A Fresh Look at FloridaJanuary 21, 2019

Once Dependent on Tourism, the Sunshine State Now Thrives on Food, Fun and Facilities By
January 21, 2019

A Fresh Look at Florida

Once Dependent on Tourism, the Sunshine State Now Thrives on Food, Fun and Facilities
Winterfest, Inc. loves having its retreats in the tropical paradise, where the weather is as welcoming as the beaches. Credit: Dawn Read / Winterfest, Inc.

Winterfest, Inc. loves having its retreats in the tropical paradise, where the weather is as welcoming as the beaches. Credit: Dawn Read / Winterfest, Inc.

If you haven’t been to Florida in a while, things may seem a bit different.

Florida’s grown up. It’s now the third most-populous state, with a population approaching 22 million. Once subject to a feast-or-famine economy mostly dependent on the tourist trade, Florida’s now characterized by reborn cities with thriving downtowns.

Miami used to be a low-rise city, where the sidewalks were said to “fold up” after dark. It is now a world-class metropolis, boasting one of the most impressive skylines in America.

Jacksonville’s downtown has been energized by its Riverwalk and the historic neighborhoods surrounding it. Tampa has also revived its downtown, with a Riverwalk connecting hotels, restaurants and office buildings. Across the bay, St. Petersburg, once in decline, is now a lively city filled with youthful entrepreneurs and innovators.

Wherever you go in Florida, you’ll find excellent meeting hotels and resorts.


This city is named after Andrew Jackson — who never actually set foot here.

Pretty much ever since, Jacksonville has been overshadowed by seemingly more glamorous Florida cities. But no more.

“Jax” is revitalizing itself from the ground up. And, people are noticing. It was picked as a “Top 10 Best Value Destination” for 2018 by Lonely Planet.

This city has 400 parks — more than any other city in America. It’s laced with bike paths, nature trails and lakes, and nearby are 22 miles of beach.

The city grew up around the banks of the St. Johns River. But the riverfront eventually fell victim to neglect. When the Riverwalk opened in 1985, however, change came to downtown, and this waterside promenade is filled with restaurants, nightspots and unique shops.

The Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center and its 275,000 square feet of event space is also on the river, within a mile of 2,000 hotel rooms.

Recently opened Hyatt Place Jacksonville/St. Johns Town Center has 160 guest rooms and more than 3,200 square feet of meeting space. Three other new hotel projects are underway, as well. Tru by Hilton at St. Johns Town Center is opening in February, with a focus on corporate travelers. Hyatt Place – The Strand at Town Center will also cater to business travelers and small meetings. And, the Atlantis will be a $77 million, full-service resort with 320 guest rooms and meeting space, with groundbreaking before year’s end.

Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront recently completed a major upgrade of its 951 guest rooms, and Lexington Hotel & Conference Center – Jacksonville Riverwalk is about to complete an upgrade of its 322 guest rooms and 35,000 square feet of meeting space.

Daytona Beach

When Jackie Robinson ran onto the baseball field here in 1946, Daytona Beach entered the national spotlight for the first time.

The 23 miles of white-sand beaches are still among the most famous in America. The Daytona International Speedway shows off the race cars of tomorrow, while the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, Florida’s tallest at 175 feet, dates back to 1887.

Daytona Beach has 12,000 guest rooms in hotels with up to 60,000 square feet of meeting space. In addition, the Ocean Center convention facility offers 205,000 square feet of flexible event space and a stunning glass exterior.

Located within retail/entertainment district ONE DAYTONA is the Fairfield Inn & Suites Daytona Beach Speedway/Airport, with 105 guest rooms and 1,181 square feet of event space. The oceanfront Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach opened in March, with 200 guest rooms and 20,000 square feet of meeting space. The Daytona, Autograph Collection is set to open in April, with 145 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor event space.

Existing properties are upgrading. The Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort recently renovated all 744 guest rooms and its 60,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space.
At the Daytona International Speedway, attendees can meet in some of the most unique spaces in the country. The Motorsports Hall of Fame of America is a 10,000-square-foot facility also available for rentals.

The Palm Beaches

It wasn’t too long ago that Palm Beach County was mainly agricultural, and its core city, West Palm Beach, had fallen on hard times. But times are no longer hard.

Palm Beach County is now home to 1.5 million people, and reborn towns like Delray Beach, with a downtown that’s been recognized as one of the coolest in America. And now West Palm Beach is a shiny example of urban rebirth, with popular entertainment and shopping districts and a vibrant downtown.

The hotel scene is a lively one. The Ray Hotel is set to open in Delray Beach in mid-2019, with 143 guest rooms, a rooftop restaurant and an elevated, glass-enclosed event space for up to 300 attendees. This November, the Banyan Cay Resort & Golf will open in West Palm Beach with 150 guest rooms and more than 15,000 square feet of meeting space.

The Boca Raton Mandarin Oriental is set to debut in 2020, with 158 guest rooms, a 4,500-square-foot ballroom and a variety of flexible conference rooms.

The Five-Star, Five-Diamond Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach re-opened in November, after an extensive renovation that included its 196 guest rooms and 21,128 square feet of meeting space.

Offsites are expanding, as well. The iconic Norton Museum of Art is closed due to a $100 million expansion. When it re-opens in February, it will have an additional 50,000 square feet — much of dedicated to meeting and event spaces.

In Palm Beach County, even transportation’s booming. The new Brightline intercity express railroad connects West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and, in only two hours, to Orlando.

Just north of West Palm Beach, in Stuart, discover a compelling mix of style and substance at the Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resort & Marina. Located in the sunny enclave of Hutchinson Island, the hotel offers luxury accommodations in the main resort or the beachfront Sandpiper Tower suites and resort amenities, such as an 18-hole golf course, fitness center, a private marina, three pools and several dining options. Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resort & Marina is also a top meeting venue, boasting more than 30,000 square feet of flexible event space. Area attractions include Johnathan Dickinson State Park, the largest state park in Southeast Florida, and historic downtown Stuart, home to more than 50 locally owned shops and restaurants.

Greater Fort Lauderdale

Broward County’s population is now pushing 2 million, and its biggest city is now pushing toward the sky. “Lauderdale” was once a sleepy, low-rise city known for Spring Breakers on holiday. But no more. This is now very much a sophisticated urban center, with new towers approaching 50 stories and young businesspeople moving into them.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is undergoing a major expansion, and Port Everglades is one of the top three cruise ports in the world. And, the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, already 600,000 square feet, is going to get a lot bigger.

It’s about to get a new convention headquarters hotel, too. The Convention Center Expansion and Headquarters Hotel Project will add more than 400,000 square feet of meeting/event space and an 800-room, Four Diamond hotel with 73,000 square feet of meeting space.

Home2 Suites By Hilton Fort Lauderdale Airport-Cruise Port offers 130 guest rooms and a 1,024-square-foot meeting room. Fairfield Inn & Suites Downtown Fort Lauderdale/Las Olas is a Marriott property with 108 guest rooms and 1,037 square feet of event space.

Recently opened Costa Hollywood Beach Resort has 307 rooms and 3,500 square feet of meeting space. The Dalmar also opened last year with 209 guest rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting space. Coming in September is Le Meridien Dania Beach at Fort Lauderdale Airport, which will have more than 23,000 square feet of function space.

Greater Miami

Miami is one of America’s most dynamic cities, and its futuristic skyline is now one of the most impressive in America.

With the biggest cruise port on Earth, a rapidly expanding international airport, modern transportation systems — and, of course, beautiful beaches and attractions — Miami’s now an international hot spot.

It’s a hot spot for meeting planners, too. Aloft recently opened in tony Coral Gables, with 137 guest rooms and 13,000 square feet of meeting space. Four Points by Sheraton Miami Airport, with 124 guest rooms and 1,000 square feet of meeting space, also recently opened. Hyatt Centric Brickell Miami opened in the Brickell Avenue Financial District with 208 guest rooms and 7,500 square feet of meeting space.

Several iconic properties are now upgrading. Turnberry Isle Miami has undergone a $150 million expansion/renovation and has emerged as JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa with 790 guest rooms and 121,000 square feet of meeting space. The newly designed Loews Miami Beach Hotel is even better after a $50 million renovation of its 790 guest rooms and 65,000 square feet of meeting space.

The granddaddy of all Miami upgrades, however, took place at the Miami Beach Convention Center, where a $620 million upgrade/expansion resulted in a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. With the addition of 300,000 square feet, the “new” MBCC is now 1.4 million square feet. There’s a new 60,000-square-foot ballroom and a new 20,000-square-foot ballroom with a glass roof. There’s now 500,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space. In addition, the center is LEED-certified.

Janet Hoppenstein, CMP, is national account manager with Experient. She brought 450 attendees from the Human Capital Institute to Miami in June, for the 2018 Strategic Talent Acquisition Conference. The group stayed and met at the InterContinental Miami, downtown on the harbor, with 641 guest rooms and 101,000 square feet of meeting space.

“Miami is a city that attracts international attendees — including some of ours — and the hotel was thoughtful enough to present international food specialties,” says Hoppenstein. “Its waterside location enabled some of our sponsors to hold events on boats. And, the InterContinental knows how to do productive events.

“Both the client and the attendees were very pleased with Miami,” she says. “Would we go back? Well, we’re having our Workforce Planning Conference at the InterContinental next year.”


Orlando has 122,000 hotel rooms — the second-most hotel rooms of any city in America. The Orange County Convention Center is the second-largest, with 7 million — yes, 7 million! — square feet of event space. It’s also the fourth-busiest in the U.S., attracting some 1.5 million attendees who pump $2.5 billion annually into the region’s economy.

Orlando International Airport is building a $1.8 billion south terminal and an adjacent $1.3 billion train station. The station and gates 16 to 21 of the terminal will open later this year, with a moving sidewalk.

Orlando’s theme parks offer options you can’t find anywhere else. Universal Orlando Resort has debuted a program that adds unique branded character moments and inspirational themes for meetings. Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando has 1,000 guest rooms and 115,000 square feet of event space. Universal’s Aventura Hotel has recently opened, offering 600 guest rooms and 115,000 square feet for meetings.

DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Orlando at SeaWorld has completed a significant expansion and now offers 100,000 square feet of meeting space with more than 1,000 guest rooms. The Marriott Orlando Downtown has renovated all 293 guest rooms and the 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

Paul Steen, director, Global Accounts at HelmsBriscoe, held an event at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, for 120 attendees last February. He was involved in site inspections, hotel bids, choice of hotel, room setup and meeting- and reception-planning.

“It’s a fairly new hotel,” Steen says, “and we wanted to try it out for a shareholders’ meeting. We stayed at the JW Marriott, and used the meeting space connecting the Marriott to the Ritz-Carlton. It was winter in Florida, and we liked holding some events outdoors. The spaces were conducive to productive meetings, and our post-meeting surveys were very positive.

“There’s one thing I would advise planners considering this property,” Steen adds. “This hotel is very popular with planners. Meetings are booked well in advance. So if you’re considering it, you’d best start planning two to three years in advance. And, going forward as soon as you can.”

Naples/Collier County

The beautiful town of Naples has received numerous “Best Of” designations, among them the No. 1 Happiest-Healthiest community in America in a recent Gallup poll — for the third consecutive year.

The big news in the Naples meeting scene is the huge — $320 million — upgrade of the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort. The Marriott has long been one of Marco’s most popular meeting properties. Now, though, it’s not just “popular.” It’s world-class.

“Our attendees like the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Naples, the recreational opportunities ranging from golf to the Everglades, and the fact that the property’s right on the beach.” — Dawn Read

There are nine superb restaurants, from grab-and-go to gourmet, 809 redesigned guest rooms, and there’s now 100,000 square feet of the most technologically advanced, most attendee-friendly meeting space you’ve ever seen. There’s also a 30,000-square-foot ballroom, high ceilings and roomy interiors, magnificent vistas of the Gulf of Mexico, and coming soon is a new restaurant geared to meeting attendees — a combination gastro-pub and gaming emporium.

All these meeting amenities are hardly surprising, though, in a resort whose event planners are trained in the “seven meeting purposes” (Celebrate, Decide, Educate, Ideate, Network, Produce, Promote).

The Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa recently completed a $40 million upgrade of the 12,000 square feet of meeting spaces and the restaurant, and will finish an upgrade of the 310 guest rooms in late summer.

Dawn Read is event director at Winterfest, Inc., Greater Fort Lauderdale’s annual festival celebrating the holiday season. She put together a Strategic Planning Meeting for the Board of Directors last March, bringing 100 attendees to LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort (189 guest rooms and 11,000 square feet of meeting space).

“Winterfest is a multi-event South Florida tradition,” Read says, “and it requires a meetings environment conducive to meticulous planning. This was our third meeting at the LaPlaya in recent years. Our attendees like the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Naples, the recreational opportunities ranging from golf to the Everglades, and the fact that the property’s right on the beach. And, I like it because the meetings staff is very professional … which makes my job much easier.”

Fort Myers/Lee County

Lee County includes the tropical islands of Sanibel and Captiva; the growing “new” town of Bonita Springs; and the historic town of Fort Myers, where good friends Thomas Edison and Henry Ford built adjoining homes on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River.

Captiva and Sanibel Islands are laid-back and tropical, each with its own particular charm. Sanibel is the larger and more populated, with good shopping and restaurants. Captiva is slower-paced, a leafy hideaway with a beach lined by magnificent mansions.

With 330 acres, 45,000 square feet of meeting space and 465 guest rooms, South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island is well-equipped to handle sizable meetings. There are six restaurants, a full-service spa, golf and tennis, and great shopping on the resort and across the street.

‘Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa is a different type of meeting resort. What began as a weekend fishing village in 1931 now has 138 units, 19 of which are restored, colorful cottages used as officers’ quarters during World War II. There’s 12,000 square feet of meeting space and three eateries.

In Bonita Springs, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa offers 454 guest rooms and 82,500 square feet of meeting space overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. For an interesting offsite venue, planners can use the Southwest Florida Event Center here, which holds up to 1,000 people for events.

Or, you can have your meeting at monuments to American ingenuity — the adjoining homes of Edison and Ford. Edison built his home in 1885, and Ford soon joined him. Interesting meeting spaces abound here, among them the Edison Ford Museum.

St. Petersburg/Clearwater

In St. Petersburg, everything old is new again. This city of 265,000, in the doldrums only a decade or two ago, is a modern American success story.

Local folks are repurposing old properties into trendy apartments, cafes, bars and foodhalls. Central Avenue, once devoid of traffic, is today a throbbing urban artery both day and night. And, St. Petersburg’s population, once predominantly aging, is now youthful and entrepreneurial.

Just to the north is Clearwater, with a beach recently named the best in America by TripAdvisor — for the second time in three years.

Hyatt Place St. Petersburg/Downtown opened in 2017 with 175 guest rooms and 5,201 square feet of meeting space, along with a rooftop pool, fitness center and restaurant.

Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach also opened in 2017, on the beach, with 343 guest rooms, 22,000 square feet of meeting space and three restaurants.

On St. Pete Beach, the Sirata Beach Resort completed a renovation of its 382 guest rooms last fall, to go with 30,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor function space.

The Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa recently unveiled an upgrade of its meeting space and 287 guest rooms, all having additional charging stations to provide for multiple mobile devices. There are now 65-inch flat-screen TVs in each room, along with new carpeting and freshly painted blue and gray walls that give the rooms an aquatic feeling. There’s new artwork throughout the resort, and new food and beverage options, including a 24-hour market.

The resort added 37 suites, most of which include fully furnished kitchens. In addition, the popular Skimmer’s Bar, which features several local beers on tap, has been relocated to the SHOR American Seafood Grill.

Meeting spaces haven’t been left behind in the resort’s upgrade, either. It has combined two meeting spaces into the new 3,100-square-foot Belleair Room, which has floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views of the ocean, along with a balcony for an even closer look. And, the resort has also upgraded the Bayview Room, an eighth-floor meeting space for up to 25 attendees.

Lisa Hartmann is director of education for Pinellas Park, Florida-based Center Academy, a for-profit company with 10 private schools in Florida and Georgia for children with learning disabilities. She believes the Hyatt Regency is especially adept at holding executive meetings, and she brought 15 school principals and corporate executives to the resort for the fourth straight year in November.

“We had executives there, several guest speakers and we held a dinner for 40 people to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the company,” Hartmann says. “We find an extraordinary expertise on small meetings at the Hyatt Regency. In fact, many hotels wouldn’t even host a group as small as ours, for fear we might be taking space away from large groups. But it’s easy to see that Hyatt staff care for the smaller groups with as much dedication as the larger ones. They make my job easier. And, what greater compliment can a meeting planner give?”

Several other beloved hotel icons are coming to life again. Fenway Hotel first opened in Dunedin in 1927, but was eventually sold and then closed. Now it’s back in all its art deco glory, with 83 guest rooms and 11,126 square feet of event space. The Vinoy, first opened on New Year’s Eve in 1925, re-opened as the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club last year, with its 361 guest rooms and 65,000 square feet of function space in the style of the Roaring ’20s.


Tampa’s also enjoying a renewal. The Riverwalk along the Hillsborough River now ties together major hotels, restaurants, parks and office buildings, bringing a breath of fresh air to downtown.

AC Hotel Tampa Airport opened earlier this year, in the upscale Westshore district, with 175 guest rooms and 2,458 square feet of event space. Nearby, the former InterContinental Hotel has been transformed into the new Westshore Grand, with 325 rooms and 17,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.

Even parts of town that haven’t changed much in the past century — like Ybor City, born in the original Cuban emigration in the 1800s — will see new hotels. The first one in decades is planned for late-2019, a 176-room boutique project that will probably have meeting space.

A 213-room joint Hampton Inn, Home2 Suites recently opened just minutes from the Tampa Convention Center with a 2,000-square-foot meeting room. A 519-room JW Marriott Tampa with 126,000 square feet of meeting space is set to open in 2020, complementing the 600,000-square-foot Tampa Convention Center across the street. The Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, with 683 guest rooms and 43,229 square feet of meeting space, is now completing a $40 million renovation. The Sheraton Tampa Bay Riverwalk Hotel, with 12,000 square feet of event space, has recently completed a remake of all 277 guest rooms.

Busch Gardens Tampa has meeting spaces accommodating up to 4,000 people. Or, you can rent out the entire park.

The recently re-named Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park has event spaces accommodating up to 500, along with 17,000 square feet (capacity 700) at Safari Lodge. C&IT

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