Florida may be wildly diverse geographically, culturally and ecologically, but one sentiment is shared by Floridians across the state: a deep desire to welcome visitors back in 2021.
Visit Jacksonville CEO & president Michael Corrigan is embracing optimism. “We’re very optimistic about the return of corporate events here in Jacksonville. Our city has already begun to safely host small to mid-size corporate meetings over the last few months. Our hotels, working with their brands, have established effective wellness procedures to ensure guests’ safety and comfort while still offering the genuine Southern hospitality we’re known for here . . . Drive in for your meeting and extend your stay to enjoy our beaches and outdoor activities, available year-round with our sunny Florida climate.”
Julie W. Nee, vice president of training with the Jon Gordon Companies, booked a September Leadership Training event at One Ocean Resort & Spa. “Atlantic Beach is the perfect location. The beach is awesome, clean and not crowded; it’s great for business, families, all. The Town Square environment has everything you need right there — great restaurants, coffee shops, shopping and more — no need to get in a car once you arrive.”
As for meeting during the pandemic, that, too, was largely about the staff. “The One Ocean team did so much to make our group feel safe. They have all the normal protocols like masks and sanitizer everywhere, but they also sanitized all of the tables and pens, and any surface our guests would be touching.”
As the pandemic forges on, Nee looks for ways to make meetings viable. “Right now, better room rates and flexibility with room guarantees are everything for us. We’ve found that we’re getting more people local or driving distance for our events, so getting a large number of hotel rooms booked is a bit more difficult during the pandemic.”
The area has much that’s new. There are more than 3,200 hotel rooms planned or proposed in Downtown Jacksonville across 35 new projects in 2021 and beyond. Opening in spring in Jacksonville Beach is Margaritaville Beach Hotel, with 202 rooms, and multiple indoor and outdoor function spaces, including the two-story LandShark Bar & Grill, complete with observation deck. In the summer, an 80-room Element by Westin will open, and in the city’s Rail Yard District, The Glass Factory will undergo renovations allowing the 24,000-sf event venue to stay open year-round. The recently opened Brumos Collection Museum, which is temporarily closed, features multiple meeting spaces, indoor/outdoor options, a 22-seat theater and acclaimed car collection.
Drive a few hours west along Interstate 10 to discover the Gulf Coast and the South Walton area, which consists of 16 beach neighborhoods. Each offers sun-splashed venues situated on sugar-white sand, and are all connected by more than 200 miles of hiking and biking trails. There are venues that run from little-known boutique hotels to big-name resorts with small-town amenities to satisfy any taste. Some of the brand names include: Courtyard Sandestin at Grand Boulevard, within walking distance of Grand Boulevard at Sandestin, which offers premier shops, fine dining and entertainment options; Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, which offers more than 60,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space; Embassy Suites by Hilton Destin Miramar Beach, which offers access to a private beach; and Hyatt Place Sandestin at Grand Boulevard, which is only a short distance away from Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Just before COVID-19 swept across the nation early this year, the Center for Public Safety Excellence, which provides education, technical consulting, and accreditation for fire and emergency service organizations, held its 2020 annual conference at Caribe Royale Orlando. The location, says Debbie Sobotka, chief operating officer at Center for Public Safety Excellence, is perfect. “It’s close to a hub airport, and if our attendees want to bring family, there’s lots for them to do within a few miles of the hotel — amusement parks, shopping, etc.”
The conference takes place in March. “It’s a great escape for many of us still in the cold of winter,” Sobotka says. “Our attendees love when networking events are held on the Boca patio and pavilion, providing the getaway from winter everyone is looking for.”
The resort meets the needs of this weeklong event. “Everything is located on property, from the convention center to the hotel and restaurants. The Caribe Royale is an all-suite hotel, which provides the perfect environment for catching up on work when not at the conference. There’s a living room for relaxing and watching movies, TV, etc. The villas are newly renovated, gorgeous and modern with lots of amenities.”
Sobotka’s organization has been meeting at the resort since 2009. “It’s such a pleasure to return each year and work with the same staff from catering and sales to A/V. They take the time to get to know your group. As the meeting planner, they’ve always made me feel part of the Caribe family.”
The 220,000-sf Grand Caribe Convention Center is ideal for Sobotka’s group. “Our programming includes a general session, concurrent breakout education sessions, recognition lunches, an exhibit hall with 20 tech vendors and a formal accreditation hearing. We serve attendees a morning, and afternoon, food and beverage break; and one night we host a fundraising event. With our mobile app, attendees can enjoy the Wi-Fi available to them. Prior to the start of each education session, an A/V representative checks in with the speaker to ensure equipment is working. Catering has our schedule to have the food and beverage in place as sessions break. Sometimes,” Sobotka adds, “it’s the small things that matter. The separate registration area is awesome. It provides the space needed to store giveaways, and allows for organized registration and information.”
With the pandemic still a factor, Sobotka is grateful for a hotel partner willing to work with her. The group was scheduled to meet in March 2021 at the Caribe, but with uncertainty around the pandemic, including not knowing if attendees would be able to travel, the decision was made to go virtual. “The Caribe was willing to work with us in extending the due date in incurring the lowest bracket cancellation amount. When we made the decision to cancel, they worked with us to apply a portion of the cancellation fee toward a smaller in-person meeting scheduled for October.”
Sobotka notes that the Caribe is undergoing a major renovation. “An additional 50,000-sf ballroom and meeting space are scheduled to open early 2021,” she says. “All suites are in the process of being renovated. They’re renovating one tower at a time so there’s no worry about hearing workers or walking through drywall dust. That hasn’t been the case in other hotels I’ve stayed at. I’m looking forward to our return in October 2021.”
The final elements of Caribe’s $125 million renovation are slated for completion in fall 2021.
In the face of the pandemic, hotels nationwide are taking every step to ensure the safety of meetings. In Orlando, perhaps none so comprehensively as Rosen Hotels & Resorts, which had a significant head start on the process. As Leslie Menichini, VP, sales & marketing, points out, Rosen Hotels & Resorts’ dedication to health and wellness goes back 30 years. “In 1991, Harris Rosen placed his company’s wellness into his own hands, creating a self-funded, highly-regarded healthcare program called RosenCare.”
The program provides participating Rosen employees with preventative care, low premiums and all the benefits of the on-site Rosen Medical Center. There’s also a fitness center, a nutritionist and other specialists available. The center benefits hotel guests, too. “Intimately familiar with the company, its guests and associates, the RosenCare team, along with hotel management, was uniquely qualified to swiftly create Rosen’s Total Commitment, a cohesive safety and security plan for the protection of guests and associates in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As part of the plan, the Rosen Medical Center was one of the first entities in Orlando to facilitate access to rapid turnaround PCR testing, and since then also has secured access to rapid antigen COVID-19 testing,” Menichini says. “Rosen’s Total Commitment also includes an accreditation process by the Global Risk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR Facility Accreditation, known as the gold standard of prepared facilities,” Menichini continues. “This elite designation provides planners and attendees an assurance that the company’s three convention hotels—Rosen Shingle Creek, Rosen Centre and Rosen Plaza—are implementing the industry’s highest standards for cleaning and disinfection of infectious agents like the novel coronavirus.”
Menichini encourages planners to learn more about the Total Commitment program on the Rosen Hotels website.
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, with 248,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor function space, recently wrapped up a renovation that includes fully reimagined guest rooms and villas, and updates to public spaces and meeting rooms. All 720 guest rooms and suites were updated with new furnishings, carpet and décor, including lighting, paint, artwork, linens, drapery and bathroom restoration. All 49 villas were refreshed with new light fixtures, chandeliers, furniture, new larger TV’s and interior design.
Also of note in the Orlando area is the 349-room Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, scheduled to open summer 2021. The 14-story hotel will be topped by an expansive event space with floor-to-ceiling windows and views across the resort, and over Disney World’s Epcot and Hollywood Studios theme parks. In total, the Reserve will feature 22,000 sf of function space, along with access to all the space within Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort.
“Backed by the unwavering support of our hospitality and meetings community, Discover The Palm Beaches’ (DTPB) group sales and destination services team continues to meet new client needs with award-winning service, industry-leading safety measures and creative approaches that support hybrid, virtual and in-person meetings,” says Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of DTPB. “Re-engineered programs and tools — from our destination-wide GBAC STAR Accreditation and technological innovations to our Destination Champions talent pool of nationally acclaimed speakers and volunteers — allow us to host inspiring and energizing meetings while ensuring the highest safety standard along every step of the attendees’ journey.”
Georgia-Pacific held its 2019 annual sales meeting at Boca Raton Resort & Club. That was pre-COVID-19, but Wil Bates, CMP, manager of events for Georgia-Pacific, has been impressed with the CVB’s strategy throughout 2020. “DTPB has been a great communicator through the pandemic. I’d venture to say I’ve heard from them more than any of the other CVBs. They’ve kept us abreast on what’s happening in the area, updates on hotels, etc. Discover The Palm Beaches is a great team.”
Bates is a longtime fan of the area and resort. “Our company is headquartered in Atlanta. The Palm Beaches area is convenient for the majority of our attendees. The airlift is great. Weather is warm. Beaches are beautiful. Boca Resort offers a luxurious experience and optimal meeting space. Our meetings have been successful there, which is why we’ve come back some five times for all sorts of events,” he says.
A plus for Bates is the large amount of meeting space all on one level, and the fact that multiple ballrooms and breakout rooms are ideal for the group. “In addition,” he says, “the overall level of service and luxury hotel experience has enticed several of our groups to return to the resort. Boca Raton Resort is great for large national sales meetings, but also for smaller incentive meetings. It’s unusual for a hotel to be able to do both . . . easily.”
One venue in particular stands out. “Hosting evening receptions at the Boca Beach Club overlooking the water was breathtaking and attendees loved it,” Bates says. “I would recommend the area to planners and Boca Resort should definitely be a consideration.”
Although he hasn’t yet hosted a pandemic-era meeting, he’s had to renegotiate a contract, which went well. “They were extremely flexible and worked with us to shift the meeting dates.” That said, Bates understands that sourcing and executing meetings has changed. “We have yet to source anything during the pandemic, but when we do, flexibility on the contract, force majeure, etc. will be critical and the deciding factor as to where we ultimately book.”
“We’re taking advantage of the momentum spurred by our annual meeting to highlight the health guidelines that will help business travel return to Miami safely and responsibly,” says William D. Talbert III, CDME, president & CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “Hybrid will be the name of the game in 2021, using Miami’s resources to facilitate meetings, including outdoor spaces and venues, to hold smaller meetings across the city.”
One of Miami’s significant safety initiatives is the Miami Shines Pledge. “The GMCVB and our dedicated partners have committed to the pledge,” says Ed Beaman, VP of operations with Florida Meeting Services, a Global DMC Partner. In concert with showcasing the diversity and vibrancy of Miami’s people, places and experiences, Beaman says the pledge is a commitment to provide a level of comfort that will put visitors at ease while enjoying the destination. “We vow to mitigate any risks by achieving proper sanitation standards suggested by the CDC, and to make leisure and business travelers, as well as meeting planners, aware of our promise in making Miami a clean and safe retreat.”
The bureau’s partners include Miami-Dade County, the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association, Miami Beach Convention Center, Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation, Taxicab Authority, Uber, Lyft, restaurants and retail outlets. “All have guidelines designed to inform and educate guests on optimal sanitation/hygiene practices,” Beaman says. “Together, we can all do our part to make Miami Shine even brighter, and offer a better tomorrow to our travel and hospitality industry.”
For its part, Beaman’s company has implemented a new position, Health and Sanitation Supervisor. “The purpose of this position is to oversee all employees and suppliers, and make sure they’re adhering to procedures regarding the safety of all guests. Based on the size of an event, additional staff may be added to assist the supervisor.”
What hasn’t changed, Beaman notes, is Miami’s vibrant mix of hip urban culture, laid-back seaside vibes and Latin and U.S. traditions. “The city is known for its world-class beaches, internationally acclaimed nightclubs and year-round sunshine. It’s also the only U. S. city surrounded by two national parks — the Everglades and Biscayne National Park. Guests can enjoy year-round outdoor activities with an average daily temperature of 74 degrees. And Miami International Airport provides access from across the world with over 400 flights daily.”
Perhaps the biggest step toward enticing groups back to in-person or hybrid meetings has been showing planners how it can be done. GMCVB held its own hybrid annual meeting in the fall with 200 attendees, giving staff unique insight into executing hybrid meetings. “It went flawlessly because we had enough space for everyone — one table per person, lots of sanitizers and ambassadors who were watching and could assist if needed,” says Sonia Fong, vice president of convention sales & services with GMCVB. The event was held at Miami Beach Convention Center, and Centerplate executed the ballroom meal in which all items were pre-packed and handed to attendees from behind Plexiglas. “People who were initially nervous about attending ultimately felt OK and stayed,” Fong notes.
She calls the CVB meeting “proof that it can be done safely if you prepare and have staff that’s ready and educated. We are event ready for people to come. We’ve tested it and we know what to do.” As for the digital portion of the event, Fong says they received great reviews from participants. “They were able to see what was actually happening in the room. They didn’t just see the stage; the camera showed the whole room so there was high engagement.”
The biggest challenge for Miami, Fong thinks, is that many groups remain on hold. “They don’t want to commit right now. Low confidence is a factor. They’re waiting for the vaccine. On our side, showing that we can do meetings safely is a big plus.” To help alleviate attendees’ fears, Fong says the CVB is sharing its meeting with customers. “I personally posted it on my LinkedIn and got 25,000 views in a week. Right now, there are more than 26,000 views from all over — from hoteliers and planners, from New York, DC and Chicago. I’ve received comments saying this has given people confidence to move forward — seeing an actual meeting taking place has boosted confidence.”
Another incentive: a zero cancellation/zero attrition policy. “We started it in June and we’re extending it to March,” Fong says. “Many of our hotels have agreed to it.” Fong is also already hosting multiple site visits and encouraging mini FAMs of three or four planners. “I know we have to take baby steps,” she says. “But, I’m really looking forward to people coming back.”
Just a few miles north sits Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. The venue underwent a $1.5 billion resort-wide expansion and now boasts 120,000 sf of meeting and convention space. Under the stringent “Safe+Sound” program guidelines, Seminole Hard Rock continues to be South Florida’s premier, one-stop destination for fun and entertainment with 24/7 action. Its amenities include an expansive gaming floor, food and beverage outlets, luxury spa and salon with high-end gym, retail shops and more. C&IT