When a hurricane that is forecast to be the most potentially catastrophic on record is headed for the city you’ve chosen as your annual meeting location, it’s not hard to imagine the apprehension a planner might feel in the hours before, during and after the storm.
“It was tense watching all the media reports, worrying about the wonderful people that we work with, along with the residents,” explains Vivian Eickhoff, CMM, event director for Microsoft Ignite. Hurricane Irma landed in Orlando on September 10, just two weeks before Microsoft’s 26,000-attendee annual event was scheduled to begin at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).
In fact, as Irma swept through Central Florida, the National Guard, FEMA, local law enforcement, utility crews and other responders were staged at the OCCC. Six helicopters were sheltered in the convention center’s North Concourse. And Microsoft Ignite’s core hotel, the Hyatt Regency Orlando, opened its doors to more than 900 dogs — and their families — during the storm.
“To be honest, we should have had better plans identified before Irma,” added Eickhoff, five days after the storm passed. “This was actually a great lesson in scenario-planning for the ‘what if.’
“After the storm hit we waited a bit and then started to check in with folks to see how they were doing. The county and OCCC did a great job of informing us daily with quick email updates. Once the curfew was lifted and our contacts could start assessing the damage, our team at Microsoft started a punch list to determine if the show could still go on as planned.”
As Eickhoff’s team worked to gather intel about the condition of the city’s infrastructure, Microsoft’s third-party planner Experient flew in to meet with airport operations, the OCCC and core convention hotels to assess how recovery and clean-up operations were going. The team confirmed that drinking water, sewage treatment, power, road access and access to food would not be a problem.
“One thing we were very clear on was that if any first responders or displaced families were still in-house at the OCCC or in hotels, we did not want to displace them. Rather, we would work around them and move our folks and alter our production schedules,” she said.
Getting things in shape for Microsoft Ignite was a priority: The event was projected to leave behind an economic impact of $59 million in Orlando. It’s one of only three shows that utilizes both buildings of the OCCC — 2.2 million sf of exhibit space.
Microsoft worked with its supplier team to verify the status of shipments, the ability to access the more than 150 semi-trucks needed to ship in gear and the availability of buses, since many were expected to be in use by FEMA elsewhere in the state. Eickhoff said it took three days after the storm to confirm that the show could go on.
“I give a ton of credit to our amazing supplier team, as they quickly engaged in finding out answers and teamwork to come together.” Eickhoff added that there were no communication challenges. “Teams with the OCCC were very proactive in sending updates and responding.”
Orlando weathered Irma better than some Florida destinations. Fred Shea, senior vice president of convention sales and services with Visit Orlando, said the city’s location in the center of the state meant wind volume was considerably less than in coastal areas.
“The winds here were under 100 mph,” explained Shea. “But we were running at full capacity at our hotels, because people were evacuating to Orlando. September is not the busiest time for us, so we were lucky not to be in the middle of a big convention.” In the days after Irma’s passing, the teams at Visit Orlando and the OCCC worked to get the message out that Orlando was back to business as usual.
“Our role was to convey to our customers what was open, what was available and exactly what was happening,” said Shea. “The hotel workers and first responders were so organized and did a very good job of communicating internally and to residents and visitors. And our customers have been terrific.”
Such proactive services are one reason Orlando has been ranked by Cvent as the No. 1 destination for meetings and events in the U.S. for five out of the last six years. Eickhoff credits the city’s top-notch planning teams at the OCCC — “from the sales director to the account manager” — for Orlando’s success as a meeting option.
“They are responsive, they bring creative ideas, they’re willing to help us achieve the impossible, and they are truly interested in our success,” says Eickhoff. “The OCCC and the city work with many types of clients, from association to corporate, and I think that allows them to have a solid understanding of our needs. They are familiar with attendee flow and dealing with everything from trade shows with thousands of attendees to corporate shows with lots and lots of session meetings.
“When we were looking for a new location for Microsoft Ignite we considered everything from event space needed, to hotel capacity, airlift, overall costs to attendees, labor costs, and dining, entertainment and shopping for attendees. Orlando met all of these needs. When we’ve had Microsoft events in Orlando in the past, the feedback from attendees and partners was always positive. Also, our attendees from Western Europe like the ease of flying to Orlando versus West Coast locations.”
Eickhoff says the OCCC’s space between the West and North/South Buildings allowed her team to creatively design experiences for attendees and partners. But she notes that the facility’s signage could be better. “As in many convention centers the signage is not always that helpful in directing folks. For our event, it would be ideal to have video fiber infrastructure existing across all the venues to save on lots of costs that we have to pay out for each time.”
Fifty area hotels were part of the room block for Microsoft, with the 1,641-room Hyatt Regency Orlando serving as one of the key venues. Connected to the OCCC’s West Building by a pedestrian footbridge that opened earlier this year, the Hyatt Regency was Cvent’s top-ranked meeting hotel in Orlando for 2017. The facility offers 315,000 sf of meeting space, including five pillar-free ballrooms ranging up to 55,000 sf.
Of course, Orlando’s convention and meeting business normally hums along at a more predictable pace. The city has 150 meeting hotels offering a combined 4.5 million sf of meeting space. A number have renovations or expansions in the works. Among them:
In September, the Starwood-managed Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort completed a $140 million head-to-flipper redesign. The property, located just outside Disney’s Epcot and Disney Studios theme parks, possesses more than 332,000 sf of meeting space, including 110,500 sf of contiguous convention/exhibit space. A new feature for planners is the recently added 2,800-sf Lake View Room, which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and can be utilized for indoor-outdoor receptions. All of the resort’s 2,267 guest rooms received a facelift, as did the convention space and the lobby on the Dolphin side of the hotel.
Currently under construction at Walt Disney World is a new, 500-room tower at Disney’s Spanish-themed Coronado Springs Resort. A rooftop restaurant and lounge atop the tower will offer views of nightly fireworks shows at nearby theme parks, while the expansion also adds additional meeting space to the hotel’s existing 220,000 sf of dedicated meeting and function space. Existing rooms are being reimagined with convention attendees in mind, and landscapes are being transformed into a series of floating gardens.
Elsewhere at Walt Disney World, an expansion of the convention center at the Yacht and Beach Club Resort will bring the total flexible meeting and event space at the resort to 100,000 sf and will now include a 16,000-sf ballroom divisible into eight breakout spaces. And Disney Springs — formerly known as Downtown Disney — has had a wholesale transformation and now features top brand shopping and an even-longer roster of dining options. Newest of these is Paddlefish, a refresh of the full-size paddle-wheel steamboat that previously housed Fulton’s Crab House. The three-deck restaurant can be rented out in part or in full, hosting up to 525 guests seated, or 750 reception-style.
The 1,020-room DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Orlando at SeaWorld is nearing completion on a renovation that will almost double the property’s flexible meeting space to more than 100,000 sf. The new Majestic Ballroom will add 20,000 sf of indoor conference facilities when it opens later this year, while the Palm Promenade adds 23,000 sf of outdoor space. The rest of the resort’s meeting spaces also are being refreshed, while the spa facility has been converted into boardrooms. Also underway: an updated look for the 300 rooms in the 17-story Tower Building (the balance of the resort’s rooms were renovated recently).
And locally owned Rosen Centre recently announced renovations already underway for a refresh of all guest rooms, scheduled for completion by the end of this year. The room design will have a contemporary look emphasizing the serene ambience of a spa, and will feature new pillowtop mattresses. Tech updates include multi-outlet connectivity bars in all rooms. Rosen Centre has 150,000 sf of meeting and event space, including a 35,000-sf Grand Ballroom, and the property is connected to the OCCC by a pedestrian walkway.
Rosen Shingle Creek recently refreshed all 1,501 guest rooms, redesigned the resort’s championship golf course and unveiled a swank new open-air covered pavilion, perfect for private functions. Perhaps most important for business travelers are new recharging stations and added power outlets for increased connectivity in public spaces.
Perhaps the city’s most dramatic growth has been at Universal Studios Florida, where convention and hotel space has expanded considerably in the past year. Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando now encompasses 247,000 sf of convention space, including a 41,000-sf ballroom. The facility is connected to Loews Royal Pacific Resort and the year-old Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, offering a combined 2,000 rooms. Plus, Universal and Loews will unveil its sixth hotel, Aventura, in summer 2018, close to the entrance of Universal’s Volcano Bay, the resort’s new water theme park which opened this past summer.
It was a site visit, before construction even began at the Loews Meeting Complex, that sold Victoria Dick, corporate event planner for Duro-Last Roofing, on scheduling the company’s January 2017 National Sales Conference at the resort. The 1,200-attendee group used rooms at both Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and the adjoining Loews Royal Pacific Resort.
“We booked it before one shovel had been put into the ground,” explains Dick, adding that the property was the best of six that were considered. “Our event is very heavy on meeting space with a large production element to go along with that. The group likes to keep everything on the resort property and not use convention centers. Our organization encourages our family-owned businesses to include members of the family to attend — there are so many options with hotels and meetings as well from the planning side of things. We liked the idea of having several food outlets on property as well as the closeness of Universal Orlando Resort, and it was great to see the variety of ways you can get around once you are on property.”
Plus, the facility was able to accommodate Duro-Last’s unique requirements.
“We do a roofing competition where 10 to 12 two-man teams compete against time and each other to put the best roof on,” says Dick. “Some of the equipment could not be used inside the hotel, so this ended up being done in a portion of their parking garage, and it went off without a hitch. About four months prior to our event we had another installation class that popped up. The Loews group worked with us to find a spot at Sapphire Falls. We ended up in their exhibit hall, which was a perfect place for that event as well.
“The fact that we were able to work so closely with the new resort next door as our overflow hotel was great — they made it seamless. The function space being all in one area is a great plus. The hotel was wonderful with signage and branding so we could direct our group to exactly where they needed to be.”
In addition to the new water park, the Universal Studios Florida resort includes two full theme parks and Universal CityWalk, a dining and entertainment complex, which has also grown during the last two years. CityWalk is located a short walk, boat- or bus-ride away from the resort’s hotels.
“We did a small function at CityWalk at the Hard Rock Cafe,” notes Dick. “It was for a group of 200 on a Saturday night, and included reception, dinner and small awards banquet. The team there was great to work with and the night went very well.”
Dick pointed to several individuals that helped her event go off without a hitch.
“Fuat Guven, the assistant director of F&B, is awesome,” says Dick. “I worked with him previously when he was employed at another resort several years ago, and to my surprise he recognized me and came over to strike up a conversation. It did not matter if it was F&B-related or not, he would get answers and made an effort to make sure I was taken care of. Our main point of contact, Margie Sanchez, was very accessible, made things happen, and dealt very well with last-minute changes. And Penda Manley was our group reservation coordinator, and she did an amazing job. No matter how many changes or additions I needed, she was right there to make it happen.”
For Kristin Canterbury, CMP, senior events and customer outreach manager, National Geographic Learning/Cengage Learning, a location removed from the theme parks was one key to the success of her event.
“Sometimes travel to Orlando can be overwhelming and can seem like a neverending line for amusement parks,” suggests Canterbury. “It was a breath of fresh air to arrive at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, with its resort feel, elegant yet relaxed décor, and personalized service. It was the convenience of Orlando with the luxury I wanted to bring to our attendees. It’s a bit farther out from MCO than other properties, but it’s worth the extra few minutes’ drive to stay and work in a high-quality setting.”
Located 28 miles southwest of Orlando International Airport (MCO) in Kissimmee, the resort was home to a 200-attendee annual sales meeting for National Geographic Learning in July-August. Canterbury says Orlando was a good fit for her group based on the abundant flight options and plentiful attractions nearby for “free” nights. And, “we knew we’d get value for our dollar and get great service,” she adds.
“The Omni team immediately recognized and appreciated our business and event,” explains Canterbury. “They understood the goals and objectives — to present a high-quality learning and networking experience — and they worked with me closely every step of the way to meet and exceed our needs. From working with our group’s many specific dietary needs, to creating an indoor food truck experience and lawn games and fireworks, I don’t think I ever heard the staff say ‘no.’ ”
Earlier this year the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate broke ground on a $40 million expansion project which added 23,000 sf of additional pool deck and recreational space, installation of Kissimmee’s only resort wave pool and a new 93-room property villa building. The resort’s Trevi’s Restaurant was redesigned to include an outdoor garden terrace and bar. The expansion also added 100,000 sf of expanded event lawn and conference center space.
“Most of the meeting space has natural light or access to natural light in the prefunction areas, which I always appreciate,” says Canterbury. “Between banquets and catering, in-house AV, and the destination team onsite, they communicate well and gave us lots of support and creative, but not pushy suggestions on how to make our ideas work. The staff takes care of the planner, which is always nice once you’re onsite for over a week. I felt like I was part of the family after this event — one way I recognize a wonderful property with talented staff.
“Admittedly I prefer venues that are removed from the theme park environment,” adds Canterbury. “But it was nice to know that they were still accessible. I felt like the Omni was a good fit for a more grownup crowd looking to work and relax in a polished yet elegant setting.”
And how did Microsoft’s post-storm event pan out? We checked in with Vivian Eickhoff as her event was concluding and she reported that Microsoft Ignite was a great success. And not only did she not receive negative comments from guests, but attendees participated in spur-of-the-moment volunteer efforts aimed at post-storm recovery for the Orlando community and beyond.
“Attendees built over 2,000 hygiene kits at the conference, for those impacted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” explains Eickhoff. “This was thanks to a partnership with Clean the World set up just days after we connected with them. We also donated over 1,000 conference backpacks, water bottles and T-shirts, and worked with American Red Cross to donate blood. The Big Red Bus was onsite for two days.” C&IT