Although Orlando has been among the country’s top 10 meeting destinations for years, in 2013 it achieved the lofty status of being named the No. 1 destination in the U.S. by Cvent.
That distinction comes as no surprise to the many loyal corporate meeting planners who have considered the Magic City a go-to choice for about as long as they can remember.
“First of all, it offers sunshine in February,” says Judy Smith, CEM, director of dealer markets at Memphis, Tennessee-based Orgill, Inc., a wholesale hardware supplier to the U.S., Canada and 62 other countries. For the last eight years, Smith has used Orlando for the company’s citywide Spring Dealer Market, which uses 1 million sf of total space at the Orange County Convention Center and draws 28,000 attendees from across the country and the world. The event is booked in Orlando for every year except two through 2026.
“It also offers attendees the opportunity to both work and play well,” Smith says. “And with the variety of hotels to choose from at every price point and the theme parks, Orlando continues to be the best destination for our show.”
Brent Sutton, senior event director at San Francisco-based business-to-business media enterprise 1105 Media, has used Orlando for seven of the last 10 years — the last four consecutively for a five-day information technology and developers conference that attracts more than 1,000 attendees. The company will return for a fifth year this fall for Live! 360. “The reason I keep going back to Orlando is that they continue to offer so much not only for our conference attendees, but also their families,” Sutton says. “The majority of my attendees have their attendance paid for by their companies. So that makes it easy for them to decide to also bring their families and make it a vacation as well, which more than half of our attendees do each year. But for me as a planner, Orlando also delivers all of the other things I typically look for in a destination.”
Such loyal testimonials come as no surprise to Jane Scaletta, general manager of local destination management company AlliedPRA Orlando.
“It’s exciting to host a meeting in Orlando. If you were here last year, we have something new for you this year. If you come this year, we’ll have something new for you next year. And it’s because of that, primarily, that Orlando is and remains an exciting destination.” — Jane Scaletta
“The most important thing to know about Orlando right now is that we are on the move as a major meeting destination,” Scaletta says. “We are growing. It’s exciting to host a meeting in Orlando. If you were here last year, we have something new for you this year. If you come this year, we’ll have something new for you next year. And it’s because of that, primarily, that Orlando is and remains an exciting destination.”
In addition to excitement, Orlando also offers formidable airlift and what is arguably one of the nicest and easiest to navigate major airports in the world — Orlando International Airport.
Airlift is particularly important to Smith for her citywide meeting that draws attendees from all over the world.
“The airlift into and out of Orlando and the quality of the airport, in terms of being easy to get into and out of and offering a lot of good restaurants, is very important to us and our attendees,” she says. “And we also get good value on airfares, no matter where someone is coming from.”
Hattie Hill, CMM, CEO of Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF), a private leadership development entity supported by a consortium of food-service companies to help women reach senior management positions in the industry, cites airlift as one of the key reasons why she has brought WFF’s 3,000-attendee annual meeting, which also attracts international attendees, to Orlando every other year since 2000.
“The airlift is important, because the people that attend our meeting are busy businesspeople,” Hill says. “And they want to be out of the office for the shortest amount of time possible. Because Orlando has great airlift from around the country, that means that many of our attendees can catch a flight after their office hours and still get to the meeting.”
Sutton also praises both Orlando’s airport and airlift. “The airport is easy to get into and out of, and it’s easy to get flights to and from,” he says. “We have attendees from all over the country, as well as internationally, and all of our attendees can either get direct flights or get there with just one connecting flight.”
It comes as a big surprise to many meeting planners who visit Orlando for the first time that the city offers 450 hotels and a whopping 118,600 rooms, Scaletta says. And as the destination continues to evolve and increase in sophistication, its hotel product is leading the way, she says.
Most recently, Orlando has benefitted from the conversion of the landmark Peabody Orlando, perennially cited as one of the top meeting hotels in the country, to a Hyatt Regency. And its importance is enhanced by its location in the center of International Drive. The Hyatt Regency Orlando is connected to the Orange County Convention Center and offers 315,000 sf of flexible meeting space. Just up the street is the AAA Four Diamond Hilton Orlando, another major property connected to the convention center.
The new Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, which opened last August, further burnishes Orlando’s growing reputation, Scaletta says, especially for high-end meetings and incentive groups. “Four Seasons is a great luxury hotel brand,” she says. “And they have really outdone themselves in Orlando. And because it’s an ‘at Walt Disney World Resort’ property, you also get all of those incredible benefits, such as the venues within the Disney complex.”
Smith likes the city’s hotel inventory because of the wide range of options and price points it offers. “All of our attendees pay their own way, and a lot of them are mom-and-pop hardware dealers, even though we also have large dealer attendees,” she says. “But we treat them all the same, whether they’re a $3 million a year dealer or a small one. So one thing we like about Orlando is that you can find a hotel room anywhere from luxury to economy.”
Her hotel room roster includes the Hilton Orlando and Hyatt Regency Orlando, as well as more properties conveniently located near the convention center.
For the more than 1,000 internal employees who attend the meeting, Smith uses the Marriott Village Orlando in Lake Buena Vista. This campus of hotels can accommodate her entire team and also offers good value. “We also like the fact it is convenient for people because it’s centrally located to things like dining and shopping,” Smith says.
Hill has remained loyal to the Marriott Village Orlando since 2000, primarily because of the quality of its staff and the relationship she has developed with them. “You can find rooms and meeting space anywhere,” she says. “But you can’t always find a good partner. And we have a great partnership with Marriott World Center, and one that truly values the fact that we keep coming back every other year. We are in the food business, so the food and beverage we get at a hotel is a very important part of the expectations of our attendees. And again, Marriott World Center does a great job for us every time.”
And the third factor in her longtime use of the hotel is that its size perfectly fits her meeting. “We like to have everything under one roof,” she says. “So when you combine the staff, the service we get, the great relationship we have and the quality of the food and the ability to do everything under one roof, that makes the Marriott World Center ideal for us.”
Sutton is an equally loyal user of Universal properties, most notable the Loews Royal Pacific Resort.
“I’m an absolute fan of all the Universal Orlando hotel properties, but especially the Loews Royal Pacific,” he says. “It’s a magical place as far as a venue for conferences. It not only has all the amenities I need for a large group program, but the hotel itself, from the décor to the South Pacific feel it creates, really transports our attendees and makes them feel like they’re on a very special tropical vacation. It’s also very family-friendly. For us, it delivers the total package we’re looking for. And then you have the fact it’s very close to the Universal theme parks.”
For its F&B, Sutton gives the Loews Royal Pacific a nine out of 10. “Not only do they have good conference (catering) food,” he says. “But year after year, we also get high marks from our attendees for the food they receive in the various restaurants.”
And in a budget-conscious, post-recession marketplace, he says, especially now that hotels have regained their pricing power as a seller’s market, the other key benefit he gets with Universal is a strong value proposition. “They have been our true partners, especially ever since the recession,” he says. “They work with us to make sure that we have a package to offer attendees that is affordable to their companies. And that means it has to work on every level, from the room rate to the F&B and all the other costs associated with people being there. And Universal does a great job on every aspect of all that.”
Yet another factor in Orlando’s popularity as a meeting destination is its diverse and constantly evolving dining scene, which features everything from restaurants operated by top celebrity chefs to budget options and everything in between.
“The dining options and the food in Orlando are amazing,” Sutton says. “It really does offer something for every taste and budget, from upscale gourmet restaurants to budget choices. My attendees and I like the fact that it has such as range of options from high-end to low-cost, as well as midmarket options. That’s very important to us, because we have quite a few attendees that are on a strict per-diem budget from their companies. But we also have attendees that are looking for high-end dining options like celebrity chef restaurants you hear about on the food channels, and others that are looking for chain restaurants where they can eat inexpensively.”
The ever-growing roster of good restaurants also is a major factor in Smith’s ongoing annual use of the destination. “It’s been unbelievable how the dining scene in Orlando has evolved over the last few years,” she says. “It’s the best thing that ever happened, as far as we’re concerned. And as we continue to expand our dealer markets and enhance the experiences of our attendees, we give them a lot of information about the local restaurants before the show.”
She and her attendees are particularly fond of “Restaurant Row,” which is centrally and conveniently located along bustling Sand Lake Road. “You have a lot of dining choices and they’re all good,” Smith says. “And it’s easy to get there inexpensively by taxi.”
Even though Sand Lake Road and the spectacular CityWalk dining and entertainment complex at Universal Orlando continue to reign as the most popular restaurant locations of choice for meeting planners and attendees, International Drive and the area formerly known as Downtown Disney — now transitioning to Disney Springs — are coming on strong, Scaletta says.
For example, International Drive offers Pointe Orlando, a dining and entertainment complex near the convention center that offers an array of popular venues including a Capital Grille steak house, B.B. King’s Blues Club and Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar.
Meanwhile, a number of new restaurants have debuted at Universal’s CityWalk, including Vivo Italian Kitchen, Hot Dog Hall of Fame and Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food.
“We recently did an event at Antojitos and it was fantastic,” Scaletta says, adding that the new Disney Springs will feature an upscale restaurant from Food Network’s Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
For larger meetings, the Orange County Convention Center, which now ranks as the second largest in the country, with 2.1 million sf of exhibit space plus meeting rooms and breakout spaces, continues to play a major role in Orlando’s success. To remain competitive, the facility has launched the next phase of a five-year capital improvements plan with the renovation of West Halls E & F and meeting rooms. Hall WF will be converted into a 50,000-sf ballroom and four boardrooms. Meeting rooms in W340 will become signature rooms with wood flooring, bamboo ceilings and a scenic outdoor mezzanine deck for entertaining. The latest phase of the facility’s makeover will be completed in 2017.
Smith, as a major user of the convention center, gives it high marks. “First and foremost for us is the quality of the people we work with,” she says. “They know us. We’ve built a good relationship that is now a real partnership. They’re there for us, no matter what we need. But in addition to that, in terms of cleanliness and service, Orange County Convention Center is just an excellent facility.”
The exceptional quality of the facility’s technology is also very important to her.
“They have made some major changes with regard to wireless technology that really help us, because everybody has a wireless device or tablet now,” she says. “And our show is a buying show, so technology is very important to the success of the meeting.”
The final factor in the city’s phenomenal recent success is its CVB, Visit Orlando, with former Disney senior executive George Aguel as its passionate and visionary chairman.
“They are one of the top CVBs I’ve ever worked with,” Smith says. “In fact, I would rate them No. 1. The people I work with are the best I’ve ever worked with. They know us, and they work with us very well because they know the things we need, and they deliver those things. They stay on top of everything, and they keep me posted on things like new hotels or restaurants. We source our own rooms and negotiate our own deals, but they help me find more rooms when I need them, and they help me find and manage the temp service we use for registration.”
Hill also has high praise for Visit Orlando, with whom she has worked since 2000. “One key reason we continue to come back to Orlando is that we have a great relationship with the CVB,” she says. “But the other reason is that Orlando is the most visited family travel destination in the world. And our excellent relationship with the CVB makes it easy for us to keep coming back.”
In her experience, Orlando is second to none as a destination, Hill says. “The most important thing for us and our attendees is that in Orlando, we have a destination where our staff and attendees get to work hard and then, when the conference is over, they can bring their families in and enjoy the city,” she says. “That’s why Orlando works so well for us.”
Smith agrees that Orlando lacks nothing as a meeting destination. “It has great hotels, great restaurants and it’s easy to get to,” she says. “It also has everything you need right around the convention center, and it’s a ‘walking’ city. And it has great shopping. So for a meeting of our size, it’s everything you could ever ask for in a destination.”
According to Visit Orlando, there is great news for groups meeting in Orlando starting with the May 4 opening of The Orlando Eye at I-Drive 360 — the new entertainment complex on International Drive. Groups of up to 15 attendees can reserve their own fully enclosed, air-conditioned glass capsule for an intimate cocktail party on the 400-foot-tall observation wheel.
Madame Tussauds also will find a home this spring at I-Drive 360, providing groups with the ultimate celebrity experience. Groups of 15 or more are eligible for a special discount.
The Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, coming to I-Drive 360, will provide groups with interactive options such as a hands-on touchpool experience, face-to-face encounters with sharks, a 360-degree Ocean Tunnel and more than 5,000 creatures.
The Boathouse is an upscale, waterfront dining restaurant coming to Disney Springs. Guests can listen to live music or take a romantic captain’s guided tour aboard The Venezia, a 40-foot wooden Italian water taxi.
STK Orlando blends two concepts into one — the modern steak house and a chic lounge. STK Orlando will boast the only rooftop dining venue in Disney Springs. STK has outposts in London, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Atlanta, and three in New York City.
For an adrenaline-raising experience, groups can consider the I-Drive NASCAR, a new indoor high-performance kart-racing facility. Three meeting rooms totaling 4,400 sf are available for groups.
Universal Orlando Resort debuts its newly renovated guest rooms at Hard Rock Hotel. The hotel offers 6,000 sf of flexible meeting space, as well as 140,000 sf of additional function space at the nearby Hard Rock Cafe and Hard Rock Live venues at Universal CityWalk.
By fall 2015, Loews Royal Pacific Resort — 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. The new space will feature a nearly 36,000-sf ballroom, divisible by 12, along with four additional breakout rooms and prefunction space. The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando will open in the summer of 2016 and will have 131,000 sf of meeting space. Together, the Loews Royal Pacific and Loews Sapphire Falls will have 272,000 sf of combined meeting space.
Polynesian Villas & Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort will feature 20 bungalows on Seven Seas Lagoon and 360 deluxe studios.
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel is getting the largest makeover in its history. The hotel has launched a multiphase, multiyear, $125 million redesign project that will transform every guest room in the 758-room Swan Hotel and the 1,509-room Dolphin Hotel. C&IT