If America’s first visitors was the crew helmed by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1513, then it could be said that Florida has been playing host for longer than any other state. While the explorer didn’t venture far beyond the swaying palms and silken sands lining the coast, the visitor infrastructure that followed in his wake has blossomed — particularly for meeting and incentive groups.
Today’s ‘Sunshine State’ avails an impressive variety of backdrops — awesome or intimate, and locations ranging from sleepy to downright buzzy — truly something for almost every style of gathering and budgetary consideration. And when it’s time for a breather, meeting planners will find Florida replete with water sports options and theme parks, beachcombing and wildlife viewing, along with a climate that invites alfresco events year-round.
“What’s great about Florida is the wide variety of options,” says Angie Nelson, regional vice president, Southeast, for event management firm PRA. The office is in Oakland Park, Florida. “It all depends on the experience you want to offer your attendees. You have city options where you’re not on the beach, but it’s nearby. You have the main convention destinations; and then there are the smaller, more incentive-oriented beach resorts.”
“What’s great about Florida is the wide variety of options.” Angie Nelson
Nelson adds: “A lot of our clients alternate West Coast and East Coast every year, and that’s OK. But in Florida you could pick a different destination each time and go for multiple years in a row.”
And a variety of options was what was needed for a partner retreat PRA handled recently on behalf of a financial industry client. Attendees had a choice of about 20 different destination around the country, including six in Florida — more than any other state. The options, which drew an average of 300 guests each, included Palm Beach, Naples, Amelia Island, Key Biscayne, Miami’s South Beach and Orlando.
“The client chose Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando for their family program,” Nelson says. “They wanted to capitalize on the city for the theme parks.”
Located adjacent to the Universal Studios Florida entrance, the 750-room Portofino Bay emulates its namesake Italian seaside town, replete with cypress trees, cobblestone streets and gelato stands. The hotel features 42,000 sf of meeting space, including the 15,000-sf Tuscan Ballroom. But events like the one Nelson handled are all about the theme parks, and guests staying at Portofino Bay get a leg up with early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and select attractions at Universal’s Volcano Bay water park.
“You know what you’re going to get in Orlando — you’re going to lose people to the parks,” Nelson suggests. “For the adults-only destinations, they chose beach properties around the state that offered both meeting space and relaxation. Florida was ideal for this as the airlift is generally affordable and there are plenty of direct flights, even for the smaller destinations.”
In Miami, the client chose the 1 Hotel South Beach, a beachfront property that incorporates art and sustainability into its upscale offerings. More subdued than some South Beach spots, the hotel’s unique indoor and outdoor event spaces include a rooftop pool deck, a private beach club and a 6,500-sf ballroom with a 20-foot green wall of living moss.
Three Ritz-Carlton hotels pampered the financial client’s attendees at Amelia Island, Key Biscayne and Naples.
“These might not be the biggest cities, but they’re really pretty destinations with great beachfront hotels,” Nelson says. A priority for the client was cities that had a range of activities within 20 minutes of the hotel. “Restaurants for dine-arounds, unique venues for an off-site dinner event, and local tours needed to be ample in order to entertain the attendees during the program.”
The Ritz-Carlton, Naples is a distinguished luxury landing that includes a spa with 30 treatment rooms and two pools, one of which is designated for adults only. The hotel features more than 42,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including a 10,140-sf ballroom.
For one evening dinner the client opted to take the group to NGALA Wildlife Preserve. Located 30 minutes from The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, the 42-acre animal reserve is a passion project for Donovan Smith, sheltering animals in need that either cannot be released into the wild or are not accepted at traditional zoos. The facility can host groups of up to 1,200 for dinners and animal interactions.
“The owner of NGALA goes above and beyond to welcome guests and tell the stories of the animals to which he has taken in his care at the refuge,” Nelson explains. “It’s not a zoo that’s highly publicized — you would never know it existed. You have to know exactly the gate to turn at.”
She continues: “The guests were able to interact with giraffes, owls and other exotic animals while dining al fresco in a tent replicating an African Safari destination. This particular client is very health conscious, so the off-premise catering team was able to create a unique menu with healthy options that were indicative of being in Africa tailoring to a unique flavor profile. There was unique entertainment throughout the night and then story-telling around a fire pit capped off the experience.”
One challenge Nelson faced in Naples was accommodating the client’s requirement for off-site dine-arounds at local, rather than chain restaurants.
“In post-event client surveys events, we sometimes get negative feedback about staying in a hotel the whole time and not being able to explore the destination,” Nelson says. “A lot of our clients want to send groups outside, and with general sessions and other events, evening is usually the best time to send them out in groups of 30 to 40. But clients also want local flavor, and they look for local restaurateurs to provide attendees unique experiences that they cannot get anywhere else, a place you can’t go to when you’re at home.”
Nelson adds: “Naples has a selection of local favorites, but they’re either pretty small or they don’t have a private room. Only the big-name chains seem to have the flexibility and space for group dining.” Nationally known venues such as Tommy Bahamas and Roy’s had the private space Nelson needed, along with quality dining, but it represented a compromise for the group.
The sixth destination Nelson’s client used was Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa.
“The resort is centrally located between the Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale airports, so a wide variety of flight options is available,” Nelson says. “It sits on pristine beaches, where guests can rub elbows with the rich and famous of Palm Beach while enjoying the laid-back nature of the destination.”
Ken Allen, vice president, Investment Research for Prudential Financial’s annuity business in South Palm Beach, Florida, was equally effusive about this location. Allen has held a three-day, quarterly mutual fund board meeting here several times annually in past years. “I’ve been associated with this board for about 10 years, and early on we held our meetings where our managers were,” Allen says. “We had individuals coming from Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois and a couple other places, and during winter we kept running into flight delays. About six years ago we decided to move our meetings to Florida. We started out in Fort Lauderdale, but unfortunately it wasn’t the best service experience that we would have hoped for — so we looked at other options.”
He continues: “One of our meeting planners did an extensive search, from Miami up to West Palm Beach, and all the big brands were looked at — The Breakers, Ritz-Carlton, and Four Seasons. She got in contact with Eau Palm Beach and was blown away by the level of service she received. We started with one or two meetings, then moved it to three each year. When you put the complete package together — service, price and location — Eau Palm Beach is truly spectacular.”
The resort’s accommodations and common areas are designed with a ‘joie de vivre’ that enlivens, rather than settling for tired resort clichés. Last year Eau Palm Beach completed a face-lift for its 30,000 sf of meeting and event space. The upgrades included state-of-the-art LED lighting, a new sound system and electronic reader boards.
“We definitely need to be able to hold 50-plus people for our meetings,” Allen says. “They have multiple options for meeting rooms, some with beautiful views of the water. Barbara Rodriguez at the resort works with our meeting planner, and she has been a part of these meetings going back five years. There’s been seamless execution, and all of our meetings are extraordinarily well run. She’s phenomenal.”
Allen says Eau Palm Beach’s dining has been “consistently excellent. They have four different dining options, and they are all superb.” And the resort features a 42,000-sf spa, which Allen says many of the spouses attending will utilize, stressing the level of service his attendees receive.
“Eau Palm Beach has set itself apart,” he explains. “They treat you like family. On the last day of our meeting, when there are issues up north with weather, they are extremely accommodating with an extra night, or late checkout. Any of the managers who comes to one of our meetings for the first time, comes away saying it’s a completely different experience. They deal with a lot of our competitors with the same type of meetings, and their impression of this one is absolutely favorable. After the fact, a lot of these people come down to Eau Palm Beach on vacation.”
Allen closes by paying the ultimate compliment to the resort.
“I liked it so much for the meetings that I ended up vacationing there at least a couple times a year,” he says. “Then, my wife and I ended up buying a place just a half-mile up the beach.”
For most meeting planners, Florida’s major event destination lies in the center of the state, and Orlando has been ranked by Cvent as the number one destination for meetings and events in the U.S. for the last five years in a row. Orlando hums along with 265 meeting hotels and the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) — the second-largest convention center in the U.S. — offering more than 7 million sf of meeting and exhibition space.
Additions, expansions and renovations in this fast-growing city are always in the works, and among the most notable this year is the summer opening of the new, 15-story Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. The 545-room tower brings the Spanish-themed location to 2,416 rooms, and adds a 24-seat boardroom to the existing 220,000 sf of meeting and event space already available. The meeting room, Lantana, is equipped with monitors, a foyer space for networking and semiprivate patio. Among the new dining options is Tolédo, a rooftop table-service restaurant featuring Spanish-inspired tapas, steak and seafood. The venue includes three private dining rooms offering views of the Walt Disney World property.
Nearby, at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, a 14-story addition is under construction, next to the Swan Resort on the site of the former tennis courts. The expansion, to be completed in 2021, will include 349 new guest rooms and suites, more than 22,000 sf of meeting space, including two ballrooms, and a rooftop reception space offering spectacular views of the nightly Walt Disney World fireworks, and other amenities.
Next summer, the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, located 28 miles southwest of the Orlando International Airport, will undergo a complete renovation of all 720 guest rooms. Updates will include furnishings and re-carpeting of the meeting and public spaces of the main resort is also planned. Projected to be completed by the end of this year is a renovation of the resort lobby and David’s Club, known for bourbons, craft cocktails and prime cuts.
Not every gathering planned for insurance and financial institutions involves a lavish budget, and for Danielle Welsh, meeting and event planner for a Fortune 100 financial services firm, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Orlando Airport filled the bill for an 80-attendee general managers meeting.
“Although many steer away from airport properties, it is worth taking a look at them for smaller budget meetings,” Welsh says. “And, as the only group in the hotel, we were the ‘big fish’ — which is not the norm when you select a large, big-box property. The pricing was very competitive and the property has a fantastic staff and A/V team.”
The DoubleTree, which was renovated this year, has a 7,350-sf ballroom, along with eight breakout rooms and five boardrooms providing an additional 9,500 sf of flexible conference and pre-function space. The hotel is located less than 10 minutes from the airport, amid a cluster of other smaller hotels and chain restaurants, and shuttles provide free transportation from the airport.
Welsh says the DoubleTree accommodated many agenda changes during the meeting. “Their team rolled with the punches. Our group tends to go back and forth with their wants and needs, and the hotel accommodated all that they could to make our client happy. The catering was great, as we often request to customize existing breaks to enhance or ensure all dietary restrictions are observed. The in-house A/V team was very cost effective, which is a huge surprise in this industry — it was one of the best experiences we have had with an A/V team.”
Despite the airport location, off-site activities are plentiful. “A group could meet here for multiple events and not repeat an activity for attendees,” Welsh says. “We had a casual dine-around at Universal CityWalk. Even though the attendees did not have access to the rides, it was exciting for them to get a quick park experience.”
Buffeted by year-round sunshine, Florida’s diversity of settings, attractions, resorts and world-class convention facilities, along with solid air access, make the state a clear leader for meetings and conferences. As these planners can attest, the only problem might be deciding where to land. I&FMM