Over the past decade, Orlando has sustained a dedicated, well coordinated effort to extend its brand image beyond the theme park capital of the U.S. and become the country’s top-dog meeting destination, too. The official recognition of that achievement came not long ago when Cvent named Orlando the No. 1 destination in America for meetings and conventions.
That lofty distinction does not come as much of a surprise to any planner familiar with Orlando’s unique combination of airlift, hotel product, offsite venues and activities — all powerfully accentuated by service that is good as a planner can find anywhere.
“One of the things that really sets Orlando apart is the amount of options you have as a planner,” says Jason Johnson, managing director of the local office of leading site selection company HelmsBriscoe. “For example, there is the availability of so many different kinds of hotels and venues. Orlando has really evolved over the last five years or so. Before that, a lot of planners thought that it was just a family destination and associated it with Disney and the other theme parks. Now those same planners understand that it’s a great meeting destination that has something to offer for any kind of meeting or incentive program.”
Today, Johnson says, Orlando is universally perceived as a very sophisticated meeting destination that can rival any on Earth. “The city,” he says, “has really done a great job of getting that message out and educating planners about all the things that Orlando has to offer.”
Amy Tynan, national sales manager at destination management company AlliedPRA Orlando, notes that in addition to its stellar reputation for infrastructure, Orlando also is now widely known for the bottom-line value it delivers. “Orlando is affordable,” she says. “Meeting planners know now that they can get a lot of bang for their buck in Orlando.”
Another key factor in the ever-growing popularity of Orlando is its status as the No. 1 family vacation destination in the world. “Because of that, it’s also a destination where a lot of attendees want to bring their spouses and children,” Tynan says. “Over the last few years, we have seen a definite trend to more meetings being opened up to families, so that also has been an important factor in the success of Orlando, because more and more organizations are finding out that when you include families, you get better attendance.”
Meagan Alexander, member education and special events manager at Fort Wayne, IN-based hardware and lumberyard co-op Do it Best Corp., discovered that benefit in January 2012 when she hosted her first meeting in Orlando — a four-day, three-night conference at the Swan and Dolphin Hotel for 400 owners of hardware stores and lumberyards.
“Orlando was a great venue for that particular event, because many attendees choose to also make a vacation out of it and bring their families,” Alexander says. “And Orlando is obviously a very family- and kid-friendly place. And with the meeting last year, we saw more of that than we have in other destinations, so that helped increase our attendance.”
A foundational pillar of Orlando’s drive toward meeting destination supremacy has been a ferocious commitment to service.
“The hospitality and guest care you get in Orlando as a planner, and the extent to which everyone is very willing to work with you on every detail of your meeting to make it successful, are second to none when it comes to destinations,” says Sherri Davis, senior events manager at New York-based business software and support services provider Wolters Kluwer, which hosted a 2011 meeting for 800 attendees at the 584-room JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes. “No matter who you’re working with, whether it’s Disney or Universal or the convention center or any one of the major meeting hotels, they all have a super-strong customer focus. And that helps make my job as a planner a lot easier.”
Johnson notes that the level of service commitment in Orlando clearly distinguishes it from many other major meeting destinations. “The people in Orlando who are in the hospitality industry are in it by choice,” he says. “They’re in it by design, because it’s what they really want to be doing. In a lot of other destinations, it’s just a job. Or it’s considered a stepping stone to what a person really wants to do, like being an actor. And that difference really shows when it comes to the service you get.”
The result, Johnson says, is that Orlando consistently delivers the best service and support infrastructure of any destination in the U.S.
One thing in particular that sets Orlando apart is the services of The Disney Institute, which Do it Best Corp. used to deliver all of the content for their last two meetings. “They were great to work with,” Alexander says. “And one of the things they helped us do was to develop and execute a theme that was consistent throughout the entire program. And they created excellent sessions that got very high marks from our attendees. They did an excellent job, including providing the two facilitators that led our sessions. And that was another thing that gave us consistency throughout the meeting.”
The service and support from Visit Orlando consistently receives kudos from professional meeting planners. The CVB is developing a series of videos designed to educate professional meeting planners on Orlando’s key convention areas. The goal of the program is to give planners a virtual walk-through of the destination, in place of, or in addition to, a personal site visit. The first video showcases the connectivity and walkability of the area surrounding the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).
“Many planners simply don’t have the time or budget to make multiple visits to familiarize themselves with the nuts and bolts of hosting an event in Orlando,” said Tammi Runzler, Visit Orlando vice president of convention sales and services, in a statement. “These videos are for planners who have already been sold on the idea of meeting in Orlando and now need a next-level understanding of specific attributes of the area, including walkability, transportation logistics, the range and depth of available after-hours options — particularly dining and entertainment — and more.” In addition, Visit Orlando 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.
Two other factors in Orlando’s popularity are its formidable airlift — another result of its status as the world’s top family vacation destination — and Orlando International Airport.
“Airlift is one of the main things that we look at when we select a destination, because we have attendees coming in from all over the country,” Alexander says. “And we don’t want our attendees getting frustrated by how hard it is to get to the meeting.”
Davis agrees that airlift and the ease of navigating Orlando airport rank high on the list of things she likes best about the destination. “And it’s also a very convenient destination from a logistical point of view,” she says, “because all of the hotels are within 30 minutes of the airport. That saves me a lot of transfer time, and it also makes things easy for attendees.”
Add to that the value most planners find with fares from all over the U.S. and around the world, Johnson says, and airlift and the airport are often on the list of deciding factors when Orlando is selected for a meeting or convention.
Closely related to airlift is Orlando’s range of hotel product. There is literally something for every type and size of meeting, from low-budget to super high-end and everything in between, Johnson says.
Tynan corroborates that view. “And there are also resort properties, as well as business hotels,” she says. “And there are two distinct corridors. One is the International Drive corridor, where you have the major business hotels, like The Peabody Orlando and the new Hilton Orlando, both of which are just across the street from the convention center. Then you have the Downtown Disney district, where there are more resort hotels. And between those two choices, a planner can find a very good option at a good price.”
Once experienced, Orlando’s hotels generate high praise.
“My experience in working with the Swan and Dolphin was a great one,” Alexander says. “The accommodations and food and beverage were really top notch. And the service was excellent.”
Davis says that the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes was the best hotel she has ever used. “If I could use it for every event that I do, I would, because my life would be a piece of cake,” she says. “Physically, the hotel is fabulous. They have great meeting space. They have great sleeping rooms. It’s also a stand-alone resort that is self-contained and provides everything you need for a meeting. It’s luxurious, comfortable and well-priced. And their food and beverage and banquet teams are fantastic. And they are willing to work within various budgets, but still very original and creative, so you get a lot of value for your dollar.”
Davis singled out the property for creativity that matched its other benefits. “They come up with a lot of creative ideas that help keep your meetings interesting,” she says. “They don’t just say, ‘Let’s do another casino night or food stations and a bar.’ They really put in the effort to give you a lot of ideas, and then they execute those ideas very creatively. They really want to make your meeting special. They really appreciate your business, and that shows in everything they do, from their executive team down to the housekeepers.”
Although Orlando now offers almost 116,000 hotel rooms at 447 hotels — including 18 AAA Four Diamond and Forbes Travel Guide Four Star properties — the bar is constantly being raised by new entries.
The Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek (400 guest rooms; 25,000 sf of meeting space) made its highly-anticipated debut in February, overlooking its 10-acre lake and adjacent to the sprawling Walt Disney World complex.
In early 2014, Universal will open its newest property, the more moderately priced Cabana Bay Beach Resort (1,800 guest rooms) to be operated by Loews Hotels and Resorts, which will mimic classic beach resorts of the 1950s and 1960s and bring another unique offering to Universal’s local hotel inventory, which features a combined 250,000 sf of meeting and event space.
Walt Disney World will add two new hotels, the B Resort Lake Buena Vista (394 guest rooms; 20,000 sf of meeting space), opening later this year, and construction is set to begin in December on the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort (434 guest rooms; 37,000 sf of meeting space), which will be the largest Four Seasons resort in the world when it opens in 2014.
Downtown Disney will undergo a multiyear transformation and morph into Disney Springs by 2016. The destination will feature more than 150 establishments for shopping, dining and entertainment as well as new private-event options for groups. “Disney Springs will be a timeless, vibrant place where Walt Disney World guests and local residents can relax, shop, dine and be entertained in an imaginative setting where they’ll instantly feel at home,” said Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, in a statement.
Orlando also offers an astonishing array of offsite venues, from the hottest attractions at its theme parks, restaurants and unique attractions such as nearby Kennedy Space Center.
“About half of our clients do something offsite during the meeting,” Johnson says. “And one obvious reason for that is the number of options that a planner has in Orlando. Just like it’s true of hotels, it’s true that the city offers an offsite venue that is perfect for every taste, group size or budget.”
For her meetings in 2010 and 2011, Davis used Universal Orlando Resort, using buyouts after public hours to stage a New York block party that incorporated the Blues Brothers show and Mummy attraction, as well as the park’s famous arcade.
“We were able to bring our attendees in through a back entrance, we had a red carpet with our logo, and we were able to put up signage and make it look as if it was Universal Orlando at Wolters Kluwer,” says Davis, who is now planning a 2014 meeting for 1,400 attendees and is again planning to use Universal. “It was ‘ours,’ and it was spectacular. Our attendees felt like they were at home. And they made them feel very special, because this was something they could never do on their own.”
Alexander hosted a dinner at Atlantic Dance Hall, located within easy walking distance of the Swan and Dolphin Hotel, then shuttled her attendees off to see the Cirque du Soleil show at Downtown Disney.
She also used Disney’s Epcot for a dessert reception after the closing-night reception at the Swan and Dolphin. “Then we gave our attendees badges that allowed them to stay until the park closed at midnight,’ she says. “So that was another very nice evening that our attendees and their families really enjoyed.”
More venue and attraction news includes these updates:
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.
The highly anticipated Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin will open at SeaWorld Orlando on May 24, 2013. This first-of-its-kind adventure ride takes attendees on an exploration of a penguin colony, both above and below their cool world. Each car on the ride is a mobile simulator, with movements that allow guests to become one with the story line as they follow a young penguin’s adventures. For the first time in any theme park, this motion-based simulator ride will be completely trackless and guests will choose one of two levels of adventure with various levels of intensity, according to SeaWorld.
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.
More Orlando resort news of interest to groups:
Universal’s 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.
The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Orlando at SeaWorld (1,094 guest rooms; 60,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space) recently debuted a $35 million makeover. Located adjacent to SeaWorld, the hotel is minutes away from Orlando’s most popular attractions and only 10 minutes from Orlando International Airport. The hotel, which offers a complimentary shuttle service to popular theme parks, boasts three swimming pools, putting green, spa and more. As an official hotel of SeaWorld, registered guests of the DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld receive many exclusive benefits.
The Villas of Grand Cypress Resort (146 villas; 10,480 sf of meeting space) has spent the past four months transforming its 146 villas, the first phase of a multifaceted resort-wide renovation. The renovation showcases spacious new guest rooms that offer modern interiors featuring streamlined decor and natural materials. Outdoors, guests can enjoy expansive private patios or decks overlooking the fairways or waterways of the North Course. The Fitness Center offers state-of-the-art Life-Fitness Equipment featuring built-in home theaters, including treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical and multi-purpose strength machines.
Rosen Hotels and Resorts has renovation news to report for 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.
The Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate (720 guest rooms; 128,000 sf of meeting space) recently debuted the new 55,000-sf Osceola County Conference Center, which includes a 28,000-sf ballroom, open prefunction area and event lawn.
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek (400 guest rooms; more than 25,000 sf of indoor-outdoor meeting and 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.
Near the top of the activities list for many planners and enthusiastic attendees is golf. Orlando features 176 courses and 23 world-renowned golf academies.
Tynan points out that Orlando offers a number of meeting hotels that offer truly spectacular golf courses. Among them: Shingle Creek Golf Club at Rosen Shingle Creek; The Grand Cypress Golf Club at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, which features four uniquely challenging Jack Nicklaus Signature Design courses; Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, which features two championship 18-hole golf courses designed by Greg Norman and the David Leadbetter Golf Academy; and the legendary, intimate Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Resort, which hosts of one of the most prestigious events on the PGA Tour each March.
Of all the practical benefits Orlando has to offer, perhaps the most surprising is its sophisticated, world-class dining scene.
In terms of local geography, there are three basic options, Tynan explains — The Pointe Orlando, on International Drive near The Peabody Orlando and Hilton Orlando, Restaurant Row along Sand Lake Road and Downtown Disney.
“Each of those locations offers a variety of different restaurants that makes it possible to create a dine-around program that is convenient to your hotel,” Tynan says. “There are themed restaurants like B.B. King’s at The Pointe, which is casual and fun, and has great music. Every group I have taken there has had a fantastic time. But there are a number of other good options in The Pointe, too.”
Tynan also likes Bongo’s, located in Downtown Disney and co-owned by Gloria Estefan. “It provides Latin flair, which is a popular choice right now,” Tynan says. “And Bongo’s has a great band, which is personally produced by Gloria Estefan.”
Johnson agrees that Orlando’s dining scene is a major draw. “The city has really stepped up its game when it comes to the culinary scene,” he says. “And it’s not just about good restaurants in the hotels. It’s also about the many dining options in the different corridors of the city. Now planners also know that Orlando is a destination they can count on, not just for the quality of the food and beverage, but also the service and the value that you get.”
Taken together, all of the things that make Orlando special as a meeting destination can be largely linked back to a single and powerful influence: the local convention and visitors bureau known as Visit Orlando. Much of the credit for the organization’s phenomenal success can be attributed to its late president and CEO, Gary Sain, who died suddenly in May of last year.
Harris Rosen, president and COO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, recently announced that he will honor Sain’s singular contribution to Orlando by naming a new skybridge the Gary Sain Memorial Bridge, which will connect the Rosen Plaza Hotel to the Orange County Convention Center.
According to a statement, construction of the $1.5 million bridge will be entirely funded by Rosen Hotels & Resorts, completing the final link in connecting OCCC with adjacent International Drive hotels.
“I am honored to dedicate this project to my friend and colleague Gary Sain,” said Rosen. “It is entirely fitting that this pedestrian skybridge named in his honor will be used to benefit thousands of visitors to Orlando, a destination he worked tirelessly to build and strengthen during his time with us. Rest assured, Gary’s legacy continues here today.”
Although Davis never met Sain, she acknowledges how the leadership from him and others in recent years has made Orlando a treasured option for her.
“As a planner,” she says, “when I think of using Orlando and the JW Marriott and Universal, I sleep better at night, because I know they are always checking and double-checking everything they can do to make my attendees feel comfortable and achieve their goals. And in my opinion, in Orlando, they do that better than anyplace else.” C&IT