Visit Orlando President and CEO George Aguel earlier this month proudly announced that Orlando set an all-time record for U.S. destinations by welcoming 59 million visitors in calendar year 2013 — a hefty 3 percent increase over 2012.
Add that triumph to a number of other accomplishments such as CVB of the Year by ConferenceDirect in 2013 and HelmsBriscoe in 2012. Aguel says he “likes the sound of CVB of the Year.”
And troves of meeting professionals couldn’t agree more with Aguel, who asserts, “Orlando is one of the top destinations for meetings, conventions and trade shows in the world. Our award-winning convention center is recognized each year for its outstanding service and amenities. We offer an incredible diversity of hotel and resort properties for meeting professionals to choose from.”
Aguel continues, “As a city, we’re constantly evolving. Orlando is a destination where there’s something new every year. Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort just opened, and this summer, for example, we have the grand opening of the Four Seasons Resort at Disney as well as the new entertainment complex on International Drive near the convention center — the future home of the Orlando Eye (observation wheel) — which will add more restaurants, shops and attractions to the mix.
“As a city, we’re constantly evolving. Orlando is a destination where there’s something new every year.” — George Aguel
“Of course, there also are our outstanding theme parks. Groups can take over areas of the parks for private events that guests will remember for years to come. Our restaurant scene is also constantly evolving with new restaurants that will excite even the most discerning attendees. From elegant, top-rated Zagat restaurants to casual pubs, there’s something for every taste — all within minutes from the convention center and convention hotels.”
Orlando doesn’t rest complacently on its lofty perch as one of the world’s top meeting, incentive and convention destinations. The city relentlessly continues to add more of everything corporate planners need.
As a matter of fact, Orlando is experiencing one of the most significant expansion periods in the destination’s history. According to Visit Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort will open the world’s first centrally themed, multi-park experience this summer by expanding The Wizarding World of Harry Potter across both of its theme parks. SeaWorld Orlando recently opened Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin — the biggest expansion in its company’s history, while Walt Disney World Resort will complete a multiyear project that is doubling the size of Fantasyland when it debuts the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster this summer.
Meetings held earlier this year in Orlando include the bi-annual Business Alignment Meeting (BAM) of Milwaukee,WI-based Rockwell Automation. Business and sales leaders from more than 40 countries gathered for a five-day meeting at the 1,000-room, South Seas-themed Loews Royal Pacific Resort, according to Jeff Storley, manager, commercial events, Rockwell Automation. BAM was held at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort in 2012 and also is scheduled for 2016 and 2018. Rockwell Automation also held three software technical education conferences for end users and other business partners at the resort in 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Loews’ 85,000 sf of flexible conference space is a big reason Rockwell Automation returns often to the property. Conference facilities, which are located on one floor, allow attendees to flow efficiently between classrooms when sessions are on a tight schedule, and the U-shaped arrangement is conducive to training sessions¸ says Storley.
The BAM meeting held roughly 90 classes over four days in about 20 different classrooms. The technical education conferences had nearly 1,000 computers in the conference space networked together for end users and other business partners.
Storley also likes Universal Resorts’ self-contained setting and the endless variety of entertainment and activities available on-property. “We had an event at Streets of New York, says Storley. “We rented out a section of Universal, and they gave us a number of rides as part of the rental. We also opened up their shops and restaurants and had Universal characters roving through the crowd. The big attractions for us were the Transformers ride, the Despicable Me ride, Shrek 4D and Revenge of the Mummy. Some people also went to Disney, Cape Canaveral and SeaWorld during their visit to Orlando.”
The Loews Royal Pacific Resort also is a property of choice for Rockwell Automation because it provides great value. “It’s an awesome value,” says Storley. “We are very budget-conscious, and they help us to make sure we manage our budget to the letter. We feel we get great value. We have been working with the same salesperson for every meeting.”
Later this year, Walt Disney World Resort will host a meeting of a major international candy and confections corporation based outside of Florida. The company will hold its fifth consecutive annual sales meeting at a Walt Disney World Resort property this spring and return again in 2015. The group has held meetings at the Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
Six years ago, the candy company’s sales group meeting planner (who requested anonymity) didn’t consider meeting at Disney. “I wasn’t even planning to do a site visit,” she says. “As luck would have it, a former executive at our company became an executive with Disney and encouraged us to look at it as a possibility. I agreed to go there on a site visit, and we’ve been going since.”
Walt Disney World Resort is the company’s destination of choice for several reasons. “There are so many opportunities to have different experiences in the same venue that we wouldn’t have been able to have at a reasonable cost anywhere else,” she explains. “You couple that with the fact that Orlando is one of the least expensive places to bring a large group. And here’s a key: They offer amenities to the family and friends of attendees who want to come a few days before the meeting or stay on afterwards.”
In addition, meeting at Walt Disney World provides good value. The candy company initially signed meeting contracts year-by-year, but now has a great multiyear deal, says the planner. “The room rates are very good,” she says. “The food and beverage rates are competitive. If someone is looking for food and beverage price alone, they probably wouldn’t choose Disney, but there are so many other things included in the packages that make it a good value.”
The company’s four-day sales meeting at the Yacht Club Resort last year included about 450 attendees. The group took full advantage of all that the hotel offers, starting with the beach. “We had a beach party for a welcome reception,” says the planner. “It was a casual barbecue. We used the Disney DJs for dancing. Our salespeople loved being able to go to dinner in their bare feet and play volleyball and horseshoes. We had (a famous NASCAR driver that the company sponsors) signing autographs on the beach. We also had a fire and made s’mores.”
The meeting’s general session included a special confectionary touch. “We made it look and feel like chocolate with lots of brown piping and drapes,” says the planner. “We had chocolate machines to infuse the smell of chocolate when people walked into the room.”
In addition, the company hosted a formal black-tie gala dinner in the Grand Floridian’s convention center, according to the planner. “It was themed to the colors representing the traditional high-honor awards for career sales accomplishments. We used black, gold and red colors, and changes in lighting and drapery to make the ballroom look like it was converted into something different than it was during the general session. We had an after-party in a hospitality room, where we brought in dueling piano players.”
The sales group’s previous annual meetings at Disney have taken full advantage of other activities and entertainment offerings. “One year we did a dinner at Epcot Theme Park” says the planner. “They closed off a balcony for us to watch a light show and fireworks. Another year, we did a special event at Disney’s Hollywood studios, and we had private access to the rides. We also had customized food and entertainment. They learned about our brand and helped us incorporate it into our theme through entertainment, whether it was a comedian or strolling musician. One year, they customized dessert and 3-D eyeglasses to our brand.”
The candy company’s planner cites Disney’s overall commitment to great customer service as a major reason for returning year after year. “If there is anything that stands out no matter which venue we use, it’s the partnership with the people,” she says. “From the sales teams to the people at the convention center, the way they partner with you sets them apart from other venues, and it keeps us coming back. They make meetings easy for us.” That’s one reason why the company’s research and development as well as its brand team also have held meetings at Disney, she adds.
Planners point out that Orlando is a world-class destination partly because its theme parks offer such dedicated service to meetings both large and small. An oil and gas services company based outside of Florida held a three-day meeting earlier this year for 125 of its banking business partners, mostly from the northern and central U.S. It’s the eighth consecutive year that the company (which would like to remain anonymous) has held the meeting at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
Although the oil and gas company has met at the same property for eight consecutive years, the group continues to find new activities, entertainment and experiences. “This year we did a dinner at Epcot’s World Showplace pavilion in a venue that is not open to the public,” says Luz France, the company’s planner and executive assistant. “We did a Cirque du Soleil-type entertainment where they entertained on a center stage with the group seated around them. We did the Richard Petty Driving Experience (which provides the thrill of a real NASCAR race). We also fished in the Seven Seas Lagoon on boats docked at the Grand Floridian. They golfed at the Magnolia and Palm courses, and enjoyed the Senses Spa at the Grand Floridian. Some people did the various park and back-lot tours that Disney offers.”
France also touts the Grand Floridian’s audio-visual services. “Our in-house technology people worked with the hotel staff,” says France. “Our audio-visual included a company video that we shot in HD and put together mainly for this meeting.” France adds that the hotel’s premier HD equipment made his audio-visual content look “very sharp.”
State-of-the-art audio-visual and technology help cement Orlando’s status as a premiere destination. Andrew Taffin, CEO of Iselin, NJ-based Tallen Technology Rentals, which has provided audio-visual and technology rentals to meetings in Orlando with up to 5,000 attendees, describes the destination’s audio-visual and technology services as “unlimited.”
More Orlando properties are tying audio-visual and other visual technology to mobile event apps, many of which integrate games and fun, interactive features such as contests and scavenger hunts. Orlando properties also are using interactive technology such as displays and touch-screens to connect meetings in separate rooms and other function spaces both indoors and outdoors.
Overall, meeting planners will be pleased to learn that Orlando has plenty of room for all their events. Orlando boasts more than 450 hotels with more than 118,000 rooms. Out of that total, meeting properties number 36, with a total of 33,343 rooms. (Meeting hotels, also known as convention hotels, are defined here as having a minimum of 300 rooms and no less than 20,000 sf of meeting space.)
Orlando continues to increase its supply of technologically modern hotels: The projected total of all rooms jumps to 120,575 for 2015.
Here’s the latest property news for Orlando.
Universal Orlando Resort’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort opened March 31. The retro-style, 1,800-room resort is the largest of Universal’s four onsite Loews Hotels. Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando completed a $14 million renovation of its 750 guest rooms and suites and refurbished the hotel’s façade. Loews Portofino Bay features 42,000 sf of meeting space.
The 444-room Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World is scheduled to open in late summer 2014. The lakeside resort will offer 37,750 sf of meeting and function space including ballrooms of 14,000 sf and 6,000 sf. Groups will enjoy nightly fireworks views, great golf, the spectacular five-acre Explorer Island and much more.
The 1,417-room Hilton Orlando’s new 50,000-sf outdoor Promenade features spectacular water and fire fountains and provides a lush landscaped lawn and patio ideal for intimate gatherings or large events for 100 to 3,000 guests. Four distinct areas include the Sky Terrace, Grande Lawn, Fountain Plaza and Sun Garden. Tents, catering, lighting, sound and entertainment are available for custom-designed events. An elevated pedestrian bridge connects the hotel to the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).
Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort is undergoing a $25 million makeover. The project includes the hotel’s 429 guest rooms, meeting spaces, redesigned pools and dining options.
The Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard, located directly across from the North/South concourse of the OCCC, has opened a new meeting and special event center. The 5,575-sf Lotus Ballroom increases the 315-room hotel’s total function and prefunction space to 13,685 sf. The new ballroom accommodates up to 300 guests for a banquet setting or meeting and up to 500 guests for a reception. The new ballroom is adjacent to the hotel’s free-form outdoor pool, another ideal location for outdoor group functions.
The 2,000-room Orlando World Center Marriott has completed a five-year, multimillion-dollar refurbishment that included the North Tower’s 514 guest rooms, 10 suites and 110 guest suites. The Hall of Cities meeting rooms also underwent renovation. The property boasts 450,000 sf of function space.
Over the past 40 years, Rosen Hotels & Resorts has delivered one-of-a-kind Orlando experiences. Their three meeting hotels include Rosen Shingle Creek, Rosen Plaza Hotel and Rosen Centre Hotel. Rosen Plaza Hotel was connected to the OCCC West Building via the Gary Sain Memorial Skybridge in September. Rosen Plaza is updating its fine-dining restaurant, Jack’s Place, slated to open in the fall. Rosen Centre Hotel is opening a new poolside restaurant this summer, Harry’s Poolside Bar & Grill.
The newly renovated Wyndham Orlando Resort International Drive boasts new resort-chic décor for the property’s 613 guest rooms and suites, a newly renovated lobby lounge, and 25,000 sf of newly constructed meeting space and expansive outdoor venues for events.
Orlando-based Unicorp National Developments Inc. is busy with two development projects: the $100 million I-Shops redevelopment/expansion of the Wyndham Orlando Resort and the future home of The Orlando Eye on International Drive — the $200 million dining-shopping-entertainment complex. The new Orlando Eye — a 425-foot observation wheel — will be complemented by attractions such as Sea Life Aquarium and Madame Tussauds wax museum. LongHorn Steakhouse is now open and Yard House Orlando is set to open in April. Other restaurants will open as they are completed.
The 1,641-room Peabody Orlando was reflagged as the Hyatt Regency Orlando. Before it changed hands last fall, the property was renovated for approximately $440 million. The property also boasts a spa, fitness center, three pools and three restaurants. It has 315,000 sf of meeting space and is attached to the OCCC.
Earlier this year, Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge landed on the prestigious 2014 Condé Nast Traveler Gold List, scoring a 100 percent ranking for service. The property offers 70 rooms, 9,000 sf of meeting and banquet space as well as 27 holes of golf.
Combining business and pleasure just got a little easier at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin as the new Disney FastPass+ allows hotel guests to reserve up to 60 days in advance of their trip and choose from a broader array of options, including Disney Character Greetings, fireworks and parade viewing areas, shows and spectaculars.
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, located in the heart of Walt Disney World, offers 2,265 guest rooms and more than 329,000 sf of meeting space including 84 meeting rooms, two executive boardrooms, four ballroom options, 110,500 sf of contiguous convention/exhibit space, outdoor function areas and two business centers.
Disney Differences are part of the package at Swan and Dolphin, too. They may include such items as access to Walt Disney World Theme Parks for “magical” parties and events; Disney Character appearances at group functions; the world-renowned executive training of the Disney Institute and the Walt Disney World business programs; behind-the-scenes tours and personal enrichment programs; access to ESPN Wide World of Sports for sporting events, teambuilding programs and themed functions; exclusive mid-day and multi-day meeting/convention tickets to the Walt Disney World Theme Parks; extra Magic Hours benefit; complimentary transportation throughout the resort including water taxi service to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios; access to four nearby championship Walt Disney World golf courses; and more.
Planners considering Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld, formerly the Doubletree Resort Orlando – International Drive, will find extra benefits as the property is an official onsite SeaWorld partner hotel. The resort offers 1,004 guest rooms and suites, 60,000 sf of flexible indoor/outdoor meeting and banquet space, multiple dining options and complimentary transportation to the major theme parks. Complimentary Quick Queue at SeaWorld; complimentary transportation to SeaWorld, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, and Universal Orlando and others are a few of the extra benefits available.
Universal Orlando Resort is expanding the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, adding the London-themed Diagon Alley area in Universal Studios this summer. The new attraction, which doubles the size of the Harry Potter world, will feature new experiences based on Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley from the Harry Potter series.
Connecting the existing and new Harry Potter lands will be the Hogwarts Express train, which will treat guests to two completely different experiences depending on whether they’re traveling to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure or to Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. It’s the first time that a train will connect two themed areas at Universal.
Once seated in the cabin, passengers will be able to look out their windows as scenes and characters from Harry Potter books and films pass by. They’ll see Hagrid come alongside the train on his flying motorbike, Buckbeak the Hippogriff swoop gracefully over the black lake, the Weasley twins on brooms and up to their usual antics, the Knight Bus swerving through London traffic — and other special moments and surprises.
Universal Orlando’s CityWalk will open eight new culinary venues in CityWalk during 2014, including the Hot Dog Hall of Fame, featuring iconic hot dog creations from famous ball parks; CowFish, an innovative and trend-setting concept out of Charlotte, NC; the popular Cold Stone Creamery; and Menchie’s.
Original concepts include Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food, a unique tapas-style restaurant; Bread Box, a homestyle sandwich shop; a new modern Italian kitchen concept, where guests can watch as the culinary team handcrafts their pasta from scratch; and Red Oven Pizza Bakery — Universal’s first-ever Neopolitan-style pizza bakery, which is now open.
Walt Disney World Resort broke ground on an Avatar-inspired land. The new attraction, located at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, is the largest in its history and will take several years to complete.
Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park debuted the Disney Festival of Fantasy, its newest daytime parade. The parade will include characters from stories such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Dumbo,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Pinocchio.”
Walt Disney World Resort also announced the return of Star Wars Weekends to Hollywood Studios by late spring. The annual event includes a parade, Jedi Training Academy, “Hyperspace Hoopla” and themed meet-and-greets.
Perhaps no other destination epitomizes such pure fun more than Orlando. Coupled with the all the other benefits of meeting in Orlando and the excellent value, who could ask for anything more? C&IT