Yes, there’s a fun side to theme parks, to say nothing of gravity-defying thrills and crazy speed — not elements generally associated with serious business practices. As theme parks are serious businesses themselves, they understand business needs and how to meet them. The following savvy planning pros discovered the many benefits and advantages of theme park meetings.
When Kimberly Coleman, CMP, senior event manager at Zeltiq, a medical technology company located in California, first considered a theme park meeting, she had reservations. “I was worried at first that we may not be able to afford it, but it’s very affordable,” she says. “I also thought it might be overwhelming to manage the logistics of having an event at a theme park, but the team at Universal Orlando took care of everything. They literally handle everything for you, so it really minimizes how many of the logistics you have to take care of as a planner. I was so impressed by that.”
Location was key for the event that drew 265 attendees. “Orlando, as a whole, was a major draw for us,” Coleman says. “Our event was a global sales meeting, and we wanted a major international airport in a city able to handle the influx of international flights. The city’s entertainment and dining stood out as well.”
Coleman’s group took advantage of that. “We were looking for local steakhouses for a group dinner one night, and Orlando’s Church Street area had several to choose from,” she says. “We selected nine different steakhouses and broke our team up into nine groups for the evening. The restaurants were in close proximity to each other, so it was easy to organize ground transportation, and the menus appealed to all of our attendees.”
For accommodations, the team chose Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort because it had been recently remodeled and offered an affordable price point for the rooms, amenities and a large amount of meeting space. “The hotel was also able to provide plenty of double-room accommodations, which was important for our group,” Coleman adds. The staff proved to be a positive, too. “The people were so genuinely friendly and happy, and the service they provided to us was outstanding.”
Primary meeting venues included the hotel’s Tuscan Ballroom and several rooms for breakout sessions. “We also utilized the outdoor Villa Piazza for a reception and teambuilding activity, which involved building bikes and donating them to children from an Orlando-based organization,” Coleman says. “And we worked with the hotel catering staff, which was excellent. I still have attendees commenting on the amazing granola bars that the catering staff made and asking me for the recipe.”
The theme park itself, however, was not a major factor in the decision to meet in Orlando — at first.
“It wasn’t a major factor in our decision to come to Universal Orlando,” Coleman says. “But after we started planning and were looking for a final-night activity, we realized we should take advantage of being at Universal Orlando and incorporate the theme parks into our agenda. That’s how the private event inside The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley came about. It was a great fit.”
It also was the event that proved most memorable. “To enter into Diagon Alley after park hours and have our intimate group in that space was really a wow factor,” Coleman says. “When our guests realized that Diagon Alley was exclusive to them, that all of the shops and eateries were open for them to enjoy, that made the experience more special. It’s hard to describe just how awesome it was.”
In the end, Coleman says the park added immeasurably to the meeting and she doesn’t hesitate to recommend it. “It will meet or exceed your expectations. It creates such a fun, ‘wow’ experience unlike any other. It will leave your attendees with a memorable impression.”
Across the country, Universal Studios Hollywood also offers rides, shows, a working movie studio, theaters, shops, restaurants and, of course, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Planners can consider full- and partial-park buyouts that accommodate 100 to 25,000 attendees, as well as venues of all kinds that set the stage for networking, bonding, teambuilding, product launches and more. VIP experiences offer front-of-line access and VIP seating for shows and attractions, backstage “meet and greets” and entry to the VIP lounge.
Walt Disney is often called a visionary. It’s hard to argue that status when you consider that he looked out at a vast swampland near land-locked Orlando, Florida, and saw in it potential to create a theme-park destination that would draw fans from across the globe.
“The welcome reception was really exciting as we had some honored guests join us — Chewbacca, the Emperor, a storm trooper and Darth Vader himself.”
— Nicki Bowling
Disney’s vision also resulted in precisely the right ingredients to create highly successful business conferences that people want to attend. Nicki Bowling, marketing manager, Americas, branding, events and communications for Milwaukee-based Danfoss Drives, brought a group of 125 to the Holiday Inn located in Walt Disney World in October 2015 for the company’s fall meeting. A location fairly close to the airport but also close to evening events was a priority, and she wanted to be walking distance from downtime activities, restaurants and entertainment. Price and amenities were important as well.
Because International Hotels Group (IHG) is a preferred travel partner for Danfoss, Bowling started with those hotels. She says, “The Holiday Inn really stepped up, providing not only a competitive price but also a very special custom chocolate room amenity welcome.” The hotel was the main meeting location for both the North American group and global marketing team, and the perfect size.
“We used all of the meeting space and had over half of the hotel’s guest rooms,” Bowling says. “This meant there were no other groups in-house. It gave us the opportunity to ‘brand’ the entire property with Danfoss Drives and our theme of ‘The Force is Strong, Grow You Must in 2016.’ The branding element is especially important to me during these sales, marketing and service meetings to reinforce the Danfoss Drives values, goals and missions with the associates. Additionally, because we used a ‘Star Wars’ theme, we were able to include this element since this was a preferred Disney Hotel.”
The theme played out throughout the meeting. “The agenda for our Jedi Knights consisted of general sessions, computer training for our new database, team breakouts, all daytime meals and breaks as well as our welcome reception the first evening.
“The welcome reception was really exciting as we had some honored guests join us — Chewbacca, the Emperor, a storm trooper and Darth Vader himself. It took some convincing to the other guests that these stars were not our executive management team dressed up.”
Bowling says the theming and branding were particularly important and apropos this year. “Our company recently merged with another manufacturer, Vacon, bringing Danfoss Drives to a No. 2 position in the marketplace. Our salesforce is especially strong now with the increase of personnel, therefore we are now all tasked with ‘growing stronger in 2016.’ ”
Additional branded elements included themed candies and props of posters, fighter jets and traditional “Star Wars” figurines positioned around the hotel and meeting space. To tie it all in, Bowling used famous quotes from the characters to inspire the new team. From Yoda there was, “Always pass on what you have learned,” “Difficult to see, always in motion is the future” and “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” There also was, “The Circle is Complete” from Darth Vader, and “The force is strong in my family” from Luke Skywalker.
The group used the hotel restaurant, closed to the public, for private lunches, but went off-property, too — with no additional transportation costs. “Staying with our ‘Star Wars’ theme, we took advantage of being close to Planet Hollywood (a suggestion from the hotel), and I reserved the entire sci-fi level of the restaurant for a private dining experience the second night of our meeting,” Bowling says. (Planet Hollywood at Downtown Disney is temporarily closed as it is being transformed into what the company is calling a turn-of-the-20th-century observatory, and it will open later in 2016.)
“Attendees were able to walk to the venue and enjoyed a full night of delicious food, great cocktails and entertainment at this spectacular venue. We also used the in-house photographer for a group photo as a nice souvenir memento. Guests could then stay in the Downtown Disney area for additional fun and walk back to the hotel when they were done for the night.”
Bowling calls the final night the highlight of the meeting and a surprise for attendees. “All they knew was that we were going to travel ‘to a galaxy far, far away’ to attend the final Feel the Power of the Force group dinner event and shared experience.” To create excitement, a series of iMovie clips was shown throughout the day, providing a teaser for what was to come. Bowling and her team had taken video footage of the Star Tours area on a previous site visit, and used that to create the clips.
“Once we arrived at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we enjoyed our own private patio for a great dinner and cocktails while watching the Fantasmic! light and laser show. Afterward, the group was escorted to the Star Tours area for awesome desserts, coffees and the experience of a lifetime — private rides on the Star Tours attraction as many times as they wished. It was truly an amazing evening for all enjoying the time and growing together.”
Orlando also has its own draws, and that impacted Bowling’s decision to meet there. “Orlando is always a great fit,” she says, pointing to the city’s excellent airlift, many outside activities and restaurants and the range of hotel options. “The mouse is awesome, of course,” she adds, “but sometimes you just don’t want to include him in a business meeting. I was especially concerned about that and wanted to make sure we captured the excitement of the area but downplayed the mouse. That’s why the ‘Star Wars’ theme proved so perfect for my group. The demographics were 85 percent men ages 35–55. With the new ‘Star Wars’ movie about to debut, many were already anticipating the premier. Highlighting the older films was a great way to bring back memories and enjoyment for many in the group, adding to the enthusiasm for our meeting.”
For her theme park meeting, Bowling also booked two events at Wild Florida, a nature and wildlife park near Orlando. “I had learned of Wild Florida at a meeting-planner event and met with the staff,” she says. “It was a great local and cultural attraction where attendees were thrilled on an airboat ride and got up close and personal with alligators and other Florida favorites.”
While the theme park meeting was very successful, Bowling says she’d do some things differently next time. “I would do a bit more research on transportation from the airport. It was quite costly for my group, and there were other means I think would have suited us better. I also originally tried to book in Kissimmee as the CVB there is awesome, but none of the hotel partners were available. At the end of the day, however, it all worked out. We had one of the best meetings ever, leaving lasting memories for all who attended and true inspiration that the force is stronger and that grow we must in 2016!”
When Disneyland opened in California in 1955, it became the model for nearly every theme park today. The resort offers more than 180,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space, three hotels, two theme parks and all the entertainment and dining of Downtown Disney.
Also available are the formidable creative and technological talents of Disney personnel and a variety of venues to meet any need. Fanciful suites in the Disneyland Hotel, which offers 136,000 sf of function space, lend themselves to VIP accommodations and intimate functions, while the two parks — Disneyland and California Adventure — give planners turnkey settings that take much of the logistical work out of organizing a meeting.
Williamsburg, Virginia, and Tampa, Florida, are the locations for two popular theme parks. Busch Gardens Williamsburg sets its collection of thrilling roller coasters against a backdrop of recreated European villages and streets. Busch Gardens Tampa, one of the largest zoos in North America, is home to 12,000 animals representing 250 species, and to a variety of roller coasters and thrill rides that draw visitors from across the world. Both accommodate groups with discounts, venues and experiences that can enhance a meeting or corporate event.
In addition to its theme park, the Hershey collection includes Hershey Lodge, The Hotel Hershey and Hershey Country Club, together providing more than 135,000 sf of meeting and function space. Programs for groups include such fun options as teambuilding in which teams build freestanding structures using only Hershey candies, and classes where attendees learn about pairing chocolate with wine, spirits and beer.
Also within the property are ZooAmerica, three golf courses and a spa, and Hershey Story with its excellent museum exhibits and interactive Chocolate Lab. The new 30,000-sf indoor pool complex, WaterWorks, opened at Hershey Lodge on Memorial Day weekend. The theme park includes 13 coasters, for beginners to diehard thrillseekers, as well as a boardwalk and multiple water attractions.
Branson, Missouri, has a multitude of attractions, but Silver Dollar City stands apart with its blend of striking natural geologic features, musical entertainment, local artisans and theme-park thrills. The park draws many drive-to meetings and events for businesses in the region. Mercy Hospital Springfield held its Coworker Appreciation Event there in 2011, 2012 and 2015, and will do so again this year. The event typically draws 15,000 attendees.
Jennifer Elswick, event coordinator, says the decision to meet there is simple. “Mercy coworkers love Silver Dollar City. We choose this park because it is family friendly and provides entertainment for all ages. The price and exclusive benefits for the day really create a great event. Silver Dollar City group planners are also among the best that I have worked with. They have considered every request we have made and have made the process easy for us. I would recommend it to any group.”
Silver Dollar City is a good fit for Mercy in terms of shared history, too. “Mercy has been in the Springfield area since 1891,” Elswick says. “We appreciate that the park’s theme preserves the 1880s Ozarks culture.”
Silver Dollar City also offers value. “The attendance to our Coworker Appreciation Event is higher at Silver Dollar City than any other location we have been to,” Elswick says. “Coworkers know the cost of a regular admission ticket so their perceived value of the event is very high compared to the actual cost to Mercy.”
While they have tweaked a few things after each event there, Elswick can’t think of anything that has not been successful. “The excellent location just outside of Branson is a plus for our group because of all the additional entertainment options the city provides. Several of our coworkers will plan to spend the weekend there with their family as a short getaway.”
Although there was no meal as part of the event, there was a food option. “Silver Dollar City found an economical option for our food and beverage needs by offering ‘fun money’ in the amount per person that fit our budget. Each guest received the fun money, which they could use toward a meal or merchandise in one of the park’s shops.”
Elswick notes that a highlight for the group is exclusive admission times before and after regular park hours. “Our guests really take advantage of this and know this is something really special.”
In addition, the park provides the group exclusive access to a building for the event, as well as games and entertainment exclusively for them. “Our coworkers were also able to upgrade to a season pass at a discounted rate — an excellent value to them since their admission was free,” Elswick adds.
Silver Dollar City also offered something important the group has not gotten elsewhere: admission at a different time for employees scheduled to work on Appreciation Day. “The park printed a separate pass that could be used one time in a four-week period so those working could attend as their schedules allowed. This went over really well,” Elswick says. “Those coworkers didn’t feel penalized because they were scheduled to work on Appreciation Day.”
Elswick’s recommendation to planners considering a meeting or event here is to plan as much in advance as possible. “That way you are able to take advantage of all the special benefits Silver Dollar City’s group planners have to offer,” she says. “Every year they come up with new ideas to customize the event to our group and make it unique.”
With parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, and Discovery Cove, also in Orlando, SeaWorld offers corporate groups multiple options for meeting in conjunction with memorable experiences related to dolphins, whales and other creatures of the sea. The biggest news is the company’s recent announcement that it will end its orca-breeding program, making the current orcas the last generation in the parks. Also ending will be the theatrical shows starring the popular whales. Instead, more natural environments will be created for the orcas and presentations will focus on their enrichment, exercise and overall health. Groups can still experience educational encounters and private venues within the parks for meetings and functions.
Theme parks give planners a multitude of options. And because the parks are always adding new rides and elements, it’s possible to meet in one year after year and offer attendees a new experience each time. There’s something about the combination of thrills, entertainment and creative programs that draws attendees in and allows planners exciting ways to elevate their meetings. From experiential education and top-tier entertainment to teambuilding challenges, chef-driven dining and stellar hotels, theme parks have it all. Better yet, they provide true one-stop shopping, making planning a meeting in a theme park simple — and nearly as fast as one of those gravity-defying roller coasters. C&IT