No meeting destination in the U.S. is more popular with corporate meeting planners than Orlando. And that is true, in large part, because no other destination works harder to continually reinvent itself, or focuses more relentlessly on the key factors that are most important to planners.
Michael McMyne, vice president at Raleigh, North Carolina-based Ortho Dermatologics, a division of pharmaceutical company Valeant, has used Orlando multiple times in recent years. He also considers it one of the country’s best meeting destinations. “I like destinations that present opportunities for small groups of attendees to go offsite and do interesting things that promote teambuilding and moments of personal growth,” McMyne says. “And the city that comes to mind for me when I think of those factors is Orlando. That’s why we’ve done numerous meetings there at numerous hotels over the last few years.”
Maria Taylor, CMP, senior corporate events planner at Huron Consulting Group in Chicago, has been taking meeting groups to Orlando multiple times each year for more than 15 years. She has a 125-attendee meeting coming up in late April at the Four Seasons Orlando. “One of the main reasons my attendees and I like Orlando so much, and go there so often, is the climate, because at the times we host most of our meetings in Orlando, it’s cold where our attendees are based. So for us, the warm weather is a perk. Another reason is that when we hold meetings, we require a lot of meeting space, including a lot of breakout space. And Orlando has a number of excellent properties than can accommodate us.”
Both Taylor and McMyne cite Orlando’s exceptional airlift as key factors in their loyalty to the destination.
“The airlift into Orlando is great,” Taylor says. “There are many flights in and out for our attendees, and that makes it very convenient for our attendees. For example, we generally start our opening general session at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. And that allows many of our attendees to catch a morning flight in. And the same goes for the afternoons when we end the meetings. The Orlando airport is also very easy to get into and out of. The ease of getting through the airport is another factor that my attendees and I like about doing meetings in Orlando.”
McMyne adds, “The airlift into Orlando was significant factor in our decision, and not only for its ease, but also because of the size of the airport, the number of air carriers who have a presence there is just tremendous. That means that the number of daily nonstop flights from around the country is excellent. And those flights also provide great affordability. The airport also provides a very good experience for attendees from the time they touch down to the time they board their transportation to the hotel.”
Orlando enjoys another important practical benefit. Because it ranks as the No. 1 meetings and family vacation destination in the U.S., there’s an exceptional range and diversity of hotel product.
Among the city’s premier meeting properties is the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort, whose two individual but interconnected hotels — the Swan and the Dolphin — comprise a total of 2,200 rooms, making it Orlando’s largest meeting venue. Featuring 330,000 sf of meeting space and exemplary service, the hotel is perennially ranked as one of the city’s best meeting properties. Last year, Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin completed a multiyear, $140 million renovation in which 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.
Another of Orlando’s most popular and renowned meeting hotels is the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate. The sprawling and serene resort, which is acclaimed for its exceptional F&B and also its superb meeting support services, features three championship golf courses.
McMyne used the property in late January for a six-day, five-night annual Masters Summit sales meeting for 400 attendees. “I wanted a hotel that has a staff that will make my attendees feel like they are in a very small boutique hotel, but one that operates like and delivers the service level of a large hotel,” he says. “I also wanted a property that had modern meeting space that was equipped for interactive training. And Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate met all of those requirements.”
After his meeting, he had particularly high praise for the resort’s food and beverage offerings. “When you host meetings, the number one thing you get back on post-event surveys is feedback about the food,” McMyne says. “And if the food is not good, that is always the biggest complaint about the meeting. For the meeting at Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, I’ve never seen a group of attendees so satisfied with the food. And in addition to the quality of the food, that satisfaction also means the range of options and the amount of food. And the levels of attention to detail and the service were also phenomenal.”
McMyne also praised the hotel’s meeting space, housed in a stand-alone, state-of-the-art conference center. “It is fantastic,” he says. “And what makes it special is that they operate it as a conference center. But at the same time, it is still very convenient to the hotel. The space is fresh. The lighting is very good. And you really get a feel for Florida when you’re there. It’s a first-class facility, with great technology.”
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate provided what McMyne calls “a perfect balance of customer service, uniqueness in terms of its facilities and opportunities for us to conduct a truly first-class meeting on a reasonable budget. The property itself is great. But it’s the people who work there who were responsible for my choice. I never go to the same destination twice, back-to-back, but based on the quality of the hotel and the quality of the service, we’re now talking with them about going back.”
In fall 2017 Omni Orlando completed 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 at the Osceola Conference Center. The 862-room resort offers a total of more than 248,000 sf of indoor-outdoor meeting space, 36 holes of championship golf, the Mokara Spa and more.
Another resort-style property that receives high marks from meeting planners, and a lot of repeat business, is the Villas of Grand Cypress Orlando, a luxurious 1,500-acre resort whose accommodations include spacious Club Suites and elegant villas with up to four bedrooms. The property’s world-class amenities include golf courses — the 27-hole North/South/East course and an 18-hole New Course that features classic Scottish links — designed by Jack Nicklaus. The facility also boasts an Academy of Golf training center. The property’s Executive Meeting Center, renovated in the fall of 2015, offers four individual meeting rooms that total 7,200 sf of space and can be further divided into eight rooms. The meeting rooms surround an open atrium and overlook a scenic garden terrace. The property also offers 10,500 sf of outdoor event space.
Taylor has used Villas of Grand Cypress multiple times in the last several years. Her last meeting there was a four-day, three-night educational conference for 75 attendees in February. For the meetings she places there, the property is absolutely ideal, Taylor says. “For the programs we have hosted there over the last several years, we pretty much take over their entire meeting space,” she says. “It’s just perfect for those particular meetings. So it is a very intimate meeting for us. And we can brand the property as ours while we’re there.”
She highlights the resort’s top-quality F&B as a critical factor in her loyalty. For the February meeting, the company held all of its meals onsite. “The food and beverage is phenomenal,” Taylor says. “We do an attendee survey after every meeting. And Villas of Grand Cypress always gets very, very high marks for its F&B.”
But the level of service she and her attendees get there is even more important, she says. “The staff at Villas of Grand Cypress,” she says, “is probably the best I have ever worked with.”
Yet another of Orlando’s popular meeting hotels is the 28-acre DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld. McMyne has used the property and he gives it a glowing review. Located at SeaWorld Orlando, the property features stylish guest rooms and offers complimentary shuttle service to the SeaWorld parks. It is also conveniently located just minutes from the best dining and biggest attractions. DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld also features a total of 100,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space, which includes three individual conference centers, each with its own ballroom. The hotel recently added a new 20,000-sf Majestic Ballroom as a complement to its 11,840-sf Orange Ballroom, as well as a new lawn function space and outdoor Palm Promenade, divisible into four spaces, including a covered pavilion.
Another major meeting hotel is the Caribe Royale Orlando, featuring one-bedroom suites and two-bedroom villas. The hotel recently completed a multimillion-dollar makeover of its convention center, restaurants and public spaces, and opened the new Calypso Pool Bar and Grille. The hotel’s signature restaurant is the AAA Four Diamond-rated Venetian Chop House, which serves exceptional steaks and seafood. The casual Cafe 24 is open 24 hours a day. Grand Caribe Convention Center features a 40,000-sf Grand Sierra Ballroom and 26,000-sf Caribbean Ballroom, as well as 29 breakout rooms and two executive boardrooms. Post-meeting, attendees can unwind on a new 1.5-mile paved running and bike trail, the Island Spa or the two-story fitness center.
Universal Orlando’s five onsite hotels — Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort — currently offer a total of 5,600 rooms. The Loews Meeting Complex — comprised of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which are connected by bridge — offers groups and planners 295,000 sf of indoor meeting space and 97,000 sf of outdoor space. Plus, all five hotels are within walking distance or a quick shuttle ride to the Universal theme parks and Universal CityWalk, the resort’s shopping, dining and entertainment district.
Despite the accolades its current hotel inventory generates, Orlando never rests on its laurels, notes Fred Shea, senior vice president of sales and service at Visit Orlando. A number of new hotels are now under development.
“Universal is building two new hotels, a 2,200-room and 600-room property, to join its multiple existing Loews-branded properties,” Shea says. “The new hotels will be located on the site of the former Wet ‘n’ Wild water park located adjacent to the Universal complex. Once the new hotels are completed, there will then be total of 9,000 hotel rooms in the Universal complex.“
One of those properties is expected to open in August: The the new Aventura Hotel at Universal will feature a 16-story gleaming glass tower with 600 guest rooms, and the first ever rooftop bar and grill, Bar 17 Bistro, on Universal property.
A new JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort with 50,000 sf of meeting space will be completed in the early part of the first quarter of 2020 in the popular Bonnet Creek area, which is already home to a trio of major meeting properties — the Hilton Bonnet Creek, Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek.
“That will make Bonnet Creek a candidate for mini-citywide meetings,” Shea says, “because you have four major hotels located right there.”
The Delaney Hotel, opening this spring, is a new 54-room boutique hotel in the SoDo — south of downtown — district of Orlando, and will offer unique high-tech conveniences for guests such as remote check-in, digital tablet-based concierge services in every room, smartphone room keys, and smart TVs.
Margaritaville Resort Orlando, a new waterfront destination resort, will feature 175 rooms, 1,000 Margaritaville-themed vacation homes and 300 timeshare units. A new dining and entertainment district is also planned, along with a 12-acre water park, a wellness center and more. It is expected to open this year.
The thing that makes Orlando unique and empowers it to retain its status as the country’s top family destination is its famous theme parks. They also are a mecca for meeting and convention groups, as all of the major theme parks offer event planning and park buyouts for spectacular special events.
“One of the things we hear so often from meeting planners is their interest in the experience attendees will have in the destination,” Shea says. “And that’s a subject that we always have a lot to talk about when it comes to Orlando. There is also always something new to talk about when it comes to the kinds of experiences you can have in Orlando. And our theme parks are a big part of that.
“Universal is now adding a new ‘Fast & Furious Supercharged’ venue at its Universal Studios entertainment complex,” Shea says. “It will take guests on a high-octane adventure into the world of underground racing, right alongside stars from the ‘Fast & Furious’ films.”
Other new happenings at Universal include the recent opening of the water theme park Volcano Bay next to Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Inspired by various Polynesian islands and cultures, and anchored by the 200-foot “Krakatau,” Volcano Bay is replete with a host of water-based thrills as well as after-hours private event options.
Universal Orlando also is offering new Meeting Enhancements including characters (such as the Minions), customizable performers and unique entertainment elements to engage attendees and help deliver specific messages and reinforce conference theming.
“There is also quite a bit of other theme park and activity venue news,” Shea says. “Infinity Falls, a new rainforest river rapids ride, is coming to SeaWorld Orlando this summer, featuring the world’s tallest river rapid drop.”
SeaWorld recently debuted its Electric Ocean after-dark experience, featuring bioluminescent lighting and glowing sea creatures, music, fireworks and DJ entertainment. A customized experience can be arrange for groups. Also new at SeaWorld is the park’s first digitally enhanced ride experience, Kraken Unleashed, a virtual reality (VR) roller coaster experience.
“The Great Lego Race VR Coaster will debut as the first (Lego) virtual reality roller coaster. It will open in place of the Project X roller coaster at Legoland Florida Resort, re-imagined with a new story plus special effects,” Shea says.
“Nona Adventure Park,” he continues, “will be a new water sports park featuring an inflatable, floating obstacle course, with wakeboards pulled along by cables and a 60-foot climbing tower with a ropes course. The park is scheduled to open this summer in the Lake Nona area.”
Over the past five years, the single biggest — and most important — factor in Orlando’s growth as a meeting destination has been the steady evolution of its dining scene.
“Five years ago,” Shea says, “we were getting complaints from meeting planners that there were not enough good restaurants in Orlando. Now that concern, that perception, is completely gone.” Orlando, he says, is now regarded as a fine-dining destination.
That status is thanks, in part, to the James Beard Award-nominated chefs who now operate acclaimed local restaurants. Kathleen Blake owns and serves as chef at The Rusty Spoon in downtown Orlando. Brandon McGlamery serves as executive chef at Prato and Luma on Park in Winter Park, as well as Luke’s Kitchen and Bar in Maitland. James and Julie Petrakis are the owners and chefs at The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park and Cask & Larder at Orlando International Airport.
Orlando offers a spectacular offsite dining and entertainment complex, Pointe Orlando, located on International Drive near the convention center. Among its restaurants that are popular with groups are Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, B.B. King’s Blues Club, Maggiano’s Little Italy, Lafayette’s Music Room, Tommy Bahama and Taverna Opa, which serves acclaimed Greek food and fun.
What makes the Pointe unique, Shea says, is that it offers the opportunity to host a sophisticated dine-around program under one roof.
McMyne took advantage of that opportunity for his recent meeting. He used B.B. King’s, Lafayette’s and Tommy Bahamas. He also sent a group of 100 attendees to a buyout of Mango’s Tropical Cafe, the Orlando outpost of the world-renowned Mango’s that has been a mainstay in South Beach Miami for decades. In just a few years, the new Orlando location — known for its Latin cuisine, creative cocktails and high-energy Latin-themed entertainment reminiscent of Havana in the 1950s — has become one of the most popular offsite dining and entertainment venues in the city.
“The food at Mango’s was fantastic,” McMyne said. “The facility is beautiful. The entertainment is spectacular. And the service is great.”
Entertainment and attractions outside the theme parks that are popular with corporate groups in Orlando include the Mario Andretti driving school and Topgolf complex. The new Main Event, located in Pointe Orlando near the convention center, is a 25,000-sf, multifaceted dining and entertainment complex that includes activities such as bowling and interactive games, including innovative virtual reality games.
Perhaps the most noteworthy, in terms of activities, is the explosion of “escape rooms” that has occurred along International Drive. Escape rooms pit teams of participants against one another to achieve escape from a “locked” space. They are becoming popular in several major U.S. meeting destinations, including Las Vegas.
New escape room venues in Orlando include The Escape Game Orlando, Escapology Escape Rooms Orlando, America’s Escape Game, MindQuest Live Orlando, The Escape Effect, Lockbusters Escape Game, Breakout Escape Rooms, and The Escape Company. “Meeting planners are always looking for something new and different to do,” Shea says, “and the fact that Orlando now offers an unparalleled range of escape room venues is something that really appeals to them. In addition to being a lot of fun, escape rooms offer a new and innovative form of teambuilding.”
I-Drive 360 is an entertainment complex on the International Drive corridor, which extends from Universal Orlando, down to the Orange County Convention Center and SeaWorld. I-Drive 360 is anchored by the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel with enclosed passenger capsules accommodating up to 50 passengers each. The wheel can be rented out for special events. I-Drive 360 also features Sealife Orlando, a marine aquarium and Madame Tussauds wax museum, which is available for group buyouts.
Year after year, the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) ranks as one of the top facilities in the country. After an extensive, multiyear renovation and expansion project, it offers some of the newest and most sophisticated exhibit and meeting space to be found anywhere. It is also known as one of the most technologically advanced and environmentally responsible convention centers in the country.
Its latest offerings, Shea says, are a new Destination Lounge in the North-South Building and Vision Gardens, a hydroponic garden that raises produce for farm-to-table fare served in the facility. “People really like it,” Shea says, “because you can actually see the food being grown.”
Last year, a new pedestrian bridge that connects the West Building to the Grand Hyatt Orlando across the street made its debut. Also in 2017, the OCCC launched a VR-enabled 3-D interactive map, a system that allows meeting planners to virtually explore OCCC’s total of 7 million sf through 360-degree panoramic images, simplifying the search for ideal meeting spaces and breakout rooms.
And the convention center isn’t finished improving: Last summer OCCC officials announced a nearly $500 million proposal to expand the convention center over a 41/2-year construction timeline. The plan calls for building two new additions at the convention center’s North-South Building for a total of 800,000 sf.
Such constant evolution and improvement is what makes Orlando so popular with planners, McMyne says.
“When you do a meeting in Orlando, you know that you are going to be able to find a great hotel at a good price and that the airlift is going to make it easy for people to get there at a reasonable airfare,” he says. “And once they’re there, you know they are going to have an experience they’ll remember. And in those specific ways, Orlando is unlike any other U.S. city.” C&IT