As the world without roils in turmoil, sometimes the well-trod path of the familiar beckons more forcefully. As corporate meeting planners can attest, one of the biggest draws of Orlando, the country’s most alluring city for events, is that it remains the bedrock of the known unknown.
“Orlando provides a predictable environment,” says Jon Osing, group operations manager for UBM LLC, which is why the annual Enterprise Connect conference has been held there for more than a decade. The March 2015 systems and software exposition drew 6,000 vendors, designers and buyers.
“Our conference has continued to grow ever since we moved to Orlando,” Osing says, citing March in Orlando as “better than lots of parts of the country” with an “opportunity for the tacking on of vacation.”
“Our conference has continued to grow ever since we moved to Orlando.”
— Jon Osing
His preference is to create an all-inclusive event at the host hotel, with no offsite meetings or events. As such, the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, which opened in neighboring Kissimmee in 2002 and currently has some 1,400 rooms and 400,000 sf of total meetings space, has met his needs. “It’s the right mix of conference and expo space, fits the size event that we are, and has the right kind of facilities for seven or eight breakouts. Divided in half between the hotel and the conference center, once you make your way to the hotel, we can put signage as we need to on the various levels and areas. Once you do it once, it’s pretty simple.” Because the Gaylord room block sells out quickly, his team also uses “overflow” hotels — including the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress and the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort — and runs shuttles between them and the Gaylord conference center.
“Sometimes we have to find ways to make it all work,” he says, noting that he sometimes thinks “wouldn’t it be great if we had 100,000 sf of ballroom space? But we haven’t run into an issue we haven’t been able to solve. Not something that’s serious enough that we would consider moving for that one feature.” His loyalty to Gaylord Palms is based on how “corporate-focused” the venue is, which has two components for him: one, attendees and exhibitors like it; two, Gaylord Palms has also been loyal to him. To wit: “In 2008–2009, much of the industry was under a lot of pressure, and in a situation like that — the economy is down, travel is down — having partners willing to work with you is really valuable, and maintaining and keeping those partnerships alive is really important. We were able to come to the Gaylord and say we need some help here; they took a long-term view and helped us keep the event solid, and we’ve managed to survive because of partnerships like that.”
To foster and maintain such partnerships, he advises planners to create a “positive domino effect” by being organized and communicative with vendors and partners. “Your partner is only as good as you are; they can’t read your mind. Real advantage is gained in making the little things easy — if you’ve already laid the groundwork, by the time you have to ask for a favor, you’re putting the person in a spot where they can say yes. If you don’t, you’re not partnering, you’re taking and taking.”
One planner who has created a partnership in Orlando is W. Scott Spohn, partner and chief of staff of DHG Healthcare, Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP.
He plans three “microevents” of 40 to 60 employees and one outside event for 200 to 300 clients and prospects each year, all at Disney properties: Boardwalk Inn, making use of the convention center, parks and overall boardwalk area; Contemporary Resort; Yacht and Beach Club Resort; and for clients, Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. “It keeps the experience fresh to go to different properties,” Spohn says. On the other hand, “I don’t have to go to different people to use the different resorts.” On the contrary, Disney works with him to provide continuity. Even when, as happened last year, a convention services manager moves on to a different location, the manager “came with us so we could have a consistent experience.”
For attendee attitude adjustment, too, Spohn has found Orlando invaluable: “When people come to Disney, they have a different mindset that they take on. It’s like they get sprinkled with a little pixie dust. I’ve had cantankerous groups that have come down for micro experiences, maybe a little against their will, frankly. But it’s like people come inside a bubble there, and they just open up.”
Spohn says he appreciates the “palette that is Disney” and how customizable it is. He notes that he uses the full sweep of Disney’s offerings, such as the Disney Institute and the Disney Event Group, including set design, production staff and creative media support. “This feeling that I always have with the Disney folks — they are an extension of our event planning team — so intertwined in what we’re trying to accomplish. We got a chance to combine our show preferences with what we could do at Disney. Whenever the Disney folks are there taking pictures, we know we’ve done it right.”
Another chief draw of Orlando for his company is the cost-effectiveness of meeting in a central hub. The company headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, requires by his estimate $575 average airfare to shuttle in attendees; to Orlando, it is about $235. “When you think about the disparity in air cost, it’s very economical to do it in Orlando.” He also saves tremendously on rental cars since attendees use Disney’s Magical Express transportation. “All that money we would have spent we can reinvest in the event and really make it more meaningful,” he says.
But don’t take Spohn’s word for it. His event last year at the Grand Floridian elicited a net promoter score of 82 from attendees. “I would love to say that’s due to me, but a big part of that is what Disney does for you,” he says.
Ed Chase, vice president of conferences for LRP Publications Inc., whose team coordinated this year’s Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando, also appreciates the city’s solid reputation. “Orlando has a sense of familiarity that helps us market it and helps us bring people in; it just seems comfortable to the vast majority of people.” The conference, which convenes teachers, school administrators and school IT executives, has been held in Orlando for the last decade. With its 7,000,000 sf of total meeting space, Orange County Convention Center was, as in years past, the venue. This year, the January meeting came with a new twist: the event needed both the North and South halls to accommodate the nearly 9,000 attendees and exhibitors.
“The layout of the facility made for a longer walk than our attendees were used to in the past,” Chase says, but the convention center helped him with advice on managing traffic and the best places to put signs to guide attendees. Attendees later indicated they were especially pleased with a wide, avenue-like aisle on the expo floor that provided a space for them to “meander and wander.” Chase was careful to walk the routes himself the weekend before the conference. “Everything on paper seems OK, but until you actually get your feet on the ground to be the shoes of the attendees, you’ll never know how it will be for them,” he advises.
Buses were rerouted to stop at the south end of the center and continue to the north end so attendees could maneuver more easily. There also were shuttles throughout between the Hyatt Regency Orlando (where some of the workshops were held and which shares a walkway with the convention center) and half a dozen other nearby hotels.
Part of the convention center’s five-year improvement project includes two three-day trial runs of a minibus route connecting the West and North/South concourses for two March conventions. The buses can hold about 25 passengers. The renovation continues with Vision Gardens, a 2000-sf aeroponic space to be set up in the Westwood Lobby to grow herbs and vegetables — 81 towers will have 44 growing spaces per tower — and the South Building’s 7,300-sf Destination Lounge, which will be dedicated to high-tech networking.
“When we started to market outside Florida, we realized January-February was a draw in itself,” Chase notes. It’s warm, of course, but it also “just has a different attitude. It’s a little more relaxed than Chicago or Vegas,” he says. “As far as infrastructure, the airport is 15 minutes from the convention center and there are lots of direct flights. Once you’re there, there’s really not much reason to leave. It’s walkable, with restaurants up and down I-Drive and lots of things to do once the conference has closed.”
Attendees, he notes, are used to coming to Orlando, so they often know exactly where they want to go. Or they think they do at first. “Orlando changes so much from year to year; there’s going to be a lot that you haven’t seen before. There are other cities that don’t have that level of change from year to year, so we see that as a plus,” says Chase.
Another plus: present and attentive convention center staff. “The convention center treated us like a hotel would treat us,” he says. “The event manager was there with us every step of the way. We had a lead person assigned to us — she was visible the 16 hours a day we were there.”
Planners who book a fall 2016 meeting at the new 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, opening this summer, can take advantage of special room rates. Universal Orlando’s fifth hotel will have more than 115,000 sf of meeting space, with a 41,000-sf ballroom, 31,000-sf hall, 16 meeting rooms, 11,000 sf of outdoor meeting space and three dedicated meeting planner offices of its own. It also will be connected by an air-conditioned walkway to the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. The combined space — The Loews Meetings Complex at Universal Orlando — will offer planners a total of 247,000 sf of meeting space and 2,000 rooms to work with. The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort will have an island feel, complete with a 16,000-sf resort-style pool and a white sand beach, and the full-service Amatista Cookhouse will echo the Caribbean theme with an open kitchen and outdoor dining.
The Hyatt Regency Orlando and the Hilton Orlando are pitching the “Orlando 3000” to meeting planners who need mega space: the two hotels, which are connected by covered walkway to the Orange County Convention Center, offer a combined 3,000 rooms and 490,000 sf of meeting space.
The 3,000-room, condo-style Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa also is offering incentives to early-bird planners as it wraps up its 20,000-sf meeting space expansion, for a total of 36,000 sf of meeting space, when finished this year. DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld’s 2016 renovation will culminate in a new 20,000-sf ballroom and 100,000 sf of upgraded meeting space.
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek plans to have completed its upgrade, which will add 7,000 sf of meeting space, by this May.
Following the recent $17 million renovation to its 146 guest rooms, the Villas of Grand Cypress has reconfigured its Mediterranean-style Executive Meeting Center, a standalone complex that houses 7,200 sf of flexible indoor/outdoor event space with four meeting rooms divisible into eight self-contained spaces. The four-star, four-diamond resort, which claims 1,500 acres in Lake Buena Vista, boasts 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed golf; a golf academy; an equestrian center with options for equestrian-themed shows to entertain reception or banquet guests; and the Nine 18 Restaurant, which doubles as a fully equipped meeting space for small groups.
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel is undergoing the largest renovation in its history with a multiphase, multiyear, $125 million redesign project that will wrap up in 2017. Work on the Swan Hotel’s 758 guest rooms has been completed; and updates of the Dolphin Hotel’s 1,509 guest rooms are underway. The hotel’s meeting and convention space also recently was equipped with the latest advancements in high-density Wi-Fi technology.
Mango’s Tropical Cafe, a South Beach mainstay since the early 1990s, is now open. It features 50,000 sf of nightclub space for cabaret-style shows and 12,000 sf of dining space. STK Orlando, billed as a “chic, modern” steak house, is opening this spring at Disney Springs, the erstwhile Downtown Disney dining and retail space. Disney Springs will have four different “neighborhoods” surrounding a water source when its expansion is complete midyear: The Landing, Marketplace, West Side and Town Center. The Landing recently welcomed The Boathouse and Morimoto, both with private dining rooms, as well as Fulton’s Crab House.
The first-ever NBC Sports Grill & Brew opened at Universal Orlando Resort’s CityWalk in October with great fanfare and a slew of NBC sports commentators in attendance. The restaurant features private dining spaces, nearly 100 HD screens so guests can be immersed in the sports experience no matter where they sit, an expansive menu of the best game-day food and more than 100 beer selections including craft and regional brews and the restaurant’s own proprietary 862 Orlando, a draft you can find only here.
Former chef to Oprah, Art Smith will introduce his Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine this summer. As the restaurant’s name suggests, the menu will be Southern specialties with Smith’s own twist, such as blackstrap pork chops with sawmill gravy, along with comforting low country shrimp and grits.
Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant features more than 6,000 bottles of wine in plain view, and for lovers of spirits, 42 different types of martinis are on order at Blue Martini in Pointe Orlando; the eponymous drink as served here is vodka, blue Curacao, sour mix and OJ on the rocks in a large snifter. Also at Pointe Orlando is the New Orleans-style restaurant and piano bar Itta Bena, focusing on steak and seafood.
Top Golf, a state-of-the-art golf range facility, is slated to be built near International Drive in 2017. The three-level location will be 65,000 sf and offer 102 climate-controlled hitting bays for up to six players each. The venue also will include up to 3,000 sf of private event space.
Kung Fu Panda Po and Brazilian soccer player Neymar are two of the newest waxy recruits to join Madame Tussauds Orlando in the new I-Drive 360 shopping and dining complex on International Drive that also includes the Sea Life Orlando Aquarium and the Skeletons: Animals Unveiled! exhibit. The centerpiece of the complex is the 400-foot-tall Orlando Eye observation wheel. Event spaces include the I-Drive 360 courtyard, capacity 1,100; Orlando Eye terminal building (900) and hospitality room (100); Sea Life Orlando Aquarium (250); Madame Tussauds Orlando (400) and VIP room (120). All meetings and events can be booked via Orlandosales@merlinentertainments.biz.
Opening this summer at SeaWorld Orlando is Orlando’s fastest roller coaster, topping out at 73 mph along almost a mile of track. At 200 feet, Mako, named after a speedy type of shark, also will be Orlando’s tallest.
Also debuting this summer is a new attraction at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure: “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” which will honor one of the most monumental figures in movie history, King Kong.
Orlando can never have too many water parks, and Universal does not disappoint with Volcano Bay, a full-blown water theme park coming in 2017. Volcano Bay will join Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure as the resort’s third immersive park.
Artegon Marketplace offers attendees the option to throw caution to the wind at a teambuilding event at indoor trampoline court emporium Sky Zone Trampoline Park or walk the talk on an indoor ropes course at Sky Trail. This spring will see the advent of NYZ at Orlando, a 45,000-sf indoor laser tag space that challenges attendees to survive a zombie apocalypse. C&IT