Planners can arrange a total buyout of Universal Studios Orlando for their event so attendees can enjoy all of the activities. Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando features a 200-foot volcano and a water coaster ride (pictured).
If Orlando could accommodate and impress the 26,000 attendees of the Microsoft Ignite event in September 2017 — and it did — chances are good that it can accommodate and impress attendees from any event and any industry, including those in the financial and insurance sectors, not to mention the planners who put those events together.
There’s a reason Orlando is consistently rated as the top meetings destination in the country. In fact, there are many reasons. Microsoft Event Director Vivian Eickhoff points to just four of them in discussing the success of Ignite on Visit Orlando’s meetings and conventions-specific website.
“When we announced that Microsoft Ignite was going to be coming to Orlando, the feedback we got right away was unbelievably positive,” she says, noting that the city and its facilities perfectly lend themselves to a group’s needs in four key areas.
First, there’s the travel to, from and within the city. “There is incredible airlift for everyone to be able to get in and out of Orlando,” Eickhoff says. That’s no surprise. Orlando is served by two airports and offers nonstop service from a combined 40 airlines to more than 175 cities around the globe. Within the city, there are taxis, buses, trains and ride-share services.
“Compared to some other convention center areas globally, Orlando really gets it right with a true downtown feel of pedestrian walkways, shopping, restaurants, a high-end movie theatre, nightlife and a variety of large and small hotels to fit every budget.” Nell Nicholas
Lodging options abound. The city has 120,000 hotel rooms across its more than 450 hotels and resorts, and at all price points. The Ignite event required more than 14,000 hotel rooms on peak, making a request for far fewer rooms undoubtedly very doable.
The Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) easily handled Ignite’s requests and needs, and it can handle small groups, too.
“We have keynotes, tech keynotes, general sessions, breakouts, labs, theaters, expo hall, meals — you name it,” Eickhoff says. “We need a lot of space, and they offer that.”
That’s an understatement. OCCC has 7 million square feet of exhibit and meeting space between its two buildings. It features 74 meeting rooms and 232 breakout rooms. It’s also perfectly located in the heart of the city’s tourism district along International Drive, giving attendees easy access to stellar dining, entertainment and nightlife options, not to mention multiple hotels.
Finally, there’s the city itself, which goes above and beyond in meeting attendee and planner needs, including those of Microsoft Ignite. Eickhoff points to the dining, entertainment and wealth of activities, all of which gave attendees and partners multiple ways to entertain themselves before and after the event. And, she points out that Orlando is the ideal destination for bringing family along as well.
Orlando has more than 5,000 restaurants located throughout the city, meaning planners looking for offsite venues, dine-around options, upscale eateries in which to entertain VIPs or small-group gathering space have plenty to choose from — and there’s always something new to discover.
Engaging meeting venues are in abundance. One of the newest is Topgolf Orlando, which makes an ideal setting for small groups as well as those with up to 1,000 in attendance. Its primary activity is as much fun for non-golfers as it is for seasoned golfers. Think of it like darts or bowling; anyone can hit a target at least some of the time. Players stand in bays and hit golf balls toward targets 20 to 215 yards away. Attendees don’t even have to keep score. The system does it automatically thanks to microchips in the balls calculating points based on how close a ball gets to any given target. There are also four distinct event spaces, which can be used individually or together depending on a group’s needs, and full-venue buyouts are available as well.
Volcano Bay, a South Pacific-themed water park at Universal Orlando, spans 25 acres and features more than 30 experiences, including pools, slides, rivers, a coaster and the 200-foot Krakatau volcano at its center. Universal Orlando opened its sixth hotel last summer, uber-contemporary Aventura Hotel, with 600 guest rooms and views of all three theme parks.
And although Spaniards traipsing around Florida in days of old never did find the elusive fountain of youth, attendees at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort can refresh after meetings with the readily available Fountain of Youth cocktail, made with rum from Florida local St. Augustine Distillery or one of 74 other rums at the resort’s Strong Water Tavern.
At Grande Lakes Orlando, comprised of 500 acres, the JW Marriott Orlando and The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, attendees now have a dedicated sports and activities center. The Grand Lakes Sports program takes advantage of the resort’s location at the headwaters of the Florida Everglades, providing excursions into Florida’s natural landscape. Among the offerings are kayak eco-tours, a nature safari, a new mountain bike trail and seaplane expeditions for sightseeing or fishing.
Also on tap for Grande Lakes groups, a Farm to Foam experience at the resort’s Whisper Creek Farm and the farm’s brewery at the JW Marriott Orlando, showcasing the garden’s fruits and herbs that fuel onsite beer production, followed by a beer and bites sampling.
With 2,270 guest rooms, Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort features more than 331,000 square feet of meeting and event space, including 86 meeting rooms, two boardrooms and 110,500 square feet of divisible, contiguous convention-exhibit space. There are four ballrooms, including the 55,000-square-foot Hemispheres Ballroom. The Swan and Dolphin also offers 128,190 square feet of outdoor function space. The resort has 17 restaurants and lounges, including four signature fine-dining restaurants — Todd English’s BlueZoo, which specializes in seafood; Il Mulino New York Trattoria, which serves Italian fare; Kimonos, which serves sushi; and Shula’s Steak House. The resort also boasts five swimming pools, a Balinese-inspired Mandara Spa, two health clubs and two regulation-size volleyball courts.
The AAA Four Diamond Villas of Grand Cypress features a stand-alone 10,500-square-foot Executive Meeting Center,with four meeting rooms divisible up to eight. The facility can accommodate groups up to 240. The top amenities at the hotel include a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and the Grand Cypress Academy of Golf. The hotel’s signature restaurant is The Clubhouse, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
There are a slew of other fun attractions and venues in Orlando as well.
Andretti Indoor Karting & Games, which includes not just driving but also a ropes course, zip line, Laser Tag, racing simulators, bowling, arcade games, a theater, dining and more, and offers more than 10,000 square feet of event space.
Pio Pio Restaurant opened in a new, larger space just off International Drive, and includes significantly more room for events and private parties than ever before, as well as its signature Latin fare.
Uncle Julio’s Mexican Restaurant has private event spaces and custom menus featuring made-from-scratch dishes. Ask about the Chocolate Piñata for dessert — a delicious finish to a memorable meal.
In 2017, London-based Ace Café made its debut in downtown Orlando, providing space for up to 7,000 attendees in a combo dining-entertainment venue with a motor theme. Spanning three acres, the site includes a dynamic motorcycle collection with vintage, rare and one-off custom motorcycles. There are also multiple bars, three stages, three kitchens, a huge backyard and a wrap-around porch.
Drive Shack is a three-story, 60,000-square-foot golf-technology-entertainment-dining attraction in the Lake Nona Sports and Performance District, featuring 90 hitting bays, a lounge with classic games, a full-service restaurant and flexible meeting space for events.
At 450 feet tall, the impressive StarFlyer is the world’s tallest swing ride. It is the centerpiece of the Vue at 360, an entertainment center on International Drive.
While Orlando can hold its own against any city anywhere in terms of the entertainment value and dining options it provides, the core component of any meeting is business, and supporting business efforts is something Orlando also does exceedingly well.
Jane Scaletta, DMCP, CIS, former general manager of PRA Orlando and now president of DMC representation company Dolfin Destinations, worked with a financial group in January 2018 on its annual sales conference. Based at the Orlando World Center Marriott, the lodging option selected by the client, the conference drew 1,500 attendees.
“Orlando is the perfect fit for the client’s annual sales conference,” Scaletta says, “because of the nonstop airlift from over 100 cities, the near-perfect weather of 65 to 75 degrees during the winter months and the wide variety of offsite venues and restaurant choices at affordable prices. And Orlando is still considerably cost-effective compared to other large cities of this size.”
Scaletta took advantage of one of the city’s well-known restaurants, Morimoto Asia, for a function for the company’s top executive VIPs.
“Chef Masaharu Morimoto is a Japanese chef, best-known as an Iron Chef on the Japanese TV cooking show ‘Iron Chef’ and its spinoff ‘Iron Chef America.’ Morimoto Asia is the first pan-Asian concept from Chef Morimoto. We negotiated a full-restaurant buyout of Morimoto Asia for cocktails and dinner for the program,” she says.
“The attendees were shuttled from the hotel to [the restaurant] with black-car service for the VIPs and upscale newer motor coaches. Curbside, the group was greeted by Asian-dressed attendants and guided on a short walk to the restaurant from the drop-off point,” she says. “Once at the restaurant, attendees walked into a stunning Asian-themed venue with beautifully designed furniture, spiraling chandeliers of illuminated glass bottles and black-and-white photos covering one wall. The flow of conversation, great networking and general fellowship followed for a successful event.”
There was also engaging entertainment related to the food and Japanese culture in general.
“Guests experienced roaming origami artists, Japanese calligraphy artists, Asian entertainers spinning plates and ribbon dancing, along with an array of specialty food and beverage stations. There were sushi demonstrations and Saki tastings,” Scaletta notes, “and there were stations featuring Dim Sum and Orange Peking Duck, to name just two of the many delicacies offered to appeal to many different palates.”
In addition to Orlando’s impressive airlift and typically pleasant winter weather, Scaletta says the OCCC and the high number of lodging options are among the city’s prime draws.
“Orange County Convention Center is the second-largest convention center in the United States,” she says. “We also have the second-largest number of hotel rooms and a large variety of hotels, resorts and convention hotels. We have a tremendous amount of opportunities to keep a group active with tours, attractions and our famed theme parks.”
With a local’s view and knowledge, a DMC can easily take on the planning of any event in Orlando, a city so crammed with good options, it can be overwhelming to planners from elsewhere or those with less experience bringing groups to the city.
Scaletta says there are many things a DMC can help with that a planner might have trouble accomplishing on his or her own.
“What many planners may not know is that PRA can buy out a theme park and add a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Harry Potter or the Marvel Super Heroes or other popular characters. A DMC can also set up a group in a private venue or viewing area to watch fireworks and other shows, and we know all the attractions and venues in and near the city that can benefit groups but that a planner may not know about.”
She says the city is not all about fantasy and make-believe. “We have real-life outdoor experiences that are excellent for teambuilding, such as trekking in the trees via a ropes course, zip lining through the Florida swamps and riding an airboat past alligators. And we have top-of-the-line golf courses, both indoor and outdoor,” she adds.
“We can arrange a fantastic event where you remain in Orlando, but see as far as Cape Canaveral on ICON Orlando, a 400-foot observation wheel. And Orlando is a foodie paradise, with award-winning restaurants and renowned celebrity chefs who consistently surprise guests with innovative tastes from around the world. We have just about every taste for any palate.”
About the Orlando World Center Marriott, Scaletta says, it has “450,000 square feet of flexible meeting facilities and is just 1.5 miles from theme parks and only minutes from many Orlando attractions. It’s an excellent choice for planners who want to keep the main portion of their meeting on property.”
As a representative of a DMC, Scaletta has a particular viewpoint in terms of planners working with a DMC, but her points are well-taken.
“DMCs have the local knowledge that can help a planner save time, assist with projects, provide support staff and offer local suggestions that can make the difference to your program,” she says. “DMCs will partner with you and help you reach your objectives. They can guide you through the maze of which venues to use and what attractions are right for certain groups, and they can provide realistic, knowledgeable estimates regarding city traffic patterns and travel times. In addition, they can help with risk management, and they understand the nuances of the destination.”
Nell Nicholas, senior director, global accounts, with HelmsBriscoe, also points to weather, airlift and pricing as good reasons to consider Orlando for a meeting.
“Competitive pricing across the board, from the flights to the hotel costs, has added to the success of my clients’ meetings in Orlando,” she says. “International attendees especially appreciate the ease of getting in and out of Orlando and always spend a few extra days pre- or post-meeting vacationing and shopping.”
Good hotels within a short distance from the airport are another plus. “Not to be overlooked is the distance from the airport to conference hotels,” Nicholas says. “Some high-end and/or large conference properties are as close as 20 minutes to the airport, and the farthest I have used in the past was a 40-minute commute. With the Orlando ground transportation experts, it was seamless.”
For many of Nicholas’ clients, the preferred destination within the city is the convention center district. “Compared to some other convention center areas globally, Orlando really gets it right with a true downtown feel of pedestrian walkways, shopping, restaurants, a high-end movie theatre, nightlife and a variety of large and small hotels to fit every budget.”
Some groups want what a resort brings to the mix — but with accessibility to all that the city offers.
“Among more campus-style resorts,” Nicholas says, “Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek has been identified by clients as a top choice for its location, proximity to the city’s offsite shopping and restaurants, and its spa, golf and flexible meeting space. One client who was on a site inspection at Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek during a complete buyout got to see every inch of space utilized for branding, receptions and hospitality, which gave her some great ideas for her own conference.”
And there’s the CVB, Visit Orlando. “The CVB does an excellent job of assisting in matching the needs of the client with the appropriate hotel,” Nicholas says. “Orlando as a destination can be overwhelming with so many suppliers to choose from; however, the CVB makes it easy. They are absolutely the best in the business when it comes time for the site inspection.”
Proving the point that Orlando is a superb meeting destination, even for a company whose business is meetings, Nicholas notes that HelmsBriscoe’s own annual conference was held at the new Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando.
“Everyone was really excited to experience the newest jewel in the Orlando crown,” Nicholas says.I&FMM