If America’s first visitors were the crew helmed by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1513, then it could be said that Florida has been playing host to visitors for longer than any other state in the union. While Ponce didn’t get to venture far beyond the swaying palms and silken sands lining the coast, the visitor infrastructure that followed in his wake has blossomed, and how — particularly for corporate and incentive groups.
Today’s Sunshine State boasts an impressive variety of backdrops, large or intimate, and locations ranging from sleepy to downright buzzy — truly something for almost every style of gathering and budgetary consideration. And when it’s time for a breather, meeting planners will find Florida replete with watersports options and theme parks, beachcombing and wildlife viewing, along with a climate that invites al fresco events year-round.
“By far, this (Margaritaville) was the best venue of any we have used before. …And the food was phenomenal at every meal. It did not taste like ‘meeting’ food.”
— Sandy King
“The State of Florida has outstanding convention, visitor and tourism bureaus that go way above and beyond,” says Jeremy M. Luski, founder and CEO of JML Worldwide, a New York-based global event agency start-up that placed clients in St. Petersburg. “The client is always No. 1 in the eyes of Visit Florida.”
With Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and other airports offering nonstop flights from most North American cities, air access is a key reason meeting planners cite Florida as a leading choice for gatherings.
For Sandy King, director of executive support for Pike Enterprises, an energy solutions provider based in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, airlift and ease of access were “very important” in selecting a location for a 158-person meeting of the company’s electric supervisors in February. Margaritaville, the $147 million Jimmy Buffett-themed resort in Hollywood Beach, was her pick.
Situated on the barrier island, just six miles from Fort Lauderdale airport, the opening of Margaritaville in November 2015 has proven to be a vital catalyst to reinvigorate this once sleepy suburb. The 349-room resort instills a relaxed vibe from the outset, greeting guests with a flip-flop statue and chandelier of margarita glasses. Buffett’s personal collection of surfboards is on display and a surf simulator next to the boardwalk lining the beach tempts the hang-ten crowd. But 30,000 sf of meeting space — indoors and out — make this also a viable landing for corporate groups.
“By far, this was the best venue of any we have used before,” King says. “Once our group arrived, they did not have to leave the property for the duration of the meeting — everything was within walking distance. And the food was phenomenal at every meal. It did not taste like ‘meeting’ food.”
“David Margolis was outstanding in getting this meeting put together for us,” adds King. “Christina Tauceda was also invaluable — she was my onsite contact that took of everything and anything I threw her way. Every single person we interacted with was extremely friendly, yet professional. Meeting rooms were all very well set up, the traffic flowed in and out easily, the rooms were clearly marked, and the décor was beautiful. Once I ordered the audio-visual I could forget about it — everything was taken care of.”
A few miles up the strand, the 240-room Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach is laidback in its own, sophisticated way. With 12 meeting rooms, including breakouts, the resort offers 8,000 sf of meeting space, making the Sonesta a lovely beachfront option for more intimate gatherings. Pamm Houchens, trade marketing director for Maryland-based Aveniu Brands, an importer, marketer and distributor of fine wines in North America, said the hotel was “a wonderful partner” for her 40-person event in July.
Initial contact was with Paige Guiliano, and then Houchens was assigned to convention service manager Victoria Llano. “She was accommodating, and a jewel to work with on every level. She met every demand and was always available — extremely helpful for meeting planners.
“Meeting rooms were grouped together on the penthouse level, separate from other guests and more private,” Houchens explains. “Each breakout and lunch was themed, and perfect for our small group.” The hotel also was within easy driving distance to Fort Lauderdale restaurants that were supporters of the Aveniu wine brands — dine-arounds were conducted each evening.
Houchens reminds that, when considering Florida as a destination, planners should be cognizant of how heat and sporadic showers might impact outdoor activities. “Walk-throughs are always advised prior to arrival of guests. I would definitely take into consideration that the Sonesta has a small lobby bar, and large groups may find it limiting if there are late-night gatherings.”
Trimmed by luminous beaches and spiced with Latin culture, if one destination in Florida could be cited as “hot,” Miami would be it. Just look at its airport numbers.
Domestic passenger traffic at Miami International Airport grew five percent during the first six months of 2016. Including international travelers, MIA served almost 700,000 more passengers than the same time period last year. And while the airport is currently served by more airlines and air cargo operations than any other U.S. airport, five more airlines will be added to the roster this fall, including the return of KLM and flights to Amsterdam.
Eden Roc, Miami Beach’s iconic oceanfront Grand Dame, has joined forces with the Nobu team to create Nobu Hotel Eden Roc. An extensive renovation and restoration of Morris Lapidus’ classic hotel has been overseen by noted architect David Rockwell, while the Nobu crew — chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert DeNiro and film producer Meir Teper — have collaborated to reimagine Eden Roc for a new era. The 214-room hotel, which opens this fall, will feature more than 70,000 sf of meeting and event space, a 22,000-sf spa and fitness facility, four swimming pools and, of course, the flagship Nobu Restaurant.
Also set to debut at the end of this year is a floor-to-ceiling renovation of the spa and fitness center at Turnberry Isle Miami. The luxury resort promises a progressive new look for the facility by award-winning design team Hirsch Bedner Associates, along with innovative new treatments and cutting-edge equipment. Turnberry Isle guests continue to enjoy two championship golf courses, two swimming pools and culinary expertise of celebrity chef Michael Mina at Bourbon Steak restaurant.
A $250 million renovation of the Trump National Doral Miami was completed earlier this year with the arrival of 48 Trump Spa Suites designed by Ivanka Trump. The suites start at 998 sf and can be used for in-room spa treatments, bath butler service, or guests can trundle over to the resort’s new spa facility, gilded with gold leaf Spanish Revival accents, right next door. The 643-room resort has four championship golf courses, eight food and beverage outlets, and more than 100,000 sf of meeting space, including a decadent 24,000-sf ballroom.
While Florida boasts the longest coastline in the contiguous United States, and most of the state’s hotel options straddle these shores, Orlando offers an alternate setting, one steeped in the thrills of the theme park capital of the world. For Jonathan Perlman, events director for Miami-based Zumba Fitness LLC, says there are no better destinations than Orlando for the annual 8,000-attendee meetings he oversees each July.
“We’ve been doing our event in Orlando for the past nine years,” Perlman explains. “It’s easy to fly in to, there are great hotels, great partners, reasonable rates and amazing event space.”
For nine years, the Zumba Instructors Convention has utilized the 1,639-room Hyatt Regency Orlando and 1,417-room Hilton Orlando next door, both connected to the convention center across the street. Perlman cites the resorts’ location — on International Drive, between Universal Studios and SeaWorld — along with the layout of service and event space as being key assets.
“They have a great distribution of space, and vendors that eventually become an extension of your team. They’re great partners — we would not change them,” Perlman adds.
The city’s Orange County Convention Center is the nation’s second largest meeting facility, with 7 million sf of total space. Orlando also boasts the second-largest concentration of hotel rooms in the country. For such a desirable destination, Perlman suggests booking multiple years to secure the best rates and optimal dates.
Although Tampa itself is modest in size, as the hub for the St. Petersburg/Clearwater communities, Tampa Bay encompasses Florida’s second largest metro area. As such, it has a number of big-city assets, such as its well-liked airport and a 600,000-sf convention center, but still enjoys a walkable downtown with lots of parks and nearby beaches.
Tampa International Airport is nearing completion on a $1 billion renovation and upgrade project, with 50,000 sf of new retail and restaurant space opening this year. Served by daily direct flights from 50 U.S. cities, in 2017 the airport’s rental car center will be completed, reached by an automated people-mover.
A new addition for Tampa for amblers, joggers, and cyclists is the 2.4-mile Tampa Riverwalk, which links downtown’s most popular hangouts, including parks, museums, hotels restaurants, the Amalie Arena and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Guests staying at Le Méridien Tampa, just a few blocks off the Riverwalk, enjoy free bike rental with their rooms, and bike rentals are available at other outlets. The Riverwalk also is a designated zone for alcohol consumption, which means you can stroll the waterfront with a local craft beer purchased from adjoining bars and restaurants.
Tampa Bay continues to be Florida’s only destination offering CityPASS, the discounted attraction package. The $99 (adult) ticket package covers admission to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Florida Aquarium, Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, the (Dale) Chihuly Collection, and more — tickets that, purchased separately, would total $217.
Buffeted by year-round sunshine, Florida’s diversity of settings, attractions, resorts and world-class convention facilities, along with solid air access, make the state a clear leader for meetings and conferences. The only problem might be deciding where to land.
Receiving its first Forbes five-star designation in February, Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa did not rest on its laurels this year. The resort debuted its fourth restaurant, Breeze Ocean Kitchen, an al fresco oceanfront oasis that mixes Mediterranean elegance with that distinctly chic Palm Beach aura — a fusion sure to establish the venue as a winter social season hub. The new Sunday afternoon paella experience is spiked with live music and classic cocktails that sparkle with current mixology trends. Situated on a private sandy shoreline, the 309-room Eau Palm Beach has 30,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space and an award-winning spa, making it a top pick for upscale meetings.
Palm Beach County’s new 21-story, 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach, which opened in January with 24,000 sf of meeting space, is the only hotel in South Florida connected to a convention center — The Palm Beach County Convention Center.
The 650-room Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa has almost 67,000 sf of total event space and a quarter-mile of private beachfront. Its acclaimed waterfront restaurant, 3030 Ocean, offers a private dining space flush with nautical elements, including doors modeled after sailboats with ship-inspired portal windows and ocean-inspired wall art. In addition to chef-driven dishes emphasizing locally sourced seafood and meats, the restaurant’s raw bar brims with oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels, crab and lobster.
Streamsong Resort, which opened in 2013 in Central Florida, is almost equidistant between Tampa and Orlando. Streamsong has everything a group needs on its extensive property including 216 accommodations and 24,600-plus sf of flexible function space. In addition to two magnificent golf courses built on the dunes and craters of a landscape once dominated by phosphate mines, the resort offers guided bass fishing, sport shooting, archery, hiking and an opulent full-service spa, all easily incorporated into meeting and incentive programs.
The resort’s much-anticipated third course will open in fall 2017, giving golfers even more to experience. Designed by Gil Hanse, architect of the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Streamsong Black should be exceptional.
Wild Florida Airboats and Gator Park has added a 2,500-sf Cypress Ballroom to accommodate small events, just 45 minutes south of Orlando along the shores of Lake Cypress. Guests can then climb aboard a U.S. Coast Guard-certified airboat and watch for alligators, eagles, wild boars, roseate spoonbills and other natives of the northern Everglades. The adjacent Gator and Wildlife Park features lemurs, sloths, zebras and other animals native to South America, Africa and Australia.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex 45 minutes east of Orlando opens its new Heroes & Legends attraction in November. Separated into three distinct experiences, the expansion includes a custom-built theater, an interactive exhibit floor that uses holograms and radical augmented reality to interact with astronaut memorabilia and space program artifacts, and culminates in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, housed in a majestic rotunda. The facility lends itself to events focused on heroism.
Located at the tippy-toe of Florida in Key West, the adjacent Waldorf-Astoria properties Casa Marina and The Reach offer facilities for medium-sized and smaller meetings. Straddling the largest private beach in Key West, Casa Marina has more than 22,600 sf of flexible event space and outdoor reception areas, while the 150-room Reach two blocks away has meeting spaces and private dining for up to 40 guests. Combined, the two properties offer sand sculpting workshops, historic bike or jet ski tours, dolphin snorkeling trips, day tours to Dry Tortugas National Park, and they can arrange dinners at Hemingway House.
One of the northern Keys’ most popular properties, the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, offers teambuilding events such as bingo night, bungee run, the cardboard boat regatta and sand castle competitions. Groups also can enjoy field trips and eco-kayak tours through the Ocean Reef’s Nature Center and group activities at the property’s all-new cooking school, which accommodates cooking demonstrations, private parties and tasting events for up to 150 people.
The Ocean Reef Club features 30,000 sf of indoor meeting and function space as well as outdoor venues including two oceanfront pools and Lagoon Beach, which can accommodate up to 400 people. There are 36 holes of golf, a salon and spa, more than a dozen restaurants, a 175-slip marina and a private airport. In addition, the property’s new Carysfort Hall, a modern meeting and function space features a 5,688-sf ballroom and five additional meeting rooms that can accommodate up to 300 guests.
Located just outside Jacksonville, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island recently refreshed its 48,000 sf of meeting space. The resort has assembled localized excursions and teambuilding opportunities, emphasizing a Southern style for its upscale groups. Embark on a kayak tour through Amelia Island’s tranquil salt marsh habitats for white egrets, herons and roseate spoonbills, or organize an excursion with the executive chef to discover the resort’s colony of 200,000 bees, and see how their honey is used in cooking and at the spa.
Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, Northeast Florida’s largest convention hotel, has completed its multimillion-dollar renovation of all 951 guest rooms while adding six hard-walled meeting rooms on the fourth level of the property’s Terrace Building. The renovation also included corridors, the rooftop fitness center and Regency Club Lounge, which now provides additional space for small meetings, networking areas and workstations overlooking the city skyline.
A short drive southeast of Jacksonville, the AAA Five Diamond Ponte Vedra Inn & Club will complete a multimillion-dollar renovation of its Ocean House accommodations in fall 2017. Recently, the property renovated its Peyton House accommodations and oceanfront Surf Club, opened the new Tavern Lounge and upgraded its Wi-Fi system.
Planners and meeting-goers looking for a beachfront site find that Sundial Beach Resort and Spa on Sanibel Island is popular for laidback corporate events. Nine meeting rooms, each with comprehensive audio-visual capabilities, comprise the 12,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space, and the resort boasts that it is the only destination on the Florida Gulf Coast’s Sanibel Island capable of accommodating up to 300 guests.
New dining options include a daily breakfast buffet and a new restaurant, Shima Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, that can be used for private group events.
Currently, the Sundial Beach Resort and Spa offers special value for groups that book by December 31, 2016, including the following:
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meeting planners may be concerned about the possible impact of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus discovered in South Florida including Miami Beach and the neighborhood of Wynwood. Miami-Dade County’s mosquito control team is regularly testing and spraying affected neighborhoods, but pregnant women are advised to avoid areas where Zika may be present. Regularly updated travel advisories from the Greater Miami and the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau are available at www.miamiandbeaches.com/travel-advisory-information. C&IT