Florida is a big state — 447 miles north to south, 361 miles east to west. While its 663 miles of beaches and 1,197 miles of coastline are huge draws for attendees, it’s hardly a “one-size-fits-all” destination. Each coast, city and resort area offers its own distinct vibe. Here are just a few possibilities.
Orlando is known for inspired theme parks, but corporate planners know it as a top national and international meeting destination. There’s no lack of hotels and resorts to choose from, including chains and independents.
Caribe Royale Orlando is an independent, a plus for Virginia Dodge, CMM, HMCC, president of VA Productions Inc., whose client BSN Medical held its national sales conference there in February, with 250 attending.
“This was my third time at the Caribe Royale. I think independently owned properties can make a difference in the area of flexibility. We got a great rate and the sales staff was a pleasure to work with to negotiate the things my client needed and expected.”
Orlando itself offers value as well. “Local incentives often exist for bringing meetings to Orlando,” Dodge notes. “Airfare is a bit lower on average with the bonus of having so many direct flights per day.”
Dodge calls the all-suite Caribe Royale “a beautiful property with real wow factors for attendees.” She notes that the ample conference space is all on one level and the property is nicely laid out. “A covered walkway from one tower to the conference center makes for a short walk, and there’s a gorgeous workout facility with early and late hours, which is important to clients these days.”
Then there’s the staff. “John Murray, director of sales and Kim Bester, senior sales manager, were everything you want in a sales team: professional, pleasant, knew the property inside and out, extremely accommodating, really worked to get what we needed — no games, no empty or incorrect promises. Our associate director of catering and convention services, Yvonne Gollattscheck, was spot on taking care of the details and going with the flow. Requests were handled in a timely manner by all staff. …It’s frustrating when requests are not taken care of and you have to follow back around addressing the same things more than once. When it’s done well and right like it was at the Caribe Royale, it makes a huge difference for the planner and ultimately for the attendees, which is most important!”
In terms of meeting space, technology and catering, Dodge says, “It was easy to find the right fit for my numerous specific group needs, and Kim and Yvonne worked with me to make it all come together. My company, VA Productions Inc., is an audio-visual company along with being a meeting-planning and video-production company so we brought our own AV equipment and team. I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth the way attendees now connect multiple devices and some sessions involve all attendees being online at once, but there wasn’t a single issue.”
In addition to the standard suites of nearly 500 sf, there are fully outfitted villas near the conference center. “These can be great for planners, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and extra workspace areas. They also work for overflow small breakout rooms if needed,” Dodge notes.
Also convenient is the range of dining options, including the fine-dining Venetian Chop House, which Dodge highly recommends for executives or small group dinners.
The only hitch came from the same meal room not being available for the entire conference. In the end, Dodge says, “Yvonne worked hard, got creative and came up with a solution that worked for my client, ultimately keeping them in the same room all week.”
She plans to return to Orlando with two groups next year, and hopes the Caribe Royale will work for at least one. “This resort is a hidden gem among the masses of hotels in Orlando. Once you go there, you’ll want to go back, which is why I say book early. They have so many clients return year after year that in the busy season it can be tough to find the availability and space you need.”
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate gives planners an option just to the south of Orlando with 36 holes of championship golf. Laurie Sorensen, learning architect with HTG Peer Groups, booked the company’s fourth-quarter meeting there starting in November 2016, with subsequent meetings 2017-2019.
“Our largest vendor partner, ConnectWise, does its conference in Orlando right after ours each year, so we try to make it convenient for attendees to get to both,” Sorensen says. “Orlando is a hub city with great flight options from almost any airport, and ChampionsGate has a resort feel but is located near the airport. The Omni brand delivers a very high quality of service and we appreciate the Omni Select Guest Program. The team at the property is also one of our favorites,” she continues. “Senior Sales Manager Nolan Hart always takes care of our group with individualized attention and his trademark good humor. When I work with Nolan and the team at the ChampionsGate, I feel like we’re partners. Nolan truly feels like an extension of my team because he makes our goals his own.”
The meeting space is ideal as well. “The Osceola meeting center has breakout space and ballroom space,” Sorensen notes, “so it gives the feeling of an intimate event within a much larger property since it is all enclosed and set apart from the hotel meeting space.”
It is a bit of a walk from the guest rooms to the meeting rooms, but Sorensen says, “With many of our attendees coming from cold climates, the short walk in Florida weather is welcome.” She gives the property her highest recommendation, noting, “I would encourage planners to check out Omni’s unrivaled multimeeting and multiyear packages.”
Also among Orlando’s multitude of resorts is Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort, which recently completed a comprehensive $5 million renovation of its total 329,000 sf of meeting space at both the Swan and Dolphin properties. The makeover is part of the Swan and Dolphin’s multiphase $140 million redesign, including all 2,267 guest rooms. The Swan’s guest rooms were finished in 2015; the Dolphin’s rooms will be completed by the end of this year; and the $12 million lobby redesign will be done by this fall.
Among the highlights: now completed is the new Lake View Room on the Swan side, which is two connected rooms, one accommodating up to 277 and the other up to 119 attendees. The floor-to-ceiling windows provide views of resort’s private lake and the Dolphin resort, however, full length shades offer planners the option to darken the room for presentations and privacy.
Guests of the Swan and Dolphin enjoy some valuable extras normally availed only to those staying at a Disney-owned property. They can take advantage of extended theme park hours, as each day one of the four Disney theme parks opens an hour early or stays open up to two hours after regular closing. And Disney’s scheduled boat launches and bus transportation throughout the resort are available to Swan and Dolphin guests.
Spread across a lush 28-acre property and located within walking distance to the Orange County Convention Center, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Orlando at SeaWorld is in the process of completing a renovation that will add the 20,000-sf Majestic Ballroom and 20,000 sf of outdoor courtyard space, divisible into five event spaces, slated for completion by the end of the year. The hotel will boast a total of 100,000 sf of indoor/outdoor event space when the project is finished.
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.
Tucked into the northeast corner of the state, Jacksonville encompasses more than 800 square miles where the St. Johns River meets the Atlantic Ocean, melding an urban riverfront downtown with sweeping coastal beaches. It’s largely off the radar of corporate planners — but shouldn’t be.
“Visit Jacksonville’s sales and services team is increasing investments in our partnership with Meeting Professionals International and other associations that cater to corporate travel and meeting planners. Jacksonville is a destination where you don’t have to choose between the beach and the city, nature and culture or the comfort of convention hotels and the high service of all-inclusive resorts,” says Monica Smith, V.P. of sales and marketing at Visit Jacksonville. “To ensure a seamless relationship with corporate and incentive meetings coordinators, our team is developing new collateral and brochures highlighting key local businesses and industry segments that can help planners leverage local resources for successful meetings. Plus, we are offering special promotions for short-term meeting opportunities and small meetings through 2018. It’s time to consider Jacksonville to host big events.”
With its Latin heart and international vibe, Miami has high appeal for groups. Among the meeting-friendly hotels is a pair of Trump properties. This year, Trump International Beach Resort Miami offers a Meetings With a View package including ocean or Intracoastal Waterway views from all meeting rooms, discounts on catering and room rates, free Wi-Fi for meetings and more. It’s good through December 2017 and select dates in 2018. Trump National Doral Miami completed a $250 million renovation that included the addition of Trump Spa suites and reimagined golf courses. Coming this fall: the new Rick Smith Golf Academy.
Famous for upscale shopping and high-end resorts, Palm Beach County also offers plenty of nature, outdoor adventures and resorts that meld upscale with beach casual.
Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa is one resort that defines today’s elegance — upscale and sophisticated with a touch of whimsy. The resort has received the Mobil Five Star Award for the past two years, and its sensational 42,000-sf spa has received the Mobil Five Star designation for three years running. The resort encompasses 309 guest rooms and suites in three towers on seven pristine oceanfront acres.
Amenities and services include three tennis courts, four restaurants, 24/7 room service and a 24-hour business lounge. The state-of-the-art fitness center includes spinning and yoga studios, Pilates classes and personal trainers, giving hardworking executives and planners a place to rev up and wind down.
The resort features 30,000 sf of meeting and function space, with fabulously stylish indoor and outdoor venues for events. Groups of 10 to 1,000 are easily accommodated. The largest of the three ballrooms is 9,680 sf, divisible by three. Prefer to meet by the beach? Poolside cabanas are available and the spa’s “Self Centered” Garden offers water features and a private courtyard. In August, the resort announced the appointment of a new chef, David Viviano, who will oversee all culinary operations.
New on the scene is Hilton West Palm Beach, which opened in 2016 and is connected to the Palm Beach County Convention Center by an enclosed walkway.
At the county’s north end is Jupiter Beach Resort, where Excel Medical, a specialist in medical software technology, held its national sales meeting in February with 50 attendees. “Jupiter Beach Resort is directly on the beach, which provides a beautiful location for our team,” says Joanne Minnaert, manager, corporate meetings and events. “The staff is friendly and the cost for meetings is very competitive with surrounding hotels, but the attention to detail is second to none. It is also a quick 30-minute ride from the Palm Beach airport.”
Minnaert likes that the resort is near a variety of local activities and that the staff stands out. “The sales team at JBR is without a doubt the best I have ever worked with. They make you feel you are part of the family before and during events. They work as a team and every effort was made to make everyone in our company feel welcome.”
Ditto for the entire team, Minnaert says. “Graziella Del Grande, Diana McAllister, Betsy Gonzalez, Amanda Ross, Juan Rodriguez, Diane D’Amico — they are always accessible and friendly. They check in to make certain we are happy and make themselves available for last-minute changes or requests. The doormen and front desk staff are exceptionally friendly.”
Minnaert says this level of responsiveness helps with ROI. “Whether it’s before or during the meeting, I have never spent any time worrying about things going wrong. There is always someone checking to make certain people are happy and that our needs are being met. As an event planner, this is worth valuable time and money.”
Originally, the group chose Jupiter Beach Resort because of proximity to the company’s corporate office. “Now,” Minnaert says, “we keep returning, not just for our national sales meetings but for our smaller company meetings as well. The resort simply makes planning meetings easy.”
Meeting space, function venues, Wi-Fi, AV, catering and décor all get high marks. “AV assistance is always available, and Juan Rodriguez makes himself available even if we do not request Wi-Fi in advance.”
For those considering Jupiter Beach Resort, Minnaert has one piece of advice: “Just call the sales office, discuss your needs and let them work their magic.”
Just off the coast of Fort Myers Beach and connected to the mainland by a three-mile causeway, Sanibel Island is compact but offers a charm that still captures a sense of Old Florida.
Liz Baldwin, CMP, executive assistant and corporate event planner for The Boler Company in Itasca, Illinois, says Sanibel originally was chosen for the company’s quarterly business and board meeting in February because the chairman spent winters on Sanibel. “Having our executive team go down for our winter board meeting was convenient for him but also a welcome break for those of us who had to spend winters up north.”
It still works. This year’s meeting took place at Sundial Beach Resort & Spa, which has a host of amenities including a 12-court pickleball stadium. ”These are beach communities where families go to vacation,” Baldwin says. “Many of these resorts offer individually owned condos where décor differs from unit to unit. Knowing this was one of my hot buttons, my sales contact, David Irwin, worked diligently to ensure our group would be happy in the rooms. But I now know people who come here want to be outside doing things. Sundial has a beach for guests, which all resorts here don’t have. It also offers plenty of activities for spouses and attendees, including bikes for exploring.”
Baldwin likes that Irwin provides one-stop-shopping for planners. “He books the meeting, handles F&B, arranges AV, and he even took care of my shipment when no one else at the hotel seemed to know how to! He is one of the nicest and calmest people I’ve ever worked with. Who needs to go to the spa? Just hang around David,” she says. “Then there’s banquet manager, Joe Knapp, a young man who is helpful, professional, courteous, efficient, on the ball, high energy and great at his job! These two made quite a team.”
Baldwin’s group used one meeting room over three days. “Our setup is pretty space intensive,” she says. “We used one of the Sundial room sections and it was one of the best rooms we’ve ever had at a hotel. It met the needs of our setup and offered windows and a terrace so that when the group broke, attendees could go outside and enjoy the ocean view and weather. We had a dinner on the terrace one evening. The ambience was beautiful—sun setting, a little Key West type duo playing music, strung lights crisscrossing the terrace. It was picture perfect. I don’t know how we’re going to top that for next year.”
This group does work with local vendors for offsite activities as well. “Every year we do a buyout of Il Cielo restaurant,” Baldwin says. “The food is delicious, the staff conscientious, and each year the GM and chef create a whole new experience from the year before. We also do a cruise with Captiva Cruises the day after our meetings end. We cruise to a place where we walk around and learn about the area, then get back on the boat and cruise to another location for a lovely dinner.”
Sanibel does have seasonal traffic, Baldwin notes. “In high season, the traffic getting on and off the island can be unbearable. But Sundial is near the causeway, so you don’t have to travel too far into island traffic to get there.”
To planners considering The Sundial on Sanibel, Baldwin advises, “Make sure you work with David Irwin and Joe Knapp!”
This area offers surprising diversity, from inland golf resorts to bay and beachside properties.
Inland from Tampa, Streamsong Resort near Bowling Green is already a phenomenal golf destination. This month its third course, the much-anticipated Streamsong Black, opens, along with a new clubhouse and restaurant, expanding options for groups.
Beachside, Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach, with 343 rooms and 22,000-plus sf of meeting space, opened in January. Among its features: Dunes Ballroom, accommodating 700 across its 10,632 sf. This summer, the Hilton Clearwater Beach completed a $20 million, 20-month renovation that included a new restaurant and the new spa that opened last summer, as well as transforming the hotel’s 35,000 sf of meeting space.
Innisbrook, a Salamander Resort and prime golf destination, is located north of Clearwater in Palm Harbor, making it ideal for Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns’ company retreat in April, with 120 attendees.
“We’re a regional law firm with locations in Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg,” says Suzanne Kinman, director of public relations. “The resort had all of our required elements: Within 45 minutes of all three area offices, ample meeting space with good AV, close to a major airport with shuttle service for out-of-town speakers, an outdoor venue for dinner the first night, a formal indoor venue for a dressy dinner and dance the second night, activities for spouses/significant others, a hospitality suite, and reasonable costs.
Kinman made four site visits to the property pre-meeting, ensuring that every function was customized with a backup plan in case of poor weather. Being assigned a dedicated team member from the start was beneficial. “A one-on-one relationship is huge because I need to count on our decisions being carried out in a made-to-order fashion,” she says. “I have spent many years in this industry so I’m aware of my client needs. Attorneys put a huge value on their time and are very detail oriented.”
The staff made Kinman’s job easier. “It’s imperative that I work with on-property planners and managers who understand our needs from day one. I would rate the event planners first class.”
Food is a priority for this group and it didn’t disappoint. “I would rate the food excellent, service excellent and the restaurant managers as very keen on detail,” Kinman says.
But it was stellar AV that boosted the meeting’s success. “This was our most expensive area of spending,” Kinman says. “We launched a new website at the retreat. This was a huge moment for me personally, as I was responsible for coordinating the design and launch of the website from its inception. It was important that the AV work perfectly. The launch went without a single hitch. As an aside, our website just won a gold dotcom award, an international competition honoring excellence in web creativity and digital communication. My point: you get what you pay for, and this set the tone for the other presenters.”
Kinman says planners should understand that the resort is spread out, but that it isn’t a deficit. “There’s free ample parking everywhere, great for our event because many spouses/significant others drove separately. The shuttle service in on task. And though meeting rooms are spread out, many are within walking distance or shuttle friendly. It should be a non-issue.”
Her additional advice to planners: “During the meeting, rent a golf cart for ease in changing locations quickly without getting in and out of a car, parking and waiting on a shuttle. Work with one contact and let that contact guide you on meeting and event locations on property because many I would never have considered.” C&IT