Florida is in a class by itself for several reasons, not the least of which is its unique geographical configuration: As a peninsula, it is the only mainland state with eastern, western and southern coastlines. It boasts the world’s most famous collection of theme parks and distinctive city, coastal and resort properties that continually upgrade and improve to remain attractive in one of the country’s most highly competitive meetings and tourism markets. Ahh, and then there’s the weather…
No wonder so many groups return to Florida year after year, some planning several different types and sizes of meetings in the state in a single year.
The Panhandle’s Emerald Coast — Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island — is distinguished by its beachy ambience with sugar-white sand beaches and the stunning, emerald-green Gulf.
Planners and attendees love the world-class golf resorts, too, including the 602-room Hilton Sandestin Beach, the largest full-service beachfront property on Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast. The property offers 40,000 sf of meeting space and six restaurants, including the Emerald Coast’s only AAA Four Diamond steakhouse. And at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Miramar Beach, the 15,000-sf Linkside Conference Center is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation.
The Emerald Coast Convention Center (ECCC) in Fort Walton Beach, which boasts 35,000 sf of multiuse space, attracts its share of repeat groups. Andromedia Systems Inc., a Virginia Beach-based provider of technology services and solutions, planned its fourth meeting at the ECCC for March 2018, booking rooms at the Holiday Inn Resort and three other hotels.
Value was a prime reason for choosing the ECCC. “We held meetings in the ECCC’s main ballroom and in several breakout rooms,” says Sarah Rollins, Andromedia’s business development and proposal planner, and meeting planner. “The ECCC is very reasonable compared to hotel and resort meeting spaces. I researched them all and this was the best price for our group. They have reasonable catering costs.”
The ECCC also was convenient for other several reasons. “They have first-class facilities and up-to-date AV,” says Rollins. “They are located in close proximity to several nice hotels. This location has a convenient airport, with flights from DC, Charlotte and Atlanta. And the ECCC is well managed and meets all of our needs. I suspect the visit in March won’t be our last.”
The Fort Worth, Texas-based Acme Brick Co. chose Destin over other destinations for its annual sales meeting in February of 83 employees, executives and their guests. “We have offices in three cities in our Southeast division, so we looked at those places,” says Barbara Lewis, executive assistant-sales and meeting planner. “Two of those other cities have great activities and ambience, but were very expensive compared to Northwest Florida, with higher hotel and airfare rates.”
So Lewis considered Destin. “Someone in the office suggested Destin as an alternative,” says Lewis. “The person had attended a convention in Destin the previous year and had really enjoyed it. Destin has great beaches and resorts, and a large variety of activities for our attendees to enjoy.”
Following a site visit, Lewis selected the new Henderson, a Salamander Beach & Spa Resort, which opened in 2016. “The resort hosted the Acme Brick vice president and me, and was very attentive,” says Lewis. “They made sure that we were able to not only experience the rooms at the hotel, but also the food, the onsite spa and the private beach during our stay.”
It will be the first time that Acme has held its annual sales meeting in Destin, and the Henderson’s value played a key role in the decision. “The hotel was very flexible working with us to meet our budget on hotel and food costs,” says Lewis. The property has the quality of food that our group expects. Also, the resort provides concierge car service for its guests so we were able to save on the cost of rental cars, taxis and Uber for our group.”
Lewis was impressed with the Henderson’s meeting space. “The ballroom has the perfect ambience for our awards banquet, elegant, but not too formal,” says Lewis. “They have an amazing rooftop deck where we can hold the cocktail reception during sunset. We are excited to have access to such great views during this reception and anticipate lots of wonderful selfies will be taken by our guests.”
The Henderson, adjacent to a coastal nature preserve, features a dedicated meeting wing with 30,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting and event space, a nature-inspired spa and Gulf-to-table cuisine.
Jacksonville isn’t — but should be — among the first destinations corporate planners consider in Florida.
One reason: Travel guidebook publisher Lonely Planet ranked Jacksonville No. 9 in its Best in Travel 2018 list as one of the world’s Top 10 Best Value Destinations. Jacksonville was the only American city on the list. The guidebook cited Jacksonville’s beaches, park system, family-friendly food scene and affordable hotel rates.
More hotel space is coming: Hyatt Place Jacksonville is under construction and is scheduled to open late this year at The Strand at St. Johns Town Center, a new 45-acre development with retail outlets, restaurants and apartment homes. The five-story property will include 160 guest rooms and 3,000 sf of flexible meeting space.
South of Jacksonville, the 200-room Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach is slated to open in early 2018 with 20,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including some with views of the Atlantic Ocean. The property is Daytona Beach’s newest beachfront hotel and the fourth Hard Rock Hotel in Florida.
Planners find that Miami offers everything needed for memorable meetings, including event-friendly hotels such as the Hilton Miami Downtown, which has completed a property-wide, $35 million renovation. Located downtown near the Wynwood Arts District and Design District, the 527-room property offers more than 45,000 sf of meeting space including a 17,000-sf ballroom and 19 meeting rooms.
The Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC) is undergoing a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the art renovation with sustainability in mind — the MBCC is on track to receive LEED Silver certification when it debuts in September. The project includes exterior fin-shaped structures lining the building’s sides and entrance that provide shade to reduce energy use by 20 percent when combined with natural sunlight. Other energy-saving efforts include LED bulbs, solar panels above the parking areas and electric-car charging stations. The new MBCC will offer more than 500,000 sf of exhibit space, 180,000 sf of meeting space, a new 60,000-sf ballroom and 20,000-sf junior ballroom.
The Marriott Marquis Miami Worldcenter Hotel & Expo Center, developed by MDM Group, is scheduled to break ground in the third quarter of 2018 with an estimated completion in the first half of 2022. It will feature approximately 1,700 hotel rooms and 500,000 sf of meeting and exhibition space. Amenities will include an expansive pool deck with views of Biscayne Bay, the American Airlines Arena and the downtown Miami skyline, as well as an 80,000-sf outdoor event deck.
Just north of Miami is the city of Hollywood, home to Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which is undergoing a $1.5 billion expansion that includes construction of a guitar-shaped hotel tower. The project encompasses an additional 806 guest rooms and suites, including 638 in the guitar hotel tower as well as 168 new rooms and suites in the seven-story Pool Tower. The Seminole Hard Rock’s expansion will add 60,000 sf of new retail and restaurant space, and provide a new $100 million redesigned and rebuilt Hard Rock Live arena that will replace the 5,500-seat venue with a state-of-the-art facility that seats 7,000 theater-style. The expansion will premiere in mid-2019.
Another iconic Hollywood property, The Diplomat Beach Resort, is emerging from a $100 million transformation that includes 1,000 reimagined guest rooms and suites, and indoor and outdoor public spaces.
The Diplomat’s repeat customers include a customer service company that held a meeting for 1,400 employees, managers and executives last year. “This was the fourth large program the company operated at the hotel,” says Jill Bartholomay, lead buyer, event purchasing and industry relations, ITA Group. “We continue to return because the destination is promotable to our employees and because of the hotel’s flexibility and great operational history.”
Bartholomay cites several reasons, including location, as to why the Diplomat is so popular with the group’s attendees. “There is great airlift with the flexibility to use both Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports,” says Bartholomay. “The hotel offers a beachfront location, extensive meeting space and experienced staff that understand the needs of corporate groups. The renovations look great.”
The Diplomat’s 209,000 sf of function space — the 50,000-sf Great Hall, four ballrooms and the 20,000-sf Grand Ballroom — fit the group perfectly.
“The Diplomat is an ideal property for large meetings and incentive programs based on the flexibility of the space,” says Bartholomay. “With multiple ballrooms, our evening events can flow between rooms, allowing for multiple themes and food and beverage options. During the day, there is the flexibility to hold meals outside for large groups, with indoor backup.”
The group also enjoyed meals at The Diplomat Landing, a restaurant venue across the street from the Diplomat accessible via pedestrian bridge. Attendees enjoyed The Landing’s restaurants and large outdoor patio with views of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Bartholomay says meetings at the Diplomat are always a hit. “A survey of attendees was conducted following last year’s,” she says. “The hotel scored a 93 percent overall satisfaction and the overall program received a 98 percent overall score, a great success.”
Some might be surprised at the variety in Palm Beach County, which includes 39 cities and towns as well as 15 tourism districts in 2,200 square miles. The area features chic shopping, fine dining, 160 golf courses and opulent resorts.
Seven resorts and two hotels were named among the “Top Resorts in Florida” by the Condé Nast Traveler 30th annual Readers’ Choice Awards. The two hotels were the Chesterfield Palm Beach (No. 3) and the Brazilian Court (No.5). In the resorts category, the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa was ranked No. 4.
And two Palm Beach County resorts — Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa and Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach — earned five-star ratings in the Forbes Travel Guide 2018 Star Award Winners.
Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, formerly The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, is set on seven oceanfront acres on tony Palm Beach island. The hotel features 309 guest rooms and suites in three towers, the 42,000-sf Forbes Five Star Eau Spa and more than 30,000 sf of meeting and event space. Unique spaces include Stir terrace, which faces the Atlantic Ocean and features a firepit with seating nearby; Breeze Ocean Kitchen, an oceanfront restaurant that also can be used for private receptions and dinners; and the Self-Centered Garden at Eau Spa, a lovely outdoor space ideal for receptions.
In January, the Boca Raton Resort and Club hosted a meeting for 100 executives and customers of Georgia Pacific. It was the group’s fifth meeting at the resort.
The Boca Raton Resort’s value is a top reason why Georgia Pacific returns to the property, even when rates may not be the lowest. “Granted it was peak season in the area, and rates were higher than what’s seen during other times of the year, but we forecast for that and for a luxury property, and prices were comparable to other resorts,” says Wil Bates, CMP, manager, GP Events.
Flexibility is also a factor. “During the sales and contracting phase, the hotel is always willing to be flexible with us and do what they can to help us achieve the goals and objectives of the events we hold there,” says Bates. “The meeting space was fantastic.”
Attendee feedback is always good. “We received feedback from event stakeholders and attendees that the event was very well executed,” says Bates. “We have contracts signed for two other events at the Boca Resort over the next two years.”
Corporate meeting attendees are among the growing number of visitors to Palm Beach County. According to data research company STR, between January and October 2017, room nights sold grew by 4.2 percent and average daily rate (ADR) grew one percent. RevPAR grew 3.3 percent.
Room inventory will increase if a new hotel and convention center are built on Florida Atlantic University’s campus in Boca Raton. According to reports in the Palm Beach Post, FAU is considering partnering with a private developer to build the complex, which could include a 30,000-sf convention center, apartments, stores and restaurants.
Florida’s crown jewel destination is known for its vast array of more than 450 properties, including the Margaritaville Resort Orlando, scheduled to open by the end of this year. The highly anticipated $750 million resort is inspired by the lyrics and lifestyle of singer Jimmy Buffett. The 187-room Margaritaville Resort will feature 30,000 sf of function space, 200,000 sf of retail space and a dining and entertainment district. The project also will include 1,000 Margaritaville-themed resort vacation homes, cottages, villas and timeshare units.
The venerable convention property Rosen Centre Hotel has renovated all of its 1,024 guest rooms. Upgrades include new furnishings, new teal color scheme and technology upgrades aimed at business travelers and families. Rosen Centre guests can charge all of their devices simultaneously on a new multi-outlet connectivity bar containing one ethernet and two USB ports. Additional outlets and USB ports are on the desk lamps, nightstand lamps and headboard panels.
In addition to the technology upgrades, Rosen Centre offers 150,000 sf of meeting and event space that includes a 35,000-sf Grand Ballroom, 18,000-sf Executive Ballrooms, 14,375-sf Junior Ballroom and 35 breakout rooms.
In 2017, Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate underwent a $40 million expansion project that added 23,000 sf of additional pool deck and recreational space, installation of Kissimmee’s only resort wave pool and a new 93-room property villa building. The resort’s Trevi’s Restaurant was redesigned to include an outdoor garden terrace and bar. The expansion also added 100,000 sf of expanded event lawn and conference center space at the Osceola Conference Center. The 862-room resort offers a total of more than 248,000 sf of meeting space, 36 holes of championship golf, the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, the Mokara Spa, multiple dining options and more.
Disney is adding 500 rooms to its Coronado Springs property by the end of 2020. The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort has renovated all of its 2,267 guest rooms and 329,000 sf of meeting space at both properties.
Universal Orlando’s five onsite hotels — Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort — offer a total of 5,600 rooms. The number will rise to 6,200 rooms when Universal’s 600-room Aventura Hotel, scheduled to open in August 2018, is combined with the 400-room ongoing expansion of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The Loews Meeting Complex — comprised of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which are connected by bridge — offers groups and planners 295,000 sf of indoor meeting space and 97,000 sf of outdoor space.
DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at SeaWorld recently added 20,000 sf of ballroom space and 20,000 sf of outdoor courtyard space, bringing total indoor/outdoor event space to 100,000 sf.
This area’s beachside properties, activities and restaurants are drawing more visitors than ever. During the 2017 fiscal year, which ended September 30, Tampa Bay’s hotel revenue increased 5 percent to $670 million over 2016, according to Visit Tampa Bay. Average daily rate (ADR) increased 4.2 percent while RevPAR rose 3.1 percent.
According to Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, “As we wait for new hotel inventory and anticipated developments to come online over the next few years, we are working hard to make the most of the availability we have for both leisure travelers and convention groups.”
Tampa-area beach meeting properties include the 343-room Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach, which opened last year with 22,000 sf of meeting space. Nearby, The Hilton Clearwater Beach completed a $20 million renovation that includes transformation of its 35,000 sf of meeting space, a new restaurant and new spa.
Inland from Tampa Bay, sits Streamsong Resort, one of Florida’s top group golf destinations. Streamsong opened its third golf course, Streamsong Black, last year along with a new clubhouse and restaurant. The course was named the Best New Course of 2017 by Golf Magazine — the latest of several honors that Streamsong’s golf courses have received since the property opened about five years ago.
South of Tampa and just across the causeway from Fort Myers, Sanibel Island’s Sundial Beach Resort and Spa is perfect for planners and meeting-goers looking for a laidback, beachfront site for their 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. Dining options include a daily breakfast buffet and a new restaurant, Shima Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, that can be used for private group events.
Farther south on the Gulf side is Paradise Coast — Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades — offering 30 miles of beaches, trendy stores, outdoor adventures and some of Florida’s top resorts including the AAA Four Diamond Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, which offers 83,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting and event space. Events in the oceanfront venues or on the beach are accentuated by the spectacular Gulf Coast sunsets.
The 319-room resort has undergone more than $50 million in enhancements over the last few years including renovation of the championship golf course, the only on-property golf course at a beachfront resort in Southwest Florida.
In addition, Naples Beach Hotel’s “Welcome to Paradise” promotion offers perks for groups that book new meetings from April 15, 2018 to October 31, 2018. Bookings must include a minimum of two peak nights Sunday–Thursday and a signed contract by September 30, 2018.
Paradise Coast properties have bounced back from hurricane Irma with renovations and improvements.
LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in Naples reopened in November following an $8 million renovation and a two-month closure due to Hurricane Irma. Upgrades include transformed guest rooms in the Gulf Tower, a refreshed lobby and a new look for Baleen, the property’s signature restaurant.
Naples Grande Beach Resort reopened in December after closing for more than three months due to Hurricane Irma. Upgraded areas include meeting space, notably the Vista Ballroom, as well as 474 newly refreshed guest rooms, public spaces and pools.
The JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort will complete $320 million in improvements this year that encompass 716 renovated guest rooms, new dining options, a reimagined lobby and the new adults-only Lanai Tower with 94 guest rooms and new meeting space.
Whether returning to a tried-and-true resort or trying someplace new, meetings in Florida can be depended upon to deliver a little slice of paradise for all who attend. C&IT