Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville, is on a mission to convince more and more meeting planners that his destination — located on both the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean in Northeastern Florida — offers a unique and important set of benefits in today’s market.
“Jacksonville offers a unique and vibrant side of Florida where a group can have that ‘big fish in an intriguing pond’ experience without breaking the bank,” Astleford says. “Our ‘river city by the sea’ is the ideal value destination for memorable waterfront meetings. Both the return on investment for planners, and the return on experience for attendees, makes the overall return on investment more than worth it while meeting in Jacksonville. Also, our city has the right meetings infrastructure, business community, service groups, natural beauty, food scene and attractions to be a competitive and dynamic location for meetings of all sizes.”
“Our city has the right meetings infrastructure, business community, service groups, natural beauty, food scene and attractions to be a competitive and dynamic location for meetings of all sizes.” — Paul Astleford
Astleford and his team currently work with more than 400 groups annually, many of them enthusiastic repeat customers.
“Our dedicated convention sales and services staff strives to create a more personalized relationship with new and repeat customers,” he says. “From attending industry shows across the nation, hosting FAM tours for planners, working closely with the local convention and select service properties in the city, we make sure we are all reaching out to the right groups and planners, and customizing our delivery to meet their expectations in the most professional way.”
The most important “news” that Astleford wants to get out, he says, is that Jacksonville is “the premier North Florida ‘comfort zone’ experience for meeting professionals. Our primary convention hotels have undergone recent renovations to stay on top of the latest technology and esthetic trends.”
Meeting planners who experience Jacksonville for the first time are often quite surprised by its appeal, says Anne Urban, owner and president of local destination management company Destination Planning Corporation, who has been booking meetings in Jacksonville for 20 years. “Most of the feedback I get is that meeting planners are usually surprised by everything that Jacksonville has to offer, all in one place,” she explains. “We have the gorgeous St. Johns River, but we also have the ocean. And not many cities have both. And our river is unique, in that there are only five in the world that run from south to north. And it flows directly into the ocean. So our waterways provide a great list of activities, from kayaking to sailing to deep-sea fishing and bird-watching.
“Planners are usually very surprised by how wonderful our airport is. It’s very easy to get into and out of, and we have a good amount of flights coming in and going out. So planners are often surprised by how easy the arrival and departure process is here.”
And that process has been made even easier with the increased airlift that has come from the addition of new direct flights and more connection options to get to Jacksonville International Airport.
And a related surprise for planners, Urban says, is the classic Southern hospitality that visitors receive. “They are also surprised by how welcoming we are, from the time you get off the plane,” she says.
Pat Weyand, executive assistant at CSX Transportation, which is headquartered in Jacksonville, uses her hometown for an average of two meetings a month that draw attendees from regional offices across the country. Those meeting include team meetings, board meetings, executive conferences and customer meetings. The company’s national sales meetings are for 700-800 attendees.
“Our people think Jacksonville is a super place to have a meeting,” Weyand says. “One reason is because of the weather. We have a lot of customers from up north and they love coming here in the winter. But people also tell us how friendly Jacksonville is and how easy it is to get into and out of through the airport. They also enjoy our local dining scene.”
As a planner, Weyand particularly likes the city’s value proposition. “The cost of the same meeting in other destinations is quite a bit higher than it is here in Jacksonville,” she says. “With the value we get here and the quality of what you get, Jacksonville is just a great destination.”
For Vickey Woodley, senior manager, meeting services, at the Jacksonville-based, 1,000-employee ear, nose and throat division of medical device company Medtronic, familiarity with the destination she uses for about a dozen meetings a year is a big factor.
“We know the city,” Woodley says. “We know which venues to use. We have access to the resources of Visit Jacksonville, our CVB, whether that’s help with finding the right transportation or a teambuilding activity. And every time I have worked with them, they have been quick and helpful in getting me what I need. They are a great resource.”
Jacksonville is home to more than 200 hotels and resorts with a total of close to 18,000 rooms. Its hotel inventory offers a wide range of options, from downtown major-flag properties to modern suburban hotels, elegant riverfront accommodations and oceanfront boutique resorts.
The downtown properties, such as the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront (963 guest rooms; 110,000 sf of meeting space) and Omni Jacksonville Hotel (354, 14,000), are ideal for groups that need a lot of meeting space, Urban says. Both are located along Jacksonville’s Riverwalk on the St. Johns River.
“The downtown area is also now the hub of all the things that are related to meetings, including dining and entertainment,” she says. “And there’s a whole cluster of hotels down there now, including properties like the Hampton Inn for planners that are looking for that type of hotel product. And all of the downtown hotels have great access to the river and great views. There are also walkways along the river and there are lots of things to do.”
The hotels that Weyand favors most often include the Hyatt Regency downtown, One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach, and two properties south of the city in Ponte Vedra Beach that both boast acclaimed golf courses — Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, home of TPC Sawgrass and the Players Championship, and Ponte Vedra Inn & Club with its seaside links.
Woodley also finds a good mix of local hotels for her meetings. “The hotel inventory works well for us, because a lot of the meetings we do are smaller meetings,” she says. “For example, we do a lot of training meetings that usually have about 15 attendees.” For those meetings, she particularly likes the Homewood Suites property. “For our training meetings, we like it because attendees are here for a week or two and the property allows them to easily get out to the Town Center complex and have things to do in their free time. They don’t need any transportation.”
Jacksonville also can claim a long and diverse list of unique offsite venues. Among those most frequently touted by Visit Jacksonville are the Epping Forest estate, Foxy Lady Cruises, the Atrium at the Jacksonville Main Library, Tap Room at Aardwolf Brewing Company, the rooftop at the Museum of Science and History, the Skyline Dining and Conference Center on the 42nd floor of the Bank of America building, the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, The University Club of Jacksonville, The River Club, The Jacksonville Equestrian Center, The Ritz Theatre and Museum and the grounds at the Beaches Museum & History Park.
Another unique venue is the Malone Aircharter Hangar at Craig Field. Urban is hosting an evening there soon for an 800-attendee meeting. “It’s a really unique venue,” she says. “And the group I’m using it for wanted something different. They didn’t want to use a typical hotel ballroom. They wanted something interesting and fun.”
Urban also favors the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, which has three theaters with capacities ranging from 600 to nearly 3,000 attendees.
Among her absolute favorites is the Florida Theater, where Elvis held his first public concert in 1956. “It’s a beautiful, historic venue that is perfect for general sessions,” Urban says. “The architecture is just breathtaking. And it’s only a block from the Hyatt hotel.” Group capacity is 1,900.
Another great venue recommended by Urban is Jacksonville Memorial Arena.
“And all of the venues are within easy walking distance of the downtown hotels,” she says.
Particularly for smaller groups looking for a spectacular environment, Urban suggests the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. It houses an extensive art collection and also offers spectacular riverfront gardens with the best views in the city.
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is considered one of the top 10 animal attractions in the U.S. It has just debuted a new exhibit called “Land of the Tiger,” a state-of-the-art animal exhibit where tigers roam (safely) and interact with visitors.
EverBank Field, the home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, is now also home to the largest scoreboards in the world and a VIP area that includes new cabanas, special dining options and even two swimming pools — a great place for a special retreat or group event, Urban says.
Jacksonville also offers a dynamic dining scene.
“We have fantastic restaurants,” Urban says. “And what is different is that within a five-mile radius of the major hotels, instead of just finding a bunch of chain restaurants, we have very, very interesting local restaurants that have great food.”
Urban says the three areas that most lend themselves to dine-arounds are downtown, Riverside and the historic San Marco District. Among Urban’s favorite dining spots are Indochine and Taverna in San Marco, and Medure in Ponte Vedra Beach. Weyand’s favorite restaurants include Medure, The Wine Cellar downtown and Bistro Aix in San Marco.
Woodley favors Maggiano’s a legendary Italian eatery in Town Center. “They have excellent space,” she says. “They also have excellent food and pricing.”
Jacksonville Landing on the riverfront is a popular venue for dining, shopping and entertainment. “And in the last year or two, we’ve also had an influx of new restaurants, cafés and bars, so there are now a lot of good options for planners in the downtown area, which also makes it very convenient,” Urban says.
Jacksonville also features an award-winning local brewery scene. It has more than doubled in the last few years and now claims some of the state’s most popular craft beers. Popular spots include Intuition Ale Works, Bold City Brewery and Aardwolf Brewing Company. Each offers daily tours, and at Engine 15 in Jacksonville Beach, groups can arrange a special session for brewing their own craft beer.
For obvious reasons, the most popular activities in Jacksonville are water-related. Top among them is fishing. “That’s by far our No. 1 activity,” Urban says. “Everyone loves to go fishing in Jacksonville.”
And that includes both deep-sea fishing in the Atlantic and freshwater fishing on the St. Johns. The most common fishing charters can accommodate from 12 in two six-passenger boats up to 45 on fishing party boats. Foxy Lady Cruises offers private yacht charters for up to 149 for corporate events.
Kayaking is also very popular. “That’s No. 2 in popularity,” Urban says. “And what’s so amazing about it is the wildlife you see, and especially the bird-watching. We offer one of the best opportunities for bird-watching you can find anywhere, because this is where a lot of the birds from up north, including Canada, migrate to in the winter. So you see more varieties of birds here than just about anywhere else in the country.”
Airboating on the Intracoastal waterway is another highly popular activity. “It’s like being in a swamp without really being in a swamp,” Urban says. “But you can see alligators and lots of other wildlife. It’s a great experience that’s another example of the great things there are to do in Jacksonville.”
Astleford says many of the city’s most popular attractions offer teambuilding options. Examples include kayaking with Kayak Amelia on nearby Amelia Island; car racing with Autobahn Indoor Speedway; Jacksonville History Scavenger Hunt with Gary Sass of AdLib Tours; painting class with Yes You Canvas; a PGA Tour Experience golf day at the World Golf Village south of Jacksonville; an “Amazing Race” style activity at Adventure Landing: Jacksonville Beach Shipwreck Island Waterpark; and multiple dining and entertainment experiences at Latitude 360.
“There are a lot of great options for teambuilding,” Urban says. “And one trend we’ve seen over the last several years is that companies want to do a teambuilding activity that contributes to the community. For example, we had one group recently that wanted to do something for the military, because Jacksonville is such a large military community. So we bused a couple of hundred people to a location where they created care kits to be sent to troops in Iraq.”
Given all its attractions and amenities, it’s not at all surprising that Jacksonville is finding its way onto the radar of more meeting planners. The essential message that Visit Jacksonville wants to communicate, says Astleford, is, “We want you in Jacksonville, and we’ll do everything possible to make you desire to return. Our city has the perfect meeting venues and accommodations for your group, and you need to come here to see it. Jacksonville’s business community is eager to welcome you and have you experience our vibrant city and all that it has to offer, from our rich cultural scene, to our natural wonders including 22 miles of beaches, the largest urban park system in the nation, and the beautiful St. Johns River. We want you to come and explore a new side of Florida.” C&IT