Miami, with new hotels and a rebuilt convention center, is sizzling as planners are again choosing the city to host events.
Over the last decade, Miami has been transformed into a wildly popular meeting, convention and incentive destination that generates robust enthusiasm from both planners and attendees. Today, it offers a world-class combination of first-class hotel rooms, dining options, offsite venues and activities that add up to a memorable experience.
“Miami is unique as a meeting destination,” says William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “We offer year-round good weather. We’re the easiest destination to get into and out of. We also have venues nobody else has. We’re on the water. The city of Miami is on Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach is on the bay and the Atlantic Ocean. So we have unique waterfront venues that no one else has. We have 25 miles of beautiful beaches. But we also say, ‘We’re more than a beach.’ There’s no other place like Miami. For a long time, we were clearly a cultural wasteland. But today, we’re one of the top cultural destinations in the world. We’re a world-class city and a world-class meeting destination.”
“Miami is unique as a meeting destination”
William Talbert III
One factor strongly in Miami’s favor as a meeting destination is the convenience of Miami International Airport (MIA) and the formidable airlift it delivers. “A lot of meeting planners who have not been here don’t really know that MIA is a ‘downtown’ airport,’” Talbert says. “If you’re going to downtown Miami, the first stoplight you see is when you’re in downtown. If you’re headed to Miami Beach, the first stoplight you see is when you’re in Miami Beach. How many destinations can say that?” And, he adds, the convenience and brevity of airport transfers are more important than ever before to many planners. In addition, Talbert stresses, MIA is served by 109 airlines, meaning it offers convenient airlift from virtually anywhere in the U.S. or around the world. “It’s the only airport that is served by more than 100 [airlines].”
One planner chose Miami for the first time to host an annual sales meeting in January.
The planner chose the 615-room Hyatt Regency Miami, which features more than 100,000 sf of meeting space, including the 16,000 sf of space in the adjoining James L. Knight Center. The City of Miami owns the center, but Hyatt manages it.
The planner used the hotel for breakfast and lunch buffets daily, as well as a welcome reception and awards banquet on two evenings. The planner also staged a welcome reception and awards dinner on the hotel’s outdoor terrace, which overlooks the Miami River and offers sweeping views of downtown Miami and the upscale Brickell district.
A highlight of the meeting was a team-building exercise on the beach in Key Biscayne, after which attendees dined at landmark local seafood emporium Monty’s in Coconut Grove.
“[Miami is] a bustling city. It’s very popular, especially during the winter. It’s just a perfect location for a meeting,” the planner says.
Surprise! Miami can be budget-friendly, says Andrea Kinney, the St. Augustine, FL-based director of global accounts for site selection/sourcing provider HelmsBriscoe. She has, on average, used Miami as the destination for a meeting once a year for the last six years. Her most recent was a four-day, three-night healthcare meeting for 75 attendees in October.
“This particular client is based in Florida and they do all of their meetings in Florida,” Kinney says. “So they rotate destinations throughout the state.”
For their Miami meeting, they used the new 275-room Atton Brickell Miami.
“The primary reason for the selection of the hotel was that the client needed a hotel that was particularly budget-friendly,” Kinney says. “And the Atton really fit the bill for them because the client wanted to get a lot of value for their money, even though budget itself was not an issue. The Atton is not only brand new, but it’s beautiful. And the prices are fantastic because we were holding the meeting in October before the high season starts.”
Kinney points out that Miami, despite its reputation as expensive, can be budget-friendly. “One of the things I love about Miami is that it can accommodate all kinds of budgets, especially if you’re meeting in the off-season,” she says. “But there is still a perception among a lot of meeting planners that Miami is too expensive. But that’s just not true. You just have to know the market and go at the right time of year.”
Kinney and her client were very happy with the Atton, which characterizes itself as designed with “an air of Miami cool and seaside elegance.”
“The room product is excellent, partly because the hotel is new,” Kinney says. “But the design, which is sort of minimalist-modern, is very interesting and trendy. So my client loved the property.”
The hotel hosted all meals, whether a buffet or plated. “Attendees were very pleased with the food,” Kinney says. “The hotel has limited meeting space, so the maximum group size it can accommodate is probably 100 attendees. But the space they have is excellent. And again, it’s new. They have a meeting room on the top floor that has fantastic views of downtown Miami and Biscayne Bay.”
Although Miami is in the midst of a genuine renaissance as a destination, both in terms of its eclectic hotel inventory and its new status as a genuine culinary capital, the most important news for meeting planners is the $620 million makeover of the Miami Beach Convention Center. The reimagined and updated facility reopened in September.
“It was a very old, out-of-date building,” says GMCVB’s Talbert. “It was a box, with no sense of place, with an asphalt parking lot with no trees across the street. The new facility is a totally reimagined facility. In addition to [a completely renovated structure], we’ve added a 60,000-sf ballroom, which also has 20,000 sf of pre-function space. And now you have a sense of place. You have a world-class facility that lets you know you’re in a place called Miami Beach.”
In November, voters approved construction of a new convention center hotel. The 800-room property will be the next step in the total transformation of Miami as a destination for major meetings and citywide conventions. There is no flag designated yet, but Talbert says, “I think the flag will have an ‘H’ in it.”
Local development powerhouses Terra and Turnberry Associates are overseeing the hotel’s development. Turnberry Associates owns the legendary Fontainebleau Miami Beach and acclaimed JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa. The grand opening of the convention center hotel is scheduled for 2022.
Perhaps the single-best indicator of Miami’s status as a meeting destination is what Talbert calls its unique “Miami first” preeminence. It applies to the new EAST, Miami, the Faena Hotel Miami Beach and Atton Brickell Miami. “Ours is the first EAST hotel outside of Asia,” Talbert says. “The Faena is the first outside of Argentina. And the Atton is the first property from that brand outside of Chile. What that means is that three major and very prestigious international hotel brands chose Miami as the location of their first properties outside of their home regions. And that means that Miami is red-hot as a destination.”
The Forbes Five-Star, AAA Four-Diamond Faena Hotel Miami Beach is the most acclaimed of Miami’s new hotels. The 169-room property, with 22,000 sf of meeting space, was designed by Hollywood director Baz Luhrmann, who directed The Great Gatsby, and his set designer wife Catherine Martin. It combines old Hollywood glamour with Art Deco elegance, executed with a tropical beach ambience. An adjacent $1 billion Faena Arts District also features a Faena Forum venue and an amphitheater, as well as a more intimate Casa Faena boutique hotel.
The EAST, Miami features 255 rooms, eight suites, and 89 one-, two-, and three-bedroom residences, as well as 20,000 sf of meeting space. The EAST serves as an anchor of the new Brickell City Centre, which features upscale shopping, dining and entertainment.
“The EAST is a fantastic property,” says Brian Whitt, vice president of sales at local destination management company CSI DMC. “And Brickell Center is one of the most gorgeous shopping areas I’ve ever seen, anywhere in the world. And there are a lot of great food options. For meeting groups, it offers a unique experience.”
To truly take advantage of Miami as a meeting destination, Whitt says, planners should stage a meal or event at one of its unique offsite venues. “One that really delivers the ‘wow factor’ for smaller groups is the legendary Versace Mansion [now renamed The Villa Casa Casuarina] on Miami Beach,” he says. “You can do a beautiful dinner on the pool deck, in this incredible space, for up to 130 attendees. It’s just a totally unique experience in a phenomenal venue.”
He also favors the SeaFair Mega Yacht, anchored in downtown Miami near the InterContinental Miami hotel and offering more than 20,000 sf of event, dining, and entertainment space.
“The SeaFair is an incredible experience for meeting groups,“ Whitt says. “You’re on this amazing yacht, with amazing food. You can do events for up to 600 attendees. But what’s beautiful about it is that it’s built in individual sections, so we’ve also done smaller groups of 100 attendees on the yacht and no one would think they were lost in the space.”
A third offsite venue Whitt cites as sensational is Wynwood Walls, a privately owned art installation in the Wynwood art district near downtown Miami. “It’s just beautiful,” Whitt says. “And again, it’s a very unique Miami experience. It indoctrinates you into the culture of Wynwood and the Miami art scene. The great thing about Wynwood Walls as a venue is that again, it’s divided into three distinct sections, so it can accommodate everything from small groups to large groups, up to at least 500 attendees. And there are wonderful dining options located right around it in the Wynwood neighborhood.”
Just as important as the evolution of its hotel inventory in lifting it to top-dog status as a meeting destination is Miami’s now internationally celebrated culinary scene. Whitt also has a short list of his favorite restaurants.
“For something that’s new and also intimate,” he says, “there is nothing better than Stubborn Seed, Jeremy Ford’s new restaurant. Ford was the winner of season 13 of TV’s Top Chef. His eight-course tasting menu is absolutely off the hook; an absolutely incredible dining experience in a very intimate space that only holds about 50 people. But you can also do a buyout of the entire restaurant and create a really memorable experience for a larger group.”
A little-known local landmark Whitt singles out for praise is The Forge on Miami Beach. Among well-heeled citizens of Miami, it is a landmark. “The Forge enjoys legendary status in Miami. It’s primarily a steak house and it has the most famous wine cellar in Miami. It also has classic old school elegance. And it’s a hidden treasure, since it’s not well known to anyone who doesn’t live in Miami. You can do a group of 90 or 100 there if you use the main dining room, but if you want a truly special and memorable experience, you should do the Wine Room in the basement wine cellar for about 20 people. You’re surrounded by incredible bottles of wine that are actually owned by celebrities who spend time in Miami and come to The Forge for dinner.”
Whitt’s third choice for a truly memorable meal and unique Miami experience is Juvia, located in the Lincoln Road Mall pedestrian dining and entertainment complex in Miami Beach. It offers a fusion of French, Japanese and Peruvian cooking styles, studied and meticulously crafted as a result of decades of training within each culture by its trio of chefs. “For its view, Juvia is incredible,” Whitt says. “The patio is just absolutely amazing for a dining experience. And the food is exceptional.”
When it comes to things to do, Whitt also offers a short list of personal favorites.
“A really cool activity unique to Miami is the Pan Am International Flight Academy pilot training facility, where meeting attendees can spend time on flight simulators that train commercial airline pilots,” he says. “You can book up to two dozen individual simulators for Boeing 737s, 757s and 777s. You get to be an airline pilot for a day. And we’ve had people do things like ditching with a raft into the water. Then they had lunch with airline pilots. Attendees flipped out over the experience.”
CSI DMC also touts shark-tagging as a unique Miami experience. “It’s incredibly memorable,” Whitt says. “We work with the University of Miami and the best shark experts in the world. And attendees actually get to go out and put satellite tags on sharks.” Ideal group size is 20.
Given all that Miami has to offer, Kinney, of HelmsBriscoe, urges meeting planners who have not been there recently to go on a site visit. “Planners who haven’t taken a look at Miami lately should definitely do it, because an opinion that was applicable years ago is no longer applicable,” she says. “And that is particularly true of cost and budget concerns. It is no longer out of reach. And it is a fantastic destination that is very exciting.”
Whitt, for his part, highlights the multicultural sizzle of Miami as its primary allure.
“Miami is a melting pot of cultures,” he says. “It’s an international destination. And you get that kind of feel here that you just don’t get in most other major U.S. cities. And you also get an incredible energy and flavor that are conducive to having a great meeting that attendees will remember.” C&IT