th hole bar and grill, Bar 91, has also been completely renovated.
In Hollywood, FL, near Fort Lauderdale is The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (481 guest rooms; 40,000 sf of meeting space), a rare gaming opportunity for groups visiting the Sunshine State. The property completed a $7.8 million renovation of its guest rooms last year. Despite the laidback Florida environs, there is a certain Las Vegas-like energy at this resort, generated by 18 restaurants and lounges, the Body Rock Spa, 23 boutique shops, 13 nightclubs, the 400-seat Paradise Live theater and the 5,500-seat Hard Rock Live concert arena. The AAA Four Diamond resort is Green Lodging Certified by the state of Florida.
One of Florida’s most prized enclaves is the private, exclusive Ocean Reef Club (guest accommodations include 175 inn rooms, 100 spacious one-, two- and three-bedroom villas, and private homes; 30,000 sf of meeting space), located in Key Largo, in the Upper Keys about an hour south of Miami International Airport.
For 60 years, Ocean Reef Club has been a personal hideaway for titans of industry and other wealthy Americans who largely kept it a well-protected secret. Because of its VIP membership, privacy is paramount and security is suited to the world leaders who have vacationed or attended conferences there.
The complex, situated on 2,500 tropical acres, is a self-contained, member-owned property that features more than a dozen restaurants, a 175-slip marina, a private airport, 54 holes of golf, a shopping village, tennis courts, salt water lagoon, beach, pools, Jacuzzi and more. Charters for flats and deep-sea fishing as well as snorkeling and scuba diving at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park are popular one-of-a-kind adventures. Group activities also can include chartered yacht dinners, beachside events, eco-tours, and teambuilding programs such as cooking school, golf cart scavenger hunts, cardboard boat regattas and beach olympics to name a few. There also are plenty of options for events with a tropical backdrop, including the waterfront outdoor event venue Buccaneer Island.
The 8,000-sf Spa at Ocean Reef just completed its own multimillion-dollar makeover in December. The renovation has added 10 individual massage and treatment rooms, plus a VIP couples suite. The new suite includes two treatment tables and an outdoor terrace with whirlpool and dining area. C&IT