The Florida ExperienceJanuary 1, 2016

From Luxury Resorts to Old Florida Outposts By
January 1, 2016

The Florida Experience

From Luxury Resorts to Old Florida Outposts
High-end to high touch: Overlooking the Atlantic at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa on the island of Palm Beach; and communing with manatees in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, accessible through snorkel tours at Plantation on Crystal River. Credit: Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa  Credit: Plantation on Crystal River

High-end to high touch: Overlooking the Atlantic at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa on the island of Palm Beach; and communing with manatees in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, accessible through snorkel tours at Plantation on Crystal River. Credits: Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa/Plantation on Crystal River

Florida meets the needs of corporate and incentive planners with an appealing mix of sophisticated cities, coastal towns, white-sand beaches, marquee entertainment, theme parks, international culture, and expansive natural areas of lush vegetation and wildlife. Who, after all, doesn’t want to see alligators, dolphins and manatees by day and enjoy stellar restaurants and entertainment venues by night?

Here are diverse areas to consider, plus statewide news on hotels and cities.

Palm Beach County

A haven for the well-heeled for more than a century, Palm Beach County on the Atlantic Coast is an excellent choice for upscale incentive meetings and groups composed of C-suite executives. Elizabeth Loftus, business development manager for Luxury Trips, a team of private travel designers, brought just such a group — 27 participants in Vistage Florida’s annual retreat — to Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in October.

“Vistage Florida is an invitation-only group. All of the members are CEOs and business owners who have very busy schedules and limited time,” Loftus says. “They wanted to get out of Central Florida but only had three days. I needed a destination that was close enough to accommodate the time constraints but unique enough to give them a relaxing, memorable vacation.

“Palm Beach is a beautiful location. It is known for its award-winning hotels with pristine beaches and coastline, which was what we wanted for the retreat.”
— Elizabeth Loftus 

“Palm Beach is a beautiful location. It is known for its award-winning hotels with pristine beaches and coastline, which was what we wanted for the retreat. It’s only a three-hour drive from Central Florida, the ideal travel time for these busy executives.”

The group has previously stayed at The Breakers, one of the county’s classic resorts, but this year, Eau Palm attracted Loftus’ attention.

“I contacted several hotels in the area, but the Eau Palm stood out for many different reasons, especially given its recognition in Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler magazines,” she says. “The guests were looking for a luxury resort stay that would appeal to the adults as well as the children they were bringing along. It offered a secluded resort atmosphere but was close enough for the guests to experience other parts of West Palm if they desired.”

Because this was a retreat with a focus on annual planning, the group spent most of their time on-property. In addition to meetings, they also enjoyed “the all-immersive vacation aspect of Eau Palm.” Loftus notes that a meeting highlight was motivational speaker Gene Griessman, who shared insights on leadership.

The resort staff stood out as well. “Carrie Zimmerman was my executive meeting manager, and she was incredible! She was prompt, knowledgeable and willing to do whatever we needed to make sure the event was a success and the guests were well taken care of, including making sure that gifts and amenities were delivered appropriately.”

Loftus liked that the spacious meeting room was light-filled and overlooked the pool, and that the feel of the resort changed from day to evening. “During the day, the lobby portrayed a beautiful Palm Beach chic style, and at night purple up-lights created a sophisticated change in ambience. The resort’s strong attention to detail was impeccable.”

The group also stayed on-property for the majority of meals with great success. “Eau Palm put together the best menu and catered to the various requests of the group,” Loftus says. “Each location provided a refreshing new environment. When weather affected one dinner, they quickly moved it to an indoor location that was just as beautiful as the original outside venue. The room rental was waived as long as we met our food and beverage minimum. This played a large part in selecting the Eau because many of the other properties we considered were more expensive for meals and meetings.”

In the final analysis, Loftus says, “The Eau Palm made planning seamless.” She appreciated that the resort made hospitality rooms available to guests for the afternoon after checkout, and she liked the many outside venues available for evening functions — some with cozy fire pits — as well as the city nightlife nearby.

On the last evening, the group went off-property for dinner. “I researched several locations and finally settled on Café L’Europe in Palm Beach,” Loftus says, adding that the restaurant created a custom menu that was printed with the Vistage and Luxury Trips logos. “The food was spectacular,” she says, “and the private dining room was well-appointed — exactly what the members were looking for.”

More Palm Beach County News

Downtown West Palm soon will be transformed by the addition of the 12-story, 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach, scheduled to open January 27, 2016. The hotel, which is connected to the 350,000-sf Palm Beach County Convention Center by an enclosed walkway, will offer two ballrooms and eight conference rooms, as well as additional event space. It also will feature Manor, a 225-seat restaurant that will showcase the talents of renowned local chef Matthew Byrne of the acclaimed eatery Kitchen. The hotel will feature a lobby bar called Galley, a fitness center and a landscaped pool area with cabanas. The Hilton West Palm Beach is the final piece in the CityPlace master plan, which brought West Palm into a new age, offering a mix of more than 80 national stores, specialty shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. The Kravis Center for the Performing Arts is across the street, and nearby are the restaurants and nightlife of Clematis Street, the Intracoastal waterfront and the Norton Museum of Art.

In other news, Mandarin Oriental announced in November that Palm Beach County will get additional accommodations when the brand’s luxury hotel and residences open in Boca Raton in 2017. Stay tuned…


Miami, which announced a record-breaking increase in visitors from September 2014–August 2015, recently revealed details on Miami Beach Convention Center renovations, scheduled for completion in 2018. The center is being reimagined as a LEED-certified facility with more than 500,000 sf of exhibit space, a 60,000-sf ballroom and 81 new breakout rooms. The $615 million investment already has resulted in notable future bookings. The renovation includes an adjacent 800-room art deco-inspired hotel. The Miami area also will add an additional 2,300 hotel rooms in the next year, including the new East Miami Hotel, scheduled to open in winter 2016. Future projects also include All Aboard Florida, a $2.5 billion privately run passenger train connecting Miami and Orlando, scheduled to receive passengers in 2017.

Less than an hour’s drive south from Miami International Airport is Ocean Reef Club on 2,500 acres in Key Largo, the northernmost of the Florida Keys. Ocean Reef Club will unveil its long-awaited Carysfort Hall in February. The new space will be available to select groups for meetings, corporate retreats and conferences, plus teambuilding events, and cooking classes and demonstrations for up to 150 in the cooking school. The light-filled hall features a 5,607-sf ballroom, meeting rooms, breakout spaces and more, accommodating groups of 20 to 500.


Set in Central Florida, Orlando’s 450-plus hotels and resorts, multiple theme parks and convention center with more than 2.1 million sf put it among the world’s top meeting destinations, and it’s hard to imagine anywhere with a better handle on how to create that elusive “wow” factor.

At Walt Disney World, big changes are underway in the Disney Springs area, formerly Downtown Disney. While theming and branding have changed, the majority of the area’s hotels remain constant, including Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort, where Shawn Martin, corporate operations manager, brought 200 attendees for Boston-based HMR Weight Management Services Corp.’s annual initial training meeting. “We have been coming to this hotel for approximately 15 years,” he says. “When we first contracted with the property, it was due to the size of the meeting space, affordability of the sleeping rooms compared to other area hotels and proximity to restaurants within walking distance.

“After our initial meeting, it was clear that the staff was willing to go above and beyond what we require for our events. The first meeting was so successful that we have continued to contract with this hotel over the years and have always achieved the same result — perfection.”

Martin says the hotel easily meets the group’s needs as a primary venue. “This facility has plenty of meeting space relative to its size. It is more than capable of holding our general session with three concurrent breakout sessions — all within the same floor so that the meeting planning staff doesn’t have to run all over the property to manage the sessions.”

It’s the hotel staff, however, that stands out for Martin. “This property has extremely low staff turnover compared to other hotels. It’s great for us because we know exactly what to expect from them, and I’m always amazed at the little details the staff remembers about the event from year to year. That certainly makes my job easier, and they are all a pleasure to work with. There are never any surprises. You won’t find a better crew anywhere else in the area.”

The location is also a plus. All that Disney offers is close by but not so close that it’s distracting. “The great thing about this property,” Martin says, “is that it is just enough removed from the major theme parks that attendees can focus on the work at hand, but close enough for them to enjoy those venues during downtime. We have had a few events in the Downtown Disney area, and it’s perfect because the venues are all a short walk away.”

Martin notes that Orlando works well because of ease of flights in and out, and because it’s close to many of HMR’s Florida clinics. “It’s also a perfect spot to have fun and tack on vacation time when work is done,” he says. “Orlando, in my opinion, is a perfect meeting destination. The weather is warm, people are friendly, and there are a ton of venues to hold an event. As far as this particular venue and Walt Disney World, how can it not be fun and successful when you are hanging out with Mickey and friends?”

Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort wrapped up a $10 million renovation in November, giving guests two accommodation options: Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Disney Springs Resort Area and Wyndham Garden Lake Buena Vista Disney Springs Resort Area.

Another option here is Holiday Inn Orlando-Disney Springs, where 25 attendees gathered in October for the annual GE Meeting. Tracey Poole has only positive things to say about this hotel and staff.

“I spoke with Christine Burns,” says Poole, who is a sales support coordinator. “Her willingness and wonderful demeanor let me know that she was not just selling the hotel and its amenities, but she really had a passion and was very confident about the services she could provide. She worked out a great room rate for my group. The conference rooms were oversized, very clean and presentation was wonderful. The service was impeccable. I don’t believe Christine had to manage the staff; they were just as willing to accommodate as she was. I didn’t have to ask for anything as it was always there.”

Poole has no hesitation recommending this property to other planners. “As you know, hotels are used every day. They can take a beating and the staff takes a beating. Not this hotel. It is always and I mean always clean, the staff is always warm and personable, and the chef is amazing. The chef is so willing to come out and ask if you enjoyed your meal and if there is something else you need or want. I could not ask for better. The stations they set up at my meetings were wonderful, from homemade pancake batter to the omelet station with all fresh meats and veggies — amazing, just amazing service!

“It does not seem to be about the money or the amount you spend there,” she adds. “Rather, it’s a sincere warmth — you know they enjoy their jobs and enjoy seeing others enjoy themselves. They dot every i and cross every t, which allows you to worry about other things. It will be one of the easiest meetings, and it’s all attributed to a group of professional people who care about you.”

Having a meeting on Disney property also has its benefits. “When you have a meeting in Disney,” Poole says, “it’s nice that you’re able to work hard during the day and in the evening be so close to Disney Springs and all it offers. I was able to have the group walk out of the hotel to go to dinner. Convenience was key, and this made it very easy to get where we needed to go.”

The GE group booked functions at Planet Hollywood and at Raglan Road, both in the Disney Springs area. Poole says Raglan was nice but the service slow although they had made a reservation. Planet Hollywood was a favorite — in spite of an initial mistake by the venue. “We had placed a deposit, and when the bill was presented we overlooked that the deposit was not taken off. I received a call from the manager who apologized that they had overcharged us and refunded the deposit immediately. Honesty goes a long way, plus the service was fantastic for a large group.”

The success of any meeting often comes down to the people you work with, and Poole has high praise for Christine Burns and the Holiday Inn staff. “Call Christine,” she says. “She’s a planner’s dream. This staff makes your life wonderful and your meeting memorable. I feel like they are family and enjoy every time I have the opportunity to speak, work and engage with them!”

More Orlando News

The first-ever NBC Sports Grill & Brew opened at Universal Orlando Resort’s CityWalk in October with great fanfare and a slew of NBC sports commentators in attendance. The restaurant features private dining spaces, nearly 100 HD screens so guests can be immersed in the sports experience no matter where they sit, an expansive menu of the best game-day food and more than 100 beer selections including craft and regional brews and the restaurant’s own proprietary 862 Orlando, a draft you can find only here.

Universal Orlando Resort and Loews Hotels & Resorts is building the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. It will be the fifth onsite hotel at Universal Orlando Resort, featuring 1,000 rooms and suites with a casual Caribbean theme, built around a lagoon and towering waterfall. The resort is expected to open in the summer.

Also opening this summer is a new attraction at Universal’s Islands of Adventure: “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” which will honor one of the most monumental figures in movie history, King Kong.

This month, the 1,470-room Hilton Orlando will unveil 8,909 sf of meeting space in eight new meeting rooms adjacent to the 14,900-sf Florida Ballroom. Two of the rooms, providing 4,764 and 4,145 sf respectively, also will offer prefunction space, a registration desk and office. The hotel’s other two existing ballrooms offer 50,000 sf and 30,000 sf of space.

Located within the Walt Disney World Resort, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel recently redesigned every guest room in the 758-room Swan hotel, with the same effort planned for the 1,509-room Dolphin hotel. The Swan and Dolphin’s meeting and convention space is now equipped with the latest advancements in high-density Wi-Fi technology. The install, which was completed in October, will be the largest of its kind in Orlando.

The Swan and Dolphin property offers a huge variety of meeting options with more than 329,000 sf of combined meeting space. Some 84 meeting rooms include executive boardrooms and a number of ballroom configurations. One totals 55,000 sf divisible into 16 meeting rooms, and another 34,000 sf is divisible into 11 meeting rooms. Convention and exhibit space tops 110,000 sf, and 99,000 sf of outdoor space includes a number of terraces and courtyards. The hotel also offers some truly nontraditional event spaces. Dinners, receptions and other group events can be held in areas including banquet kitchens, back hallways and even a giant freezer. With the latter, up to 60 guests may enjoy unusual offerings such as a martini bar served on carved ice, or a raw bar and caviar also served on ice — all while outfitted in parkas provided by the hotel.

Daytona Beach

On Florida’s north-central Atlantic Coast, The Shores Resort and Spa in Daytona Beach Shores completed a property-wide renovation in 2014 encompassing the 212 guest rooms and 20,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space. Event facilities include a 6,800-sf grand ballroom that can be subdivided into five smaller meeting facilities ranging from 830 sf to 3,700 sf. Guests using this ground-level facility find themselves walking through the Daytona Beach Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame featuring plaques of famous faces in racing. Also available are boardrooms and smaller meeting rooms plus more than 8,000 sf of rooftop “cloud level” meeting facilities with floor-to-ceiling glass for outstanding views.

Daytona’s multifaceted Ocean Center convention center features 32 meeting rooms, an executive boardroom and VIP suite and 32,000 sf of total meeting space. A large ballroom offers divisible space, and the facility also includes a 94,000-sf exhibit hall and 42,000-sf arena that seats 9,300. Located 400 feet from the ocean, the center is flanked by a selection of shops and restaurants.

It just got easier to get to Daytona Beach. In January, JetBlue will begin daily nonstop service from New York’s JFK International Airport. Also new to Daytona is the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, opening in February with the most extensive collection of Florida art in the world.

Jacksonville Area

Downtown Jacksonville’s premier meeting hotel is the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront — the self-proclaimed largest convention hotel between Orlando and Atlanta. It offers 951 newly renovated guest rooms and more than 116,000 sf of function space, including 30 meeting rooms, most of which overlook the St. Johns River. Facilities include a 28,000-sf Grand Ballroom and more than 21,000 sf of outdoor riverfront decks, eight conference suites and space for small meetings. The hotel recently began offering “Recharge Your Meetings,” a new menu of healthful meeting breaks, which include yoga, stretch/planking breaks and Zumba instruction on the outdoor terraces on the riverfront; coordinated fitness instruction in the rooftop fitness center with panoramic city and river views; healthful F&B options, such as the chef’s smoothie bar, healthful snacks or energizing beverages.

Twenty-nine miles north of the Jacksonville airport is the oceanfront Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, which now boasts 80,000 sf of meeting space, including a new 16,825-sf ballroom. The spacious conference center houses more than 13,000 sf of prefunction space as well as an 11,000-sf event lawn. The 404 oceanfront guest rooms include 27 suites.

Twenty miles southeast of Jacksonville is the AAA Five Diamond Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a 300-acre resort in operation since 1928. Its luxury accommodations include 250 rooms and suites. Guests can enjoy top-quality golf and tennis programs as well as a spa. The resort has 25,000 sf of meeting and banquet space and 17 meeting rooms, the largest of which is just over 6,200 sf. The resort recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of its Peyton House accommodations and oceanfront Surf Club, while also introducing the new Tavern Lounge and upgrading the complimentary Wi-Fi system property-wide. The resort will complete a multimillion-dollar renovation of its Ocean House accommodations in fall 2017.

Sister property Ponte Vedra Lodge & Club has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of its 66 oceanfront guest rooms.


Located in Northwest Florida’s Panhandle, the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa promotes itself as Northwest Florida’s largest full-service beachfront resort hotel. It offers 602 guest rooms as well as 40,000 sf of recently renovated meeting space designed to handle groups ranging from 10 to 2,000. A third ballroom — the Coastal Ballroom — was added last March. The new 7,500-sf addition included expansion to prefunction space, restroom facilities and permanent registration areas. The additional space provides meeting planners with more than 23,000 sf of ballroom and event space on a single level, with approximately 10,000 sf of additional prefunction area to support the three ballrooms. With nearly 40,000 sf of indoor meeting space and 20,000 sf of outdoor event space, the resort can now accommodate larger conferences and events and provide additional flexibility for group activities and breakouts.

The three-story Sandestin Welcome Center opened in December 2014 at Sandestin Beach & Golf Resort. Of interest to planners is Overlook at Sandestin, an L-shaped balcony at the top of the center offering private event space, a gazebo area and sweeping views of Choctawhatchee Bay, the marina and Grand Sandestin hotel.


Across the causeway from Fort Myers on Florida’s Southwest Gulf Coast, lie the barrier islands Sanibel and Captiva, which beautifully capture the easygoing tropical island ambience of old Florida at its natural best. Sanibel and sister island Captiva are renowned for their shelling beaches (15 miles of them) where 250 different types of seashells are waiting to be found. For attendees who could use a little more laidback and lot less stress, here are a few great options.

South Seas Island Resort occupies 330 acres on the northern tip of Captiva Island, boasting an exclusive 2.5 miles of white sand beaches. Offering a variety of spacious accommodations, including 471 guest rooms, condominiums and waterfront private homes, the resort functions equally well for group meetings, incentive getaways or executive retreats. More than 45,000 sf of meeting space includes multiple meeting and breakout rooms, many of which feature Gulf or harbor views; and outdoor settings from beach to bay offer event space for receptions and networking.

The lure of watersports is everywhere at the resort, which has a full-service yacht harbor and marina where planners can charter Captiva Cruises for private group outings. Home to the Colgate Offshore Sailing School, South Seas also offers competitive regatta corporate teambuilding programs. For attendees on their free time, there are rental boats, paddleboards, waverunners, kayaks, fishing charters, dolphin and wildlife adventure excursions, parasailing…the watersports list goes on. For golfers in the group, even the nine-hole, par 27 executive Captiva Course is beachfront along the Gulf of Mexico. Also onsite is The Blackwood Tennis Academy and Kay Casperson Spa. South Seas Island Resort offers numerous dining outlets as well as a sustainable seafood program for catering services with personalized menus featuring locally caught seafood and fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs sourced from the executive chef’s onsite garden. Within walking distance of the resort is a shopping village and “downtown” Captiva, home of the famously quirky and delightful Bubble Room, a restaurant with a playful mix of décor in five dining rooms on three floors. Private group options, even for large groups, are available.

Located on Sanibel Island is the re-designed Sundial Beach Resort & Spa. The resort recently invested more than $6 million in refreshed amenities and offers unique outdoor event space with water views. The new Resort Centre, which is the largest meeting venue on Sanibel Island, boasts 12,000 sf of flexible space that accommodates up to 300 guests.

Crystal River

Just as laidback and authentically old Florida is the community of Crystal River, 75 miles north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast. Crystal River is the winter home of endangered Florida manatees, the ubiquitous, slow-moving residents of the area’s namesake river. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the only refuge created specifically to protect these gentle giants and offers visitors a chance to observe them from above and below the water.

Tammy Alverson, controller for Atex Distributing/AccuAir Inc., arranged the company’s quarterly employee outing in November for 35 participants. The event is usually a dinner; however, this year the company wanted to make it special by arranging a weekend retreat set at Plantation on Crystal River.

“I searched venues from the east coast of Florida to the south and each search kept coming back to the Plantation,” Alverson says. “We were looking for a location that would be central for everyone while providing activities that all could enjoy. Since our group is so diverse, the options of golf, fishing, boating, spa appointments, swimming, etc., were very important. I had also received pricing from two other resorts and the Plantation was the most affordable. We chose Plantation on Crystal River for all the activities available plus the affordability and the great reviews we found on the Internet.”

Because this event focused on rest and relaxation, the weekend included lots of activities. “Our event planner, Carrie Hartman, was extraordinary in helping us plan our events, down to the competition games we played on Saturday,” Alverson says. “She was always responsive and eager to offer suggestions. Spa Blu’s manager, Tracy, and staff were amazing to accommodate everyone’s appointments. All of the resort staff from the restaurant to the adventure center to tour captains were friendly and helpful.”

Among the group activities were a sunset river cruise followed by trolley transportation to a local restaurant Friday evening. Alverson says the trolley ride was fun but would have been better in daylight and better for a slightly smaller group as there were not enough seats for everyone. On Saturday evening, the group dined at the resort. “Dinner was excellent, well presented and the room was spacious enough for our group to comfortably socialize and enjoy the delicious food.”

In retrospect, Alverson says she probably should not have booked a group breakfast buffet. “The resort has a very nice weekend breakfast buffet so we should have just let folks take advantage of that. This is no fault of the resort; just my poor planning.”

All in all, the weekend was a success and Alverson recommends it to others. “Our rooms were all close together, nothing was too far of a walk, moving about the grounds was very easy,” she says. The group also took part in all of the activities available except golf, making the resort an excellent choice.

Florida’s natural serenity, however, was the true standout. Looking back, Alverson says that the most memorable element of all was “the beauty and quietness of the river.” C&IT

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