Although Florida offers a long list of popular, well-established meeting destinations, from north to south and from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico, it also features a trio of less well-known destinations along its Northeast Coast.
However, each year more planners discover — and swear allegiance to — the practical benefits and unique appeal of meeting in Jacksonville, Amelia Island and St. Augustine/Ponte Vedra Beach.
For planners unfamiliar with the destination, there are many surprises to be found in Jacksonville. For example, Jacksonville is the largest city by landmass in the continental U.S. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Johns River, the sprawling waterfront metropolis boasts 21 miles of beaches and more than three miles of riverfront public spaces in its laidback downtown. Jacksonville also offers the largest public park system in the country, with more than 85,000 acres of recreation space, and is nationally recognized as one of the top 25 arts cities in the U.S.
— Gwen Knight, CMP, Independent Meeting Planner, Lincoln, KS
Known as “The River City by the Sea,” Jacksonville can also claim a formidable inventory of meeting infrastructure, with 200 hotels offering a total of 18,000 rooms and hundreds of offsite venues delivering just the right size and feel for any kind of meeting or event.
The Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, located in the heart of downtown just 15 minutes from Jacksonville International Airport and less than a mile from 1,000 hotel rooms, offers more than 275,000 sf of state-of-the-art meeting and event space.
The city also offers a robust roster of offsite venues and attractions. The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens is among the most visited art outposts in the Southeast and features spectacular gardens that are perfect for a memorable reception. Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is perennially ranked as one of the country’s top animal attractions and also a unique meeting venue that includes its own catering department. Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary is a favorite local attraction, home to tigers, lions, panthers and other big cats. And Jacksonville Beach Pier is an historic landmark that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and a vast, beautiful beach.
Jacksonville also features more than 50 golf courses, including famed TPC Sawgrass, home of the PGA Tour’s The Players tournament.
Gwen Knight, CMP, an independent meeting planner based in Lincoln, KS, used Jacksonville for the first time last year for a five-day, 1000-attendee conference for Pioneer Network, a health care organization that specializes in serving the senior care market such as nursing homes.
Knight discovered Jacksonville somewhat by accident, at the behest of her Hyatt national sales representative. “I had never been there,” Knight says. “And at the time, we were looking at another destination for the meeting. But I was convinced to go to Jacksonville and take a look at it. And I was very impressed.”
She was hosted by the convention and visitors bureau (Visit Jacksonville), and Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, which ultimately earned hotel headquarters status for the meeting. “Both the CVB and the hotel did a very good job of convincing me to select Jacksonville,” Knight says. “And what I learned was that the financial advantages of meeting in Jacksonville just couldn’t be ignored.”
Based on responses to her RFP, Knight found surprising bang for the buck in Jacksonville. “And the value we got was the No. 1 reason we went there,” she says.
Bottom-line value was especially important to Pioneer Network, Knight explains, because they strive to keep their costs low so they can keep the registration cost down for attendees, many of whom are in the nursing home industry, which has suffered sharp budget cuts in recent years.
Another benefit of using Jacksonville, Knight says, was the exemplary service and support she received from the CVB and Hyatt Regency in the execution of her event.
“They were all true partners with us,” she says. “And we even got that kind of support from Swisscom, the AV company that operates out of the hotel. All of them were 100 percent behind whatever we wanted to do.”
Knight and her attendees also had high praise for Jacksonville International Airport. “It’s fresh, it offers easy access, and beats first-tier city congestion and annoyances,” Knight says.
And the service at the Hyatt Regency was so good that it earned a rare 100 percent rating in Knight’s post-meeting attendee survey.
Among the things Knight liked best about the hotel was its prefunction space. “Our receptions, our exhibits, our box lunches — all of those things were held in the middle of the huge, enormous foyer that is their prefunction area,” she says. “It is just magnificent, and it has great views of the river. And for me as a planner, finding just the right match of meeting space to my meeting is always a top priority. For this meeting, the Hyatt Regency was perfect.”
As its reputation as a value-based beach meeting destination grows, Jacksonville continues to improve upon its hotels and venues.
The Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, one of the area’s most popular meeting properties, is in the midst of a multimillion, resort-wide renovation. The intimate Aloft Jacksonville Tapestry Park reopened in August after a renovation. The Holiday Inn Baymeadows has been rebranded as a Wyndham-owned Ramada Jacksonville/Baymeadows. Two major airport hotels — the Jacksonville Airport Hotel, formerly a Clarion, and the Fairfield Inn & Suites Jacksonville Airport, are now undergoing renovations.
New meeting venues include the Schultz Center, which features 16 meeting rooms, two boardrooms, 10,000 sf of banquet space, onsite catering services and state-of-the-art audio-visual capabilities.
Riverfront Landing is a highly popular mixed-use facility located near several major meeting hotels, including the Hyatt Regency Riverfront, and offering a range of dining, entertainment and shopping options.
New local dining options include Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails from local celebrity chef Tom Gray, Epik Burger located in the city’s Southeast District and Safe Harbor Seafood located in Mayport Village.
About a 30-minute drive from downtown Jacksonville is Amelia Island is one of the most exclusive island communities in the U.S. At the southern end of Sea Island, a chain of barrier islands that stretches along the East Coast from South Carolina to Florida, Amelia Island is 13 miles long and about four miles wide at its widest point. Its established communities are Fernandina Beach and Amelia City.
The island features 13 miles of ocean-facing beaches, abundant native wildlife and pristine waters, the characteristics of which have helped secure its status among the top 10 North American island destinations, according to Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards.
Amelia Island features a pair of major meeting hotels: the 404-room, AAA Four Diamond Omni Amelia Island Plantation, with 80,000 sf of meeting space, and the 446-room Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, with 48,000 sf of space.
Omni Amelia Island, a sprawling 1,350-acre complex that features a trio of world-class golf courses and a spa, reopened last March after completing an $85 million, property-wide renovation that resulted from Omni’s purchase of the landmark hotel. The updated property now features a breathtaking arrival experience that features a stunning lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking an infinity pool and the Atlantic Ocean.
Keeping pace with its own $65 million renovation completed last spring, The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island created a new coastal theme that features new color schemes and wood floor entries in its guest rooms, as well as dramatic floor-to-ceiling balcony doors with plantation shutter treatments.
The fresh design, by Wilson Associates, is intended to take full advantage of the hotel’s spectacular location above a dune-lined white sand beach surrounded by saltwater marshes. The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island also features an acclaimed spa, as well as the new Talbot Ballroom.
In addition to the three championship golf courses at Omni Amelia Island Plantation, the island features the Golf Club of Amelia Island at Summer Beach Resort and the Royal Amelia Golflinks. The Fernandina Beach Golf Club is the resort’s “city course.”
Given its exclusivity, Amelia Island also offers top-of-the-line, fine-dining experiences.
Last year, the owners of Hoyt House Bed & Breakfast opened David’s Restaurant, which features gourmet steak and seafood fare and excellent service. A daily three-course prix fixe menu is offered seven days a week for $35 per person.
Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro, a favorite eatery among locals that is open daily for lunch and dinner, completed a renovation last year. Lunch specials include Tuna Martini, Chopped Fried Chicken Salad and a Rib Eye Caprese Po’ Boy.
Sliders Seaside Grill, another well-established local favorite that specializes in fresh local seafood, also completed a renovation last year.
Gail Meyer, meetings and incentives manager at Norcross, GA-based Mighty Auto Parts, experienced the Northeast Florida Coast for the company’s five-day 50th anniversary annual sales meeting and trade show for more than 600 attendees.
“I actually stumbled upon Amelia Island by accident,” Meyer says. “I was invited to go there on a leadership retreat, which was also sort of a FAM trip. And at that time, we at Mighty Auto Parts were not thinking about Amelia Island as a destination for our 50th anniversary meeting because we typically do an East Coast–West Coast rotation, and we had just done the meeting in Orlando the year before. So our eyes were on the West Coast for the big meeting.”
But as soon as she saw Amelia Island, Meyer says, she knew instinctively that it was the perfect location for an event as special as Mighty Auto Parts’ 50th anniversary celebration.
“One of the major factors was being on the beach and the fact that every room at Omni Amelia Island has a view of the water,” Meyer says. “We also wanted a place that for our attendees would be more than just a meeting, but also be an incentive program reward for some of them. We wanted everyone to have an experience that was not just all business, but also represented pleasure.”
Yet another factor was that a significant percentage of attendees at the company’s annual meeting bring their spouses and children and treat it as a family vacation. About one third of this year’s attendees brought their families to Amelia Island.
Meyer got her meeting off to a good start with an opening reception at the hotel’s Marsh View Bar & Grill, which offers a menu of Southern-inspired casual fare and overlooks vistas of the marsh, the Intracoastal Waterway and the ninth hole of the Oak Marsh Golf Course.
“We had golf-related games and contests including a putting contest,” Meyer says. “We had food and an open bar. And the nice thing about the golf course is that everybody got to experience a great sunset, which is somewhat unusual on the east coast of Florida, where people are more accustomed to seeing a great sunrise. But we got a great sunset.”
For the meeting’s one free evening, Meyer shuttled attendees to Fernandina Beach, where they enjoyed local seafood restaurants and shopping. “It’s a cool spot because it’s where the local fishing boats come in,” Meyer says.
Among other meeting highlights were a vintage car show staged on the lawn at the hotel and a closing night awards banquet. “We gave away two cars, a completely restored vintage 1957 Camaro and a 2014 Ford Mustang,” Meyer says.
In addition to a truly memorable meeting, Omni Amelia Island Plantation also delivered some of the finest service Meyer has ever experienced. “I do an evaluation at the end of every meeting, based on the feedback I get from our attendees,” she says. “And I just looked at that report, and the ratings for the hotel, based on a system of giving ratings of one to five for the various categories such as food and beverage, was an average of 4.75 and 4.89. So that really tells you what our attendees thought of the hotel and the service we got. Those numbers are near the top of any we’ve ever gotten for any meeting.”
Meyer notes that such service can be largely attributed to the hands-on attention provided by general manager Paul Eckert. “He’s young, he’s approachable and to him, it’s all about customer service,” Meyer says. “He’s visible. He’s there on property the whole time. And from the first time I visited the hotel, on every single visit I have run into him, and he has been friendly and supportive. So I knew I could go to him for anything I needed.”
Meyer, who plans about 15–20 small meetings a year in addition to the company’s annual event, finds that kind of personal service from a GM highly unusual. “The only two places I’ve ever really encountered that are both Omni properties,” she says. “The other is Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, where we held last year’s annual meeting.”
Located just south of Jacksonville, St. Augustine is one of Florida’s most historic and fascinating destinations. In fact, it is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the U.S.
Founded in 1565 by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St. Augustine — originally named St. Augustin — served as the capital of Spanish Florida for 200 years. It remained the capital of eastern Florida as the territory changed hands between the Spanish and British, and remained the capital of the Florida Territory until it was moved to Tallahassee in 1824. Since the late 19th century, its historical character has made the city a major tourist attraction.
St. Augustine features colonial-era buildings as well as elite 19th century architecture. The city’s historic center is anchored by St. George Street, which is lined with historic homes from various periods of Florida history.
Some of the city’s most popular attractions are also historic.
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm, incorporated in 1908, is one of the oldest commercial tourist attractions in Florida, as is the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, which dates from the same time period.
The city also holds a special place in the history of the civil rights movement. A privately funded Freedom Trail links a number of historic sites that date back to key moments in the civil rights movement, and there is a museum at the site of Fort Mose, the location of a free black community founded in 1738. Historic Excelsior School, built in 1925 as the first public high school for blacks in St. Augustine, became the city’s first museum of African-American history.
Another interesting local historical attraction is the Colonial Quarter, which opened last March and immerses visitors in the lives of Spanish and British militia members from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
The newly renovated Government House is now home to a First Colony exhibit developed by the University of Florida to explore and explain the area’s Spanish origins. The exhibit features interactive displays and artifacts that provide insight into the lives of early Spanish settlers and their relationships with indigenous populations.
Rick Allen, corporate events coordinator at Needham, MA-based The Corporate Directors Group, which provides certification and education for members of corporate boards of directors, has taken one of his most important annual meetings to the St. Augustine area for each of the last four years.
Next year will mark his fifth journey to Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a 300-acre beach resort built in 1928 on famous Ponte Vedra Beach and boasting its own fascinating history as one of the most private and exclusive resorts in Florida.
Although Allen rarely repeats destinations and hotels, Ponte Vedra Inn & Club has emerged as the ideal venue for the organization’s two-day, 100-attendee education and networking conference each spring.
“I initially did a site inspection trip,” Allen says. “And in selecting Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, we looked at a lot of factors. And one that is especially important to us, given our audience, is the convenience of getting to the destination.”
Attendees fly both commercially and on private corporate planes. “And it’s very convenient to fly into Jacksonville,” Allen says. “It’s a great airport, very customer-friendly. And they also accommodate private planes.” The airport is also convenient to the hotel.
What has accounted for Allen’s unprecedented loyalty to Ponte Vedra Inn & Club?
“Because our audience is corporate directors, we always look for a hotel that can accommodate them in a very upscale fashion,” he says. “But part of that is also putting them in an environment where they can feel relaxed and also like they are in a private setting. Ponte Vedra offers a beautiful beach and incredible accommodations. And we get rooms that are just steps away from the beach, with magnificent views.”
The other factor that has made Allen an annual customer is exemplary service. “When you’re at Ponte Vedra, they really cater to you,” he says. “They take over. They manage everything for you in a very professional manner. You get the feeling that you are the only guest there. And in doing these corporate events, it is extremely important to me that when I arrive at a facility that I don’t have to worry about anything other than taking care of my attendees.”
Given his VIP audience, that high standard of service is even more critical than it is for other corporate meetings. “These people are used to having everything set for them and going smoothly,” Allen says. “They don’t want to waste time. They want to get in and get out and have the entire experience be very convenient and comfortable. And that’s exactly what they get at Ponte Vedra. So the destination has just worked very well for us for this particular meeting.” C&IT