While Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort may be the main attractions bringing people to Orlando each year, most are surprised to find out how many other activities there are to experience. Whether employees travel on their own to corporate meetings or with their loved ones, they can enjoy the resort beaches between meetings, visit the Gatorland wildlife preserve or go shopping at the enormous The Florida Mall and much more. With more than 60 million visitors to Orlando annually, it’s one of the most popular destinations for meetings and incentive programs.
Sarah Brady, CITP, senior sourcing manager for the Schaumburg, Illinois-based Creative Group, notes Orlando offers great airlift, upscale hotels, good weather and a variety of activities of which to take advantage during free time.
“The ability to bring large groups to a destination with direct flights from many U.S. destinations starts meetings off on a positive note,” she says. “Having a large convention center with enough rooms within walking distance to accommodate extremely large groups is a great value. The cost of doing business in Orlando is lower than at most Florida destinations and the service in this destination is outstanding.”
Not that the theme parks should be ruled out. With both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks within the greater Orlando area, there is a lot for groups to do either as a planned group event or at the attendees’ leisure.
Tonya Roberts, HMCC, global sourcing manager for Kansas City, Missouri-based Bishop-McCann, says, “Orlando offers endless options, such as walkable entertainment districts and vibrant nightlife, including eclectic lounges and bars with live local music, high-energy night clubs, and headlining concerts and events.”
She adds, “With stunning backdrops you won’t find anywhere else, only Orlando can offer incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences that attendees will be talking about for years to come,” Roberts says. “Orlando is the perfect place for meetings of all types and sizes. From the great year-round weather, to more than 450 hotels and resorts, and the second-largest convention center in the country, along with easy accessibility, Orlando combines all of the special ingredients to make for a unique meeting destination unlike any other in the world.”
Rosen Shingle Creek was the right venue for an internal sales kickoff conference for a software company with approximately 1,100 attendees
Orlando is also an excellent location to host incentive programs as it has an air of magic which draws people to it. Even the city’s NBA team, the Orlando Magic, is named after this unique vibe.
“The city has a desirability about it which is still present when you discount the theme parks; it is somewhere that people want to visit for a host of reasons, making it an ideal location for an incentive program,” says Toni Caracciolo, vice president of marketing for Visit Orlando, the official tourism marketing organization. “If you host your event here, then it’s likely those invited will do everything they can to get here.”
After all, Orlando provides a plethora of activities to offer guests, ranging from professional sports, such as the aforementioned Orlando Magic and Major League Soccer’s Orlando City Soccer Club, to countless live events at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the Amway Arena.
Jenny Bayer, head of operations for Orlando-based GET Destinations, has managed everything from large pharmaceutical and medical conferences to national sales meetings for large corporations.
“The best part of planning an event in Orlando is its infrastructure. The city has been set up to run meetings,” she says. “It allows an easy flow for event logistics due to the airport, numerous dine-around options, and the Orange County Convention Center, as they are all within 15 to 20 minutes of each other.”
Leveraging 10 years of event planning experience, Libby Long has planned, coordinated and produced both internal and external events with audience sizes ranging from 400 to 1,800 attendees in Orlando.
“Our events attract executives from around the world, and Orlando is such a convenient location that really has it all — an international airport, countless golf courses, spas and entertainment. What more could you want?” she asks. “From an attendee perspective, Orlando brings a one-stop shop for a large array of interests, while being very convenient. As a planner, you get to work with the best of the best in venue and vendor partners. Essentially, it is where you want to go.”
Callie Cleary, senior event manager for Charlestown, Massachusetts-based The Castle Group, notes offsite event options also provide unique ways to privatize them for large events, including the theme parks, SeaWorld Orlando and fun large-scale venues, such as Topgolf Orlando, shopping at Pointe Orlando and music at The House of Blues Orlando.
“We’ve had many conferences and meetings in Orlando and have great, trusted partners in the area that we’ve built relationships with over the years,” Cleary says. “Both within the hotels and with local DMCs, everyone is very knowledgeable about the area and easy to work with. There are many hotels, activities, venues and experiences to select from, so we have the option to go back to the same places for repeat events, if it worked well, or enough flexibility to change up the program year after year. It is an easily accessible area, which also makes planning convenient.”
Jennifer Nelson, director, business development and global event services for American Express Global Business Travel Meetings and Events, notes the company’s 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast predicts that Orlando will again be the No. 1 meeting destination in North America.
“With the volume of corporate meetings that are hosted annually, Orlando has some of the most experienced suppliers and workforce to help make sure meetings run successfully,” she says. “Orlando’s airport also provides nonstop service from more than 150 cities around the world, and Orlando airfares are among the lowest of major destinations, according to Visit Orlando.”
Joe Ostertag, director of national accounts for San Diego, California-based Access Destination Services, says no matter what your group size, Orlando is home to over 150 meeting hotels and offsite venues that can accommodate groups from 10 to 20,000, adding that few destinations offer such a unique combination of ideal weather, travel ease, hotel options and venue space.
“I have been planning meetings and events in Orlando for almost two decades and it’s safe to say that I’ve never seen this destination go through such an explosive time of growth, development and change,” he says. “New hotel and venue offerings are coming online all the time and Orlando International Airport is undergoing a significant terminal expansion and renovation. Orlando continues to reinvent itself all the time.”
Dieter Burgoa, CMP, general manager of PRA Orlando, notes it’s very easy to plan meetings in the area, starting from the great support you can get from the CVB and also the support that you can get from PRA as a local destination expert.
“This is a great destination that offers multiple options, a variety of price ranges that allow a planner to get the most out of their budget and also be surrounded by very talented people that have the expertise and are seasoned enough to help them make their event a great experience for their attendees,” he says. “We have helped our clients to plan their events in multiple ways. One of the most important is the variety of tours and activities that could be offered to the attendees. We have plenty of options, from visiting the theme parks to going down in a zip line over live alligators and crocodiles, or enjoying a day off at the spa or the lazy river.”
A specific example of Orlando being the perfect place to host any event comes from Bayer, with one of GET Destination’s clients hosting not one, but two, national sales meetings in January.
“It all began with the ease of traveling to their meeting destination. With direct flights from numerous destinations in the United States, and only two terminals, arrival day ran smoothly for our attendees setting them on the right path for a successful event,” Bayer says. “After an easy travel day, most of our attendees got to spend an evening at a beachside welcome reception on a private beach in January — something unheard of for most of our northern attendees.”
To add to their already memorable experience, all attendees were treated to an offsite event at Epcot. Orlando is one of few cities in the United States where you can give your attendees an epic dining experience in the world’s most famous theme park, instead of a regular dinner out with their colleagues.
Last year, the Creative Group planned a 650-person national sales meeting for a medical device company in the area and the program received some of the highest attendee satisfaction scores in event history — significantly higher on location and hotel satisfaction over the previous year’s meeting in San Antonio.
“Orlando was a great location for the moderate to warm weather in winter months and the vast array of entertainment options,” Brady says. “By staying at a Loews Universal property, they were able to easily take advantage of Universal Studios and City Walk during their free afternoon and evening.”
In Orlando, Nelson has planned American Express’ INTER[action], a global employee meeting and supplier showcase with more than 800 attendees.
“This event went incredibly well, and the most advantageous part about hosting the event in Orlando was the knowledgeable local meetings professional that helped ensure we both wowed our attendees and had an effective supplier showcase,” she says. “Since Orlando is known as North America’s No. 1 meeting destination, the service levels need to be world class resulting in world-class events.”
Roberts recently arranged a meeting of 500 sales representatives at one of Universal Orlando’s resort properties, and it offered flexible meeting space with the opportunity to host private events at Universal’s theme park.
Ostertag was fortunate to help plan an annual sales kickoff meeting for three consecutive years in Orlando, explaining the group had more than 3,000 people and was made up of 10 different business units.
“Access Destination Services was tasked with producing inspiring offsite events for each business unit that were unique from year to year,” he says. “In most destinations, this would prove to be a huge challenge, but Orlando simply has so many venue options of varying scale, type and style that it made it easy for each to create the unique experiences the client was looking for year after year.”
Last fall, Long hosted a conference for just about 2,000 senior executives at the Hilton Orlando.
“I could not have chosen a better venue,” she says. “Across 2 1/2 days, our attendees absorbed phenomenal content in an even better environment. We hosted private lunches, receptions, etc. And the chefs at the property transformed the standard conference food experience into a culinary journey for our attendees.”
Cleary recently returned home from Orlando after wrapping up an internal sales kickoff conference for a software company for approximately 1,100 attendees at Rosen Shingle Creek resort.
“The program was a huge success. The flow of the hotel worked great for what we were trying to accomplish,” she says. “We got great feedback on the property, level of service, and food and beverage product. All departments at the hotel were helpful, easy to work with and responsive to our requests. From our main contacts at CSM and catering, to setups, A/V and banquet departments, all were well-versed and professional.”
For those aiming for a big corporate feel for an event, Orlando is a great choice, as it is home to a number of excellent venues and facilities. There’s the Orange County Convention Center, which is the country’s second-largest convention center at 2.1 million sf of exhibition space and 480,000 sf of flexible meeting space. It also boasts 49 meeting rooms, a large theater and a lecture hall and is in a prime location, being about a 25-minute drive from Orlando International Airport, making it highly accessible to those traveling from farther afield.
A number of the area’s villa resorts can also be used as meetings and events venue spaces, and many of the top resorts have large meeting rooms available.
For instance, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort has 333,000 sf of meeting space; Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate has 248,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space; Rosen Shingle Creek offers 410,000 sf of indoor and 186,000 sf of outdoor space; and the Loews hotels at Universal Orlando feature 132,000 sf of event space.
Brady calls the Loews hotels at Universal a great option for groups due to great on-property outlets, easy and complimentary access via shuttle, or bus, to the Universal parks and Universal City Walk, and an experienced conventions services and banquet staff.
“The executive chef at Loews Sapphire Falls, for example, is willing and open to menu customization and creating new experiences for attendees,” she says. “The meeting space is expansive, yet consolidated or stacked so that attendees can easily move from one meeting to another with ease. Loews also partners with approved local vendors to offer a vast array of branding opportunities to create an immersive experience for groups within the meeting space.”
Bayer’s favorite place to hold a meeting is at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin, which she has worked with several times throughout her 13 years at a DMC.
“It truly offers amazing amenities for attendees, ample space for general sessions and breakouts, as well as unique reception options, including a private beach,” she says. “With its close proximity to Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Epcot, it also gives us great dine-around and offsite venue options for our clients.”
There are hordes of hotels, ranging in size and price, with amazing onsite restaurant options.
“Planners will also have the ability to host new and innovative team-building activities, exclusive private after-hours use of world-class rides and attractions, and exquisite group dining,” Roberts says. “Imagine the unique experience and impression of having exclusive private use of select major theme park rides, characters and attractions for the enjoyment of your meeting attendees.”
In addition, a group can go to Disney Springs, a premier shopping and entertainment destination boasting six restaurants that feature James Beard award-winning chefs. “Groups can buy out one of these restaurants for the evening or buyout multiple to create their own block party,” Ostertag says.
Obviously, one of the main attractions for those coming into Orlando is the beautiful weather. Nelson has seen firsthand that meeting attendees will take personal time or even wake up early before their meeting activities begin to enjoy the weather and use hotel amenities, such as pools and outdoor spaces. Many others explore the theme parks during their off hours.
Simply put, Ostertag notes, there is something for everyone to do and enjoy in Orlando.
“I would strongly encourage meeting attendees to explore some of the local neighborhoods and experience Orlando like a local,” he says. “One example is Winter Park, a picturesque town with brick- and oak-lined streets. It also has a wonderful chain of lakes where you can enjoy a relaxing narrative boat tour. After you get off the water, stroll down Park Avenue and enjoy the off-the-beaten path boutique shopping, local cafés and restaurants.”
Long notes planners need to think outside the box when they plan in Orlando.
“There is more than meets the eye when it comes to Orlando, so take the time to understand how you can take advantage of all the area has to offer,” she says.
Overall, Cleary says planning meetings in Orlando is quite pleasant.
“There are great, experienced partners to work with throughout Orlando, and you almost always find yourself working with a seasoned team of professionals who work in collaboration with us as meeting planners to achieve the same goal: To put forth the best product and service for our clients, and attendees, that we can,” she says. “Working in Orlando makes our jobs easier and more efficient.” C&IT