Two mega theme parks dominate most people’s perceptions of Orlando. And to be fair, the parks’ brilliantly delivered brand of magic, princesses, wizards and adrenaline-packed adventure draws thousands of visitors to the Central Florida city every year — many of them meeting attendees.
Yet Orlando is more than the sum of its theme parks, and even the theme parks are not what they appear to be at first glance. For all the technical wizardry and enduring character-driven attractions and shows, these parks are, like Orlando itself, driven by business. Planners have choices galore, and all of them ultimately support the goals and required ROI of a meeting. You can convene at a hotel within a theme park and never even step into the park, and your meeting will be highly successful. Or you can harness the magic of the parks and use that to enhance your business objectives.
“I have planned hundreds of meetings and events over the last 10 years and I must say that this meeting was the most incredible event of my career.”
— Noelle Novak
Noelle Novak, director of events and marketing operations for Bentley Mills, a California-based manufacturer of premier floor coverings, chose the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando, within Universal Orlando Resort, for the company’s national sales meeting in February. The meeting was a huge success, and it did not include any official theme park functions. Novak says there was no need because the hotel had everything she wanted, including the fact that everything was in walking distance once the group arrived on property.
“As soon as we stepped on to the property at the Hard Rock Hotel, we knew that this was the ideal location for our national sales meeting,” she says. “The grounds were well manicured and the pool area was gorgeous. The meeting space was the perfect size for our group of 96 attendees. We had all the meeting space reserved so it was just our group, and we didn’t have to share with any other programs. The sleeping rooms were a nice size and appointed with double/double beds, which is a requirement for our company as our account executives share rooms. The staff was extremely friendly during our first site visit prior to signing the contract, which sealed the deal for Bentley!”
Moreover, the hotel staff across every department stepped up to make the event successful. “Thyag Satgoor, the conference service director, was the most professional, hardworking, positive person that I have ever worked with in my 10 years of event management,” Novak says. “He never overpromised but always overdelivered, and he was available night or day when I called or emailed. The PSAV team headed by Justin Odom was top-notch as well. His attitude was always professional, and he worked with us to craft the most beautiful stage design, lighting and AV package. He would respond to emails in a timely manner and would return phone calls immediately. The banquet team was excellent as well. The food was delicious and the staff was friendly, accommodating and respectful.”
Novak says she didn’t need to bring much in the way of additional décor because the hotel itself is so beautifully decorated, and guest rooms were very conveniently located to the meeting space so attendees did not have to walk far.
“Partnering with the Hard Rock Hotel was truly an amazing experience from the first site visit to the completion of the program to weeks after the event,” she says. “I always felt that the conference service director and AV director had my company’s best interest at heart. Both gentlemen were always offering wonderful tips and recommendations to make our national sales meeting even more memorable. Many of my attendees commented on how friendly the hotel staff was from the housekeeping team to the hotel manager.”
If there was a downside, it’s that the February weather didn’t cooperate as expected. “We had planned for two outdoor events but the weather was rainy and windy so we had to move them indoors,” Novak says. “The Hard Rock Hotel staff was amazing and handled the backup contingency plan like it was meant to be. True partners!”
The group did hold one event outside the hotel, at Hard Rock Live, the brand’s live music and function venue on Universal CityWalk, the dining, entertainment and retail district adjacent to the theme park and a short walk from the hotel. “We had our Sales Awards Presentation at Hard Rock Live, and it was absolutely amazing,” Novak says. “The venue was iconic, and you didn’t need much additional décor because the ambience was built into the structure.”
In the end, Novak says, “The experience was one in a million. I have planned hundreds of meetings and events over the last 10 years, and I must say that this meeting was the most incredible event of my career because I had the pleasure to partner with the best in the business. I would recommend the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando to any planners who want to look like a true rock star.”
Stephanie Schmulian, event coordinator with The Masters Circle Inc., a leadership-coaching and practice-building company that serves chiropractors and other wellness professionals, chose B Resort & Spa in the Disney Springs area for the fall 2015 “SuperConference” with 250 attendees. Although she agrees that staging a function inside one of the Disney theme parks sounds great, “that option is way out of our budget,” she says.
Not a problem. B Resort rose to the occasion. “We loved the look, concept and service, and that it fit within our budget,” Schmulian says. As for what stood out, the unequivocal answer is “Everything, from the sales manager, Charlie Dye, who made sure our every need was met, to Nora and Caesar, who helped plan and execute the fine details. The staff at this hotel is truly first class. ‘No’ is not in their vocabulary, which was a big change from some of the other hotels where we’ve had our meetings. The food, ambience, sleeping rooms and overall experience were top-notch. We also love the location — right next to Disney Springs.”
Schmulian notes that other pluses include the fact that the resort is not too big so the meeting rooms are very close to the guest rooms, and the Grand Ballroom is “gorgeous,” thanks to a recent refresh. “It has all of the modern bells and whistles that someone would want in a grand ballroom, including amazing lighting,” she adds. “There is also space located just off the ballroom that can be divided into smaller rooms, as well as more space located in the same area of the ballroom for smaller breakouts/meals. I would suggest looking at the hotel’s website for capacity and space charts. It is very useful and very well communicated on the website.”
It also helps that the chef was able to make accommodations for the group. “Due to the size of our event, the chef was kind enough to make an express buffet available for our guests in the main restaurant so that lunch could be handled quickly. Our attendees don’t always participate in group meals,” Schmulian says, “so we needed to know that they would be handled in a timely manner in order to be back in their seats by the time classes started again. It was perfect. The chef is very flexible and makes things happen.”
The group had one function outside the hotel and that went very well, too. “We had a function at Fulton’s Crab House in Disney Springs,” Schmulian says. “They hosted a dinner for about 80 of our guests. They did a phenomenal job. We were very happy with the service, food and experience overall.” Fulton’s is currently undergoing an extensive renovation and will reopen in December as Paddlefish.
And Orlando fit the bill as well. “Orlando is family friendly and offers many attractions for all age groups,” Schmulian says. “It’s a ‘happy town,’ which is the perfect setting for our seminars.” Moreover, she notes, it’s a destination that “definitely incentivizes people to make a vacation out of it,” which is good for attendance.
In the end, there isn’t anything Schmulian would have changed. “I have to say, everything about the hotel was so great and easy,” she says. “I don’t know if I would have done anything differently as far as the hotel is concerned; the event went as smooth as possible. If you are looking for excellent service, a modern feel and an overall great experience, look into planning your event here. And don’t be shy to ask for menu modifications as the staff works with every budget and menu specification.”
Of course, sometimes groups want to include the theme parks in their meeting itineraries, and for good reasons. “We’ve utilized the Universal Orlando theme parks for our last three meetings in Orlando,” says Ken Brunnbauer, manager, strategic events management, with Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation Inc., a maker of automation and information products, that met in Orlando in February. “It adds an excellent environment for our attendees to get off-property and enjoy some fun time with their fellow attendees. They’re sitting in conference rooms all day, and having the ability to get outside, see a theme park and have some fun really helps break up the week. Providing something like this for our attendees is a big part of our overall event planning.”
The group of 850, which was based at Loews Royal Pacific Resort within Universal Orlando, enjoyed an evening reception that included The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley, The Simpsons Ride and Men in Black Alien Attack.
For many planners, including Brunnbauer, it’s Orlando’s mix of business and entertainment, among other things, that makes it such a good meeting destination. “Orlando provides an atmosphere that is both professional and fun. Also, our attendees come from all over the world and find it easy to get there,” he says.
Loews Royal Pacific Resort is a good match for Brunnbauer needs. “We have held this event at the Royal Pacific Resort for several years and enjoy this location. The staff is fantastic and really helps make our planning easy. When onsite, they will go out of their way to make sure everything is going well and that our attendees get the best service possible. If any issues arise, they handle them quickly and professionally.
“It starts with our overall CSM, Caroline Wilsey,” Brunnbauer notes. “Her attention to detail and willingness to work with my team is second to none. She’s responsive, professional and provides excellent feedback based on her knowledge of the facility and what they can do to make things perfect for our event. Onsite, Ray Coleman ensures that all of our attendee arrivals go smoothly and our executives are taken care of. The overall banquets and setup teams are easy to work with and willing to make adjustments as needed during the course of our event.”
In terms of space, the hotel’s meeting and breakout venues work well for this group and the Orlando weather adds to the positive mix. “The function space at the Royal Pacific is flexible and has a great layout for an agenda that includes breakout sessions,” Brunnbauer says. “Having the ability to use indoor and outdoor spaces for meals provides a nice option for our attendees to get some fresh air during breakfast or lunch. The meeting space is not a very long walk, especially when compared to other venues I’ve been at. The food is always good and helps to enhance the overall positive experience for our attendees. The island theme of the resort offers a fun atmosphere for our events.”
Brunnbauer calls the staff “one of the best you’ll find to help you plan your event,” and he encourages planners to take advantage of what Universal Orlando Resort offers, including those theme-park attractions. “Make sure you leverage all of the great attractions near the Royal Pacific,” he advises. “Getting your attendees out to see these venues not only is fun, but it adds that something extra to make your attendees get the most out of their time at the event.”
There’s always something new in Orlando. Like the city itself, it’s often a mix of added value for business and fanciful new attractions.
Visit Orlando, the city’s CVB, has a new mobile app that allows attendees and others to explore and earn savings during their stay in Orlando. The app utilizes artificial intelligence to understand conversational language from users and offer personalized recommendations of Orlando experiences that best fit an individual’s needs and preferences. It’s available to download through iTunes and Google Play. “This innovative technology is like having your own personal Orlando expert 24/7,” says George Aguel, Visit Orlando president and CEO. “It analyzes numerous options, extensive data and insights from destination experts and fellow travelers to create a recommended experience that is just right for (each visitor).”
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel began a $5 million renovation of its 329,000 sf of meeting space this summer to refresh all the meeting rooms at both the Swan and Dolphin hotels. The renovation includes updated carpet and paint, along with the installation of new technology in the meeting areas. The work will occur in phases with no impact to group programs, and completion is scheduled for December. The meeting space refresh is part of the hotel’s multiphase, multiyear $140 million redesign project, which also includes transformation of all 2,267 guest rooms. In 2015, the Swan guest rooms were completed; Dolphin Hotel guest room renovations will wrap up by the end of 2017.
The former Buena Vista Palace Resort & Spa was recently reflagged as the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace, located in the Disney Springs area. The 1,011-room hotel completed a major makeover featuring newly designed guest rooms, a new outside terrace and refreshed meeting spaces totaling 92,000 sf. As the hotel is an official Walt Disney World Hotel, groups are offered entertainment and event production services through the Disney Event Group as well as the Disney Institute’s educational programs.
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort opened at Universal Orlando in July. This fall, the hotel adds 115,000 sf of meeting space to Universal Orlando, including a 41,000-sf ballroom and 30,000-sf hall. The space connects by air-conditioned bridge to Loews Royal Pacific Resort, providing a combined 247,000 sf of meeting space in the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando.
Planet Hollywood Orlando has announced that chef and television personality Guy Fieri will introduce new menu items as part of the venue’s transformation. It’s set to reopen this fall as the Planet Hollywood Observatory at Disney Springs. Fieri will create items such as a flavor-packed burger and sandwich menu for the restaurant.
In April, Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa, one of Orlando’s centrally located destination resorts, expanded its meeting offerings with the opening of 20,000 sf of new meeting and banquet space. The 2,300-villa, luxury condominium resort now offers a total of 36,000 sf of meeting space. The new space is located on the top floor of the new seven-story, mixed-use development, which includes award-winning restaurant concepts, a parking garage, retail shops and entertainment venues. The first phase of this $20 million project, including the new meeting space, is now complete. The restaurant and retail spaces will be completed this year.
The 170-room Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo, 90 miles south of Orlando, announced the expansion of its lodging accommodations with the addition of 10 luxury teepees, offering the next evolution in “glamping.” The teepees are located in an exclusive area of the resort, making it ideal for group buyouts. The introduction of the luxury teepees builds on the success of the glamping tents and facilities already on the property. Located on 1,700 lush acres in the heart of Florida’s cattle country, Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo marries cowboy history and lifestyle with evocative accommodations and amenities for an ideal group retreat. The ranch features more than 8,000 sf of flexible indoor meeting and banquet space, 4,500 sf of outdoor space and an outdoor teambuilding challenge course, as well as authentic cattle drives and other cowboy-themed teambuilding activities.
New at Orlando theme parks this year were Mako, a 200-foot shark-themed roller coaster at SeaWorld, reputed to be the tallest, longest and fastest coaster in Orlando, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong at Universal Orlando Resort, marking the celebrated return of King Kong. At Disney World, Pandora, the Land of Avatar is slated to open in 2017, and construction began on the new 14-acre expansion for Star Wars Land.
The fact is, there’s no one way to meet in Orlando. For groups that must focus 100 percent on business, Orlando delivers professionalism and an expansive array of meeting venues and amenities. For those that want to combine meeting time with entertainment-driven group or free time, Orlando delivers that, too. No wonder the city earned the top spot in Cvent’s 2016 Top 50 U.S. Meeting Destinations. C&IT