OrlandoAugust 1, 2013

This Meetings Mecca Delivers the Best Bang for the Buck and Great Service to Boot By
August 1, 2013

Orlando

This Meetings Mecca Delivers the Best Bang for the Buck and Great Service to Boot

The Autobot duo in Universal Studios Florida introducing Transformers: The Ride – 3D, the action-packed experience that opened this summer at Universal Orlando Resort. Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

When it comes to well-oiled meeting machinery — from hefty airlift to broad, diverse hotel inventory and world-class entertainment and activities — few destinations can match Orlando. Its unique formula for success has propelled it to the top tier of the meeting and convention market and kept it there for a decade.

More than 55 million visitors flocked to Orlando in the past year, including 3 million meeting and convention attendees, and 2013 is looking as strong or stronger. Major meeting and incentive industry conferences also are flocking to Orlando: For example, this December, Site’s Global Conference will be held for the first time in Orlando at Loews Portofino Bay at Universal Orlando; the Destination Marketing Association International’s Annual Convention was July 15–17 at The Peabody Orlando. AIBTM, the Americas Incentive, Business Travel & Meetings Exhibition, announced that it will rotate to Orlando every other year beginning in 2014. The Event Service Professionals Association and Professional Convention Management Association held their annual meetings in Orlando in January.

“Orlando is widely recognized as the most visited destination in the nation,” says George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, “however, it’s important to us that planners are kept up-to-date on the growing appeal of Orlando. By hosting a series of important industry shows in Orlando, we have had the opportunity to showcase the breadth and scope of what our destination has to offer for incentive programs, as well as meetings, conferences and trade shows.”

“The No. 1 factor for me is their sensibility when it comes to meetings. They (Orlando) always put their customers first. …We all work together as a team.”

— Lori Burke, CMP, President and CEO, LLB Enterprises LLC, Woodbridge, VA

Lori Burke, CMP, president and CEO of independent meeting and event planning company LLB Enterprises LLC, in Woodbridge, VA, has used Orlando for meetings of various sizes and types for the last five years.
“In terms of why I like Orlando, the No. 1 factor for me is their sensibility when it comes to meetings,” she says. “They always put their customers first, whether that’s in pricing or meeting space allocation. And everybody seems to be on the same page when it comes to delivering what I need and want. That’s true of the hotels and the CVB. We all work together as a team. And that makes my job easier as a planner.”
Especially since the budget-challenging days of the recession, Burke also has consistently found a strong value proposition in Orlando. “I always get a lot of bang for my client’s buck,” she says. “And in terms of service, they don’t just deliver value. But they also take the meeting up a notch.”

Mindy Grubb, CMP, director of events at Austin, TX-based real estate enterprise Keller Williams Realty International, is another enthusiastic fan of Orlando. It is now in her regular rotation for the company’s largest and most important meeting, its Family Reunion, which draws more than 10,000 attendees.

“The weather is a big factor,” says Grubb, who plans more than 100 meetings each year. “But it’s also a family destination. And our associates often build their family vacation around the destination where we’re having our annual meeting. And Orlando is a prime spot for a family vacation.”

Given that key element, because independent contractor realtor attendees pay their own way, she often sees a bump in attendance for Orlando meetings. “We see an increase in our hotel pick-up,” she says. “And the higher the attendance, the more successful the meeting is for us.”
Bill Burton, vice president of meetings and events at IHG (InterContinental Hotel Group) in Atlanta, used Orlando for his biggest and most important annual meeting last year, a franchisee conference for 6,000 attendees from 28 countries, after not going there since the mid-1990s.

“All of the work that has been done there over the last five to eight years, with the enhancements to the convention center, the renovation and expansion of The Peabody and the addition of new hotels around the convention center, made it a good choice for us,” Burton says.

Airlift

Although Orlando offers a formidable list of attractive attributes, perhaps none is more important than its almost unparalleled airlift that is the result of its perennial status as the world’s top family vacation destination.

“The biggest thing for us about Orlando is the ease of getting there,” says Ellen Boyer, conference and tradeshow director at educational publisher Professional Media Group, headquartered in Norwalk, CT. “Traveling to Orlando from almost anywhere in the country is either a nonstop flight or a single connection flight. So it’s a very easy place to get to.”

As a result of that benefit, Boyer has used Orlando regularly for the company’s two most important annual meetings, ranging from 125 to 1,200 attendees from all 50 states, for a decade.
Grubb also cites Orlando’s airlift as a key factor in her loyalty. The simple fact that her attendees, also from all 50 states, can generally get direct flights at reasonable fares is something that clearly sets Orlando apart, she says.

Hotel Inventory

In addition to offering planners and attendees easy air access, Orlando also offers an extraordinary range of high-quality rooms across a wide spectrum of price points — again as a result of its unique tourism status.
“They have a wide variety of properties that can accommodate the sizes and types of meetings that I do,” Burke says.

She particularly likes the trio of locally owned Rosen properties: Rosen Shingle Creek, Rosen Plaza Hotel and Rosen Centre Hotel. “I like doing business with them because they are honest people,” Burke says. “I also like the quality of those hotels and the price points. The food and beverage is also very high quality. I also know (owner) Mr. Rosen, and when my groups arrive, he is there to greet them. It’s almost like you’re part of the family.”

Other Orlando hotels Burke favors include The Peabody Orlando, Orlando World Center Marriott Resort & Convention Center and Caribe Royale Orlando.

In his role as meeting planner for a major hotel company, Burton has a particularly detailed appreciation for product in any destination. “There are really good hotels in Orlando these days,” he says. “And there is a great variety, in terms of price, throughout the greater Orlando area. So because there is so much different inventory at different price points, that makes it a really good location for a meeting. And because I’m in the hotel business, I pay particular attention to those kinds of things.”
For his meeting last year, Burton used IHG’s own hotels, including Crowne Plaza Orlando Universal, Holiday Inn Downtown Disney and St. Regis Walt Disney World, in addition to The Peabody Orlando, Hilton Orlando, DoubleTree by Hilton, Rosen Plaza, Rosen Centre and properties along the International Drive convention corridor.

Of particular importance to Grubb is hotels within easy walking distance of the local convention center. “And that is another advantage of Orlando,” she says. “It has major hotels close to the convention center, so that helps us reduce transportation costs and makes things easy for attendees.”

Yet another consideration for Grubb is the range of hotel rates in Orlando. That’s important because her attendees pay their own costs of attending the conference and often bring their families for a vacation.
From a planner’s perspective, Grubb also has high praise for the service she gets from local hotels. “They have been wonderful partners for us,” she says. “For example, they have created specialty drinks at the bars for us. They’ve really tailored what they have to offer to our event. For example, the Rosen Centre was willing to create a ‘Club KW’ venue for us during the meeting.”

Boyer is another planner with the keen appreciation of the range of hotel options in Orlando. The list of properties she favors, based on experience, are the Hilton, Located in the Walt Disney World Resort; Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress; The Ritz-Carlton, Orlando, Grande Lakes; Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate.

For her most recent meeting in June, which drew 1,000 attendees, she used the highly acclaimed Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel.

“It ranked right up there as one of the best hotels we’ve ever used,” Boyer says. “The staff is very easy to work with. And all of the various departments are very well integrated. So that meant if I had any kind of issue, whether I needed tables moved or lights turned off or on, I could call anybody, and they would know who to contact to immediately to take care of what I needed — no matter what the issue was. They are just very on top of everything.” Boyer also gave high marks to the Swan and Dolphin’s state-of-the-art meeting space.

New and Renovated

Burke points out that another factor in Orlando’s favor is that she likes the fact that the city’s hotel product is so well maintained. “The hotels are very well taken care of,” she says. “And I think that just shows the culture of the hospitality industry there. They’re always striving to keep things up to par and always looking for ways to make things better. And that’s one of the reasons why planners keep coming back.”

The big hotel opening on the horizon is the $360 million Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, which is scheduled to debut in 2014. The 444-room hotel will feature 37,000 sf of function and meeting space, including a 14,000-sf main ballroom and a 6,000-sf junior ballroom.
The Hilton Orlando has broken ground on a $2.1 million expansion project that will add a 50,000-sf Promenade outdoor space that can accommodate up to 3,000 attendees. The 1,417-room hotel is connected to the Orange County Convention center by an elevated pedestrian bridge.

The 1,500-acre luxury Villas of Grand Cypress Resort recently completed the first phase of a resort-wide renovation that included all 146 villas.
The newly named Wyndham Or­lando Resort, will complete a renovation of its lobby and 613 guest rooms and suites by the end of this year.

Rosen Hotels and Resorts’ convention hotels now offer free wired and wireless Internet in all guest rooms and public areas. Rosen Centre Hotel recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of all 1,334 guest rooms as well as the presidential and hospitality suites. Rosen Centre’s 124,000 sf of meeting space includes a new 18,000-sf Executive Ballroom. Rosen Plaza Hotel recently completed a floor-to-ceiling renovation of all 800 guest rooms as well as hallways and hospitality suites. Rosen Shingle Creek’s mega-sized 445,000 sf of meeting space includes 66,000 sf of outdoor space, thanks to a recent 16,000-sf expansion.

The 720-room, four-diamond Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate earlier this year opened the 48,000-sf Osceola County Conference Center. With a 28,800-sf ballroom and accompanying indoor meeting space, the new conference center gives the Omni a total of 128,000 sf of indoor event space and an additional 70,000 sf of outdoor space.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando completed a $14 million renovation of all 750 guest rooms in April. Renovations to the meeting space and ballrooms at Universal Orlando’s Loews Royal Pacific and Hard Rock hotels were finished last September. Guest room renovations at Loews Royal Pacific will be completed in stages with the first half scheduled for a 2014 and the rest in 2015.

The 2,000-room Orlando World Center Marriott has just completed its five-year, multimillion-dollar renovation project. The North Tower’s 514 guest rooms, including 10 suites, have been refurbished, as well as another 110 guest suites, the Hall of Cities meeting rooms and Falls Pool Oasis.

Dining and Entertainment

One of the most dramatic enhancements of Orlando over the last few years has been the rapid and well-planned development of its local dining scene, particularly along the International Drive convention corridor and adjacent to major theme parks Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.
“I rate the dining scene in Orlando very highly,” Boyer says. “It plays a very strong role in the success of our meetings. For example, sometimes attendees bring family members, and there are just a lot of good dining options in Orlando. And for our high-end meetings, the sponsors often take attendees out for dinner. And Orlando also offers a lot of good options for that kind of entertaining.”

Grubb also notes the dining scene as a key factor in Orlando’s attraction for her and her attendees. “A lot of our leadership staff take guests and potential recruits out for dinner,” she says. “So the quality of the dining scene is a very big part of the appeal of Orlando for us.”
For example, she says, The Pointe Orlando complex near the convention center offers a diverse range of restaurants, from a B.B. King’s Blues Club to Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar to The Capital Grille, that can be used for a dine-around program under one roof.

Visit Orlando points out that over the past five years, the city has doubled or tripled the number of high-end culinary experiences available.

Convention Center

Yet another of the competitive advantages Orlando can claim is the mega-facility complex that is the Orange County Convention Center, one of the largest and most technologically modern in the country. In addition to its physical capabilities, it is also known for its exemplary service.

“We use a lot of space — more than a million square feet,” Grubb says. “And there are only a handful of cities, including Orlando, that have the amount of space we need. But they are also the easiest convention center to work with I have ever experienced. You can ask them for absolutely anything, and they will deliver it with no questions asked. And the food-and-beverage service they have down to a tee. They are just amazing to work with. It’s a well-oiled machine.”

The state-of-the-art technology upgrades of the last few years are also very important to Grubb. “That saves us tons of money on the front end,” she says.

Burton also gives the convention center an A grade. “It worked great for us,” he says. “It’s very clean. It’s very well maintained. The day-to-day management of the facility is really good. And they really pay attention to their ongoing maintenance, and they always look for new opportunities to improve things further going forward. They do a really great job there, whether that’s management or housekeeping. And the facility has a really good feel to it.”

He also praised the food and beverage services. “They did a fantastic job,” he says. “It was one of the best convention center food experiences I have ever had. And they go out of their way to source local ingredients. For example, they used a lot of fresh local produce in the food we were served. And that’s always a good thing.”

CVB Support

The final weapon in Orlando’s competitive arsenal is its frequently praised convention and visitors bureau, Visit Orlando. Over the past five years, it has developed a reputation as one of the best organizations in the meeting industry.

“We depend on them for everything they can possibly do for us,” Grubb says. “They are amazing. They create our micro websites. They help us with attendees who are planning a family vacation. They recommend things for our attendees to do. We also link to their website so attendees can do their own research. They also help us with the marketing of our meeting. For example, when we host our other annual meeting in Austin, a mid-year event, they send a team to promote the next conference in Orlando.”

Boyer also works very closely — and very successfully — with Visit Orlando. “And for the last five years, we’ve worked with a dedicated staff member named Collette Johnson, who is just fantastic,” she says. “She vets and manages RFPs for me and helps with hotel selection. She also drives me around when I’m there for a site visit.”

Boyer finds such dedicated, personalized support to be a relatively unique benefit. “It’s extremely unusual,” she says. “With most CVBs, you just get the luck of the draw, depending on who is busy. So having a dedicated individual to work with for all of my meetings is a very big benefit. And my relationship with Collette and the job she does for us is one of the main reasons we go back to Orlando.”

But another big reason why Boyer, Grubb and many other planners use Orlando on a regular basis, with great success, is that it consistently delivers what is almost universally considered the most important benefit in a post-recession industry: bottom-line value.

“These days, every meeting planner is very budget conscious,” Grubb says. “And Orlando is one of the least expensive cities we have ever done business in. But we also get a lot of bang for our buck every time we do an event in Orlando.” C&IT

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