The visibility of association meetings and trade shows held at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) can overshadow the corporate side to Orlando’s meetings industry. But Visit Orlando, the city’s destination marketing organization, certainly keeps a close eye on that segment, and the convention sales team recently reported an uptick in RFPs from the technology, manufacturing, franchise and financial verticals. And given that corporations so often talk about engaging their employees with the company, Orlando can be a desirable meeting destination from a reward perspective, whether or not the program is an incentive.
“We are a big convention town but our hotels are in wonderful resort settings,” stresses George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “We have so many recreational amenities, such as golf and watersports, and of course you have all the dining and entertainment. So it’s an opportunity to reward a distributor, a salesperson or any employee: ‘My company has offered me the opportunity to go to a place I love.’ Not many convention destinations can rank as highly as us from an incentive standpoint.”
“Not many convention destinations can rank as highly as us from an incentive standpoint.” — George Aguel
According to Aguel, advocacy for the city can be seen throughout Visit Orlando’s organization, including the registration support staff they provide. “One thing that we do a little differently is that when we provide registration help we don’t let someone else do it for us. Those are all our employees,” he says. “I feel it provides a (better quality of service) because they have a vested interest in what we are, they believe in the mission of Visit Orlando and feel part of the organization. That makes them incredible ambassadors.”
Apparently, these staff members also have strong feelings about their work. “Our partnership with the CVB continues to fulfill our temporary staffing needs, and we constantly have requests from temps to work future shows,” says Judy Smith, CEM, director of Dealer Market with Memphis, Tennessee-based Orgill Inc., the world’s largest independently owned wholesale distributor. The Orgill Spring Dealer Market was held this past February at the OCCC, in the South building and a portion of the North building. “The Orgill Dealer Market has become the industry leader in wholesale and hardware distribution shows and takes pride in choosing Orlando as a destination city. We focus on providing our dealers the best possible experience whether they are on the show floor or enjoying what the city has to offer. The show is one of our most successful and continues to grow each year,” says Smith. “We started out with 200,000 gsf and we’re now going over 800,000.”
Smith praises the city’s variety of hotels, featuring “every price point and every room type. As a way to increase our Dealer Experience, we offer a restaurant reservation desk, on our show floor, that gets a lot of traffic. Our dealers love the opportunity to make reservations onsite for new and existing restaurants and are excited about what Orlando has to offer. There’s something for everyone, which makes Orlando one of our top market cities.”
“Our dealers…are excited about what Orlando has to offer. There’s something for everyone, which makes Orlando one of our top market cities.” — Judy Smith
The Dealer Market fills 13 hotels in Orlando and has 22–25 shuttles running at all times. Yet Orgill also finds Orlando convenient for its much smaller district meetings, which it holds at the 445-room Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport (42,000 sf of function space).
Indeed, Orlando’s airlift is a boon to meetings of all sizes with an international attendance, such as the senior management program held by Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Amcor Rigid Plastics at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge. “Orlando was centrally located for us, since we were bringing people out of Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and North America,” says Michael Hodges, director, communications and public relations, for the global packaging company. The property offers a 70-room lodge and 9,000 sf of meeting space, and Amcor rented some houses to fully accommodate the 95 managers in its group. “We wanted to have it as ‘our’ property for the week,” Hodges adds. “Our president wanted the Bay Hill location. He loved the idea of golf, and for anyone who wanted to come in prior to the meeting or stay after the meeting, it was fine to play. But during the course of the meeting, he elected that we were not going to play golf. He challenged me to do something different (see sidebar on page 48).” Bay Hill is home to one of the most popular 18-hole courses on the PGA Tour, as well as to the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy.
Much more expansive Orlando properties also can provide dedicated service to relatively small corporate groups. A case in point is the 1,641-room Hyatt Regency Orlando, which offers 315,000 sf of meeting space, including five pillar-free ballrooms and 105 breakout rooms.
In April and December of last year, the Hyatt hosted a sales training meeting for Eagan, Minnesota -based Harland Clarke, a provider of integrated payment solutions and marketing services. Karen Inman, senior sales support specialist, planned the conferences, which each brought in about 275 sales representatives. When Inman did a site inspection at the hotel, she observed that “even though it is a very large hotel it didn’t feel large. We have about 30 breakouts, and that’s one of the reasons we can’t go to a much smaller hotel.” And while there were other meeting groups in-house, the general session, F&B and breakout spaces were “dedicated to us,” she says. “There wasn’t any comingling” with the other groups.
Harland Clarke conducted the site inspection and signed the contract with the hotel while it was still The Peabody Orlando. “By the time we got there it was the Hyatt. I was a little concerned (about staff quality), but it was seamless as far as switching over: no changes in staff or (anything pertinent to) our agreement,” says Inman. She was especially pleased with the hotel’s services in the AV area. “For our general sessions, without us ever talking about it, they made all sorts of suggestions of things that we could do, and they fit it within our budget. In fact, there were some things we were doing on our own that they could have done for us: For example, at the end we threw together a photo montage of the week; if we had given that to them it would have been much more professional.”
Another virtue of the Hyatt Orlando is its proximity to Pointe Orlando, a dining and shopping district across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. “It’s a long day for (our attendees) so we like to be in a location where either they can go to the bar in the hotel or step out, and the location was perfect for our people to do that,” Inman relates. “We have a dine-around where people break out into their different teams. We had a team that went to Cuba Libre (Restaurant & Rum Bar) and they were dancing on the tables.” Showcased at the recent IBTM America in the city, Pointe Orlando is home to several other restaurants that cater to groups, such as B.B. King’s Blues Club, Tommy Bahama Restaurant & Bar and the Oceanaire Seafood Room. There are also outdoor areas available for private group functions.
Walt Disney World Resort’s newly renovated California Grill also should be on planners’ radars. Set on the 15th floor Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the restaurant now features décor that captures the spirit of California and a menu featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients. The Grill offers two private dining rooms with panoramic views: The Napa Room accommodates up to 70 attendees, while the Sonoma Room seats as many as 40. The 655-room Contemporary Resort houses 115,000 sf of function space.
A less formal dining experience for groups can be arranged at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel, which recently introduced the Causeway Party, a customized food festival for groups. Modeled after the hotel’s own annual Swan and Dolphin Food & Wine Classic event, the festival is held along the causeway between the property’s two buildings. The hotel’s F&B experts (including a world champion pastry chef and more than 70 certified wine sommeliers) can guide planners in designing the food stations. Live entertainment and customizable lighting enhance the atmosphere. The resort also has begun offering nontraditional event spaces, such as its giant freezers (which can accommodate 60 attendees for receptions featuring carved ice bars) and banquet kitchens that can be remodeled for a speakeasy theme. To round out the new F&B-related offerings for groups, coffee breaks at the Swan and Dolphin now feature coffees from around the world, including South America, Italy and France. The hotels comprise 2,265 guest rooms and more than 329,000 sf of meeting space, including 84 meeting rooms and 110,500 sf of contiguous convention/exhibit space.
The 2.1-million-sf Orange County Convention Center will undergo a five-year, $187 million renovation — the center’s biggest ever — that includes upgrades to everything from signs to roofing to cooling units. Plans call for turning 50,000 sf of exhibition space into a ballroom. Kathleen Canning, the convention center’s executive director, told the Orlando Sentinel that officials are responding to the demand from meeting planners for upscale interiors and smaller, executive-style meeting rooms.
Planners now have a new and very upscale lodging option within Walt Disney World Resort: the Four Seasons Resort Orlando. Welcoming guests this month, the 444-room property offers 37,750 sf of function space, including a 14,000-sf ballroom, a Tom Fazio-designed golf course, spa and a rooftop steak house. The resort is well-suited to the incentive market, as it is “positioned in one of the most recognizable destinations internationally, and they’re a recognizable luxury brand, so it’s going to be a powerful combination,” Aguel comments. In view of the Four Seasons’ Disney location, he adds that “We’re very strong in the family incentive market. Especially as times have gotten better, there’s a feeling that we really need to acknowledge the importance of letting our incentive winners being able to enjoy time with their families, because they may have become incentive winners by working very hard and not spending enough time with their families.”
On the subject of new properties, Aguel cites the 394-room B Resort & Spa, a “modern resort that will appeal to a younger demographic.” Located in Lake Buena Vista, the former Royal Plaza underwent extensive renovations before debuting as part of the B Hotels & Resorts family in July. The B Resort is situated within walking distance to Downtown Disney (transforming into Disney Springs by 2016), and offers more than 25,000 sf of indoor and outdoor flexible function space.
Aguel adds that Universal Orlando Resort has recently opened the colorfully retro, moderately priced 1,800-room Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which would really be a “pure incentive” property as it lacks meeting space. The resort is delightfully detailed with blasts from the past, including classic cars at the entrance and vintage footage from ’50s and ’60s-era commercials running on screens in the Bayliner Diner, where the menu includes tuna casserole and Swedish meatballs along with ginger soy glazed salmon.
Of course, Universal Orlando Resort has several properties well stocked in meeting space. Among them, the 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort just announced the largest meeting space expansion in Universal Orlando’s history. By fall 2015, the hotel, which is already the largest meeting hotel at Universal Orlando, will expand its meeting and event space from 85,000 sf to more than 140,000 sf including a 36,000-sf ballroom. The other properties are the 750-room Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (42,000 sf) and the 650-room Hard Rock Hotel (more than 6,000 sf). Groups staying at one of these resorts will enjoy easy access to Universal’s latest themed experience: the just-opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, located in the Universal Studios Florida theme park. Complementing Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Diagon Alley features a “next generation” thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts; eateries like the Leaky Cauldron (a British style pub); a variety of eclectic shopping; and of course, uniquely themed group event options. The Hogwarts Express train, which runs between the two parks, treats passengers to scenes from Harry Potter tales as they look out the windows.
Walt Disney World Resort opened The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride in May in the newly expanded Fantasyland. And the Disney Institute, the external business and professional development arm of The Walt Disney Company, has reimagined all of the institute’s courses for 2014–2015 “to help professionals navigate the continuously changing landscape of today’s business climate,” said Jeff James, vice president and general manager, Disney Institute, in a statement.
Offering a shuttle to Walt Disney World is the Omni Orlando at ChampionsGate, which debuted a conference center last year, adding more than 46,000 sf to the hotel, resulting in more than 128,000 sf in total. The new facility includes a 28,800-sf ballroom that can break out into eight flexible meeting rooms. Features include advanced communications and computer technology, open pre-function area, an event lawn and a large loading dock for easy setup. The 720-room Omni is home to the Leadbetter Golf Academy World Headquarters, 36 holes of championship golf and the Mokara Spa.
The 315-room Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard, located across from the OCCC, introduced its own new meeting facility this year, the 5,575-sf Lotus Ballroom, which increases the hotel’s total function and prefunction space to 13,685 sf. Accommodating up to 300 guests for a banquet setting or meeting and up to 500 guests for a reception, the ballroom can be divided into two 2,312-sf rooms and features floor-to-ceiling windows.
Speaking of great views, attendees staying at the Rosen Plaza Hotel and meeting at the OCCC have enjoyed a weatherproof walk across the Gary Sain Memorial Skybridge since its debut last fall. Rosen Hotels & Resorts, which also owns Rosen Centre Hotel and Rosen Shingle Creek, fully funded the construction of the $2.5 million, 745-foot skybridge. In a press statement, Victoria Hall, director of sales and marketing, Rosen Plaza, called the bridge’s completion an “important milestone in the Orlando meetings community now that all four major convention hotels and are connected to the convention campus.”
The 1,001-room Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek had its own milestone in March when it won the Connie Award, Hilton Worldwide’s highest achievement for an individual property. The hotel had the highest scores in the three key categories: cleanliness, condition and brand standards; customer ratings of staff service; and customer ratings of the quality of the hotel’s physical accommodations. The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek houses 132,000 sf of function space, including the 35,925-sf Bonnet Creek Ballroom and new 10,000-sf Bonnet Creek Pavilion overlooking the golf course and waterways.
Certifiably world-class hotels like the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek help to raise the city’s profile in the international meetings market. “On the corporate side we are trying to foster more of our international appeal, particularly Europe,” says Aguel. “But also important is the Latin/South America side of the ledger. We have offices in Germany and the UK, as well as in all those key South American and Latin American countries.”
The growth in upscale hotels, from the relatively new Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort, Bonnet Creek, to the newly opened Four Seasons, will certainly fuel Visit Orlando’s international marketing efforts. C&IT