Florida is popular with meeting planners for many reasons, including warm weather that lures groups from the blustery north in winter. Florida also has excellent infrastructure, an abundance of hotels in all price points, ample convention centers, supportive CVBs, and sports and entertainment galore. It’s no surprise that six cities from the Sunshine State made Cvent’s Top 50 U.S. Meeting Destinations list, including Orlando at No. 2.
How does Orlando, so closely associated with magic and fantasy, meet the needs of bottom-line-oriented, highly disciplined groups from the financial and insurance sectors? With ease, it seems.
Scott Hansen, executive vice president of business development at D+H, which provides technology solutions to financial institutions, has brought numerous groups to Orlando over many years, especially to Walt Disney World. He says Disney’s renowned celebration of magic and fantasy is a huge draw for folks in the financial sector, who have to be buttoned down most of the time.
“I think the imaginative fantasy element, I call it pixie dust, appeals to virtually any type of conference attendee, young and old, from all over the world,” he says.
But Hansen knows that fantasy alone won’t cut it. “Financial institutions deal with numbers and facts, and by virtue of their tightly regulated industry, they’re accustomed to a high degree of discipline and order,” he says. “So, in addition to the pixie dust, the thing that makes Disney an ideal venue for financial-industry executives is that everything works precisely the way it is supposed to. Everything is thought out. Everything happens on time. Disney’s attention to detail is unrivaled. And the value received for the price is spot on. Those are all things that appeal to financial-industry attendees, and with a little pixie dust thrown in for good measure…it makes for the perfect venue.”
“The thing that makes Disney an ideal venue for financial-industry executives is that everything works precisely the way it is supposed to. Everything is thought out. Everything happens on time. Disney’s attention to detail is unrivaled. And the value received for the price is spot on.” — Scott Hansen
Last spring Hansen brought 140 top banking executives from across the country to Orlando for Executive Perspectives, held at Disney’s Yacht Club and Beach Club resorts.
“Holding an event on Disney property yields an extremely high level of client and guest satisfaction,” Hansen says, “due to Disney’s remarkable attention to quality in its properties, competence with regard to cast members — especially the convention services staff — culinary excellence, fantastic transportation options and nearly endless on-property special-event options. The phenomenon known as pixie dust is very real…and our clients feel it and see it every time we host them in Orlando on Disney property.”
Hansen knows the city’s strengths play a part in meeting success, too. George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, agrees, noting that the city’s imaginative side is well complemented by sophistication and excellent infrastructure.
“Insurance and financial groups play an important role in Orlando’s convention business,” he says. “We regularly host a portfolio of groups from these industries. As one of the top destinations in the world, we create truly unique, one-of-a-kind experiences for groups, thanks to the imaginative settings at our theme parks and the many dining and entertainment centers close to our convention hotels and center.”
Hansen adds another element to this recipe for success: consistency, something he can count on with Disney. When your group is staying and meeting on a Disney property, using Disney transportation, eating Disney food and playing on a Disney golf course, he says, “this results in a very positive guest experience due to the quality and consistency.”
That kind of experience makes attendees feel good about a conference — and about the company putting it on.
“We’ve had large and small events in the parks, including Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom,” Hansen says. “Holding a client event in the parks is a surefire hit. …The behind-the-scenes element and special access of an in-park event is really memorable for our attendees. The quality of the in-park event experience transfers directly to the way our clients and guests feel about our company.”
Bottom line: Disney makes planners look good. “If you’re a company or a meeting planner,” Hansen concludes, “and you want to maximize the probability of knocking it out of the park for your employees, clients or guests, you should seriously consider holding your event on Disney property. They make your guests feel great, and they make you look magical. What more could you ask for? I think Walt Disney would be proud.”
Indeed, the man who parlayed pixie dust into a multibillion-dollar organization would no doubt appreciate how successful his strategy of pairing magic and business continues to be.
Sometimes what a meeting needs is a big sigh of relief — a place where attendees can take it down a notch and relax, a place where you can clear your head. Located on 16,000 acres between Orlando and Tampa, Streamsong Resort is truly a Central Florida sanctuary, integrated into a Florida landscape at its rarely seen, natural best. No theme parks or tropical kitschiness here, just miles and miles of indigenous flora, fauna and lakes tamed just enough to create two idyllic and nationally ranked golf courses — “the best new courses you can play” according to Golf magazine (see more about Streamsong golf on page 14).
Outdoor group activity options include guided bass fishing excursions, sporting clay shooting range, and trails for hiking and birdwatching. Casual observers of nature will enjoy the lakeside pool and stargazing terrace, enhanced by its location far from city light pollution. And bringing the serenity indoors is a unique 7,000-sf grotto-style spa featuring seven water treatments. For meetings, the resort offers a 216-room main Lodge, which includes a 14,000-sf conference center with an air-conditioned rooftop pavilion. There is a total of 24,600 sf of indoor meeting space at Streamsong, including the property’s clubhouse with 4,500 sf of banquet space featuring stunning golf course views. And there’s an additional 40,000 sf of distinctive outdoor venues.
At No. 13 on Cvent’s list, Miami has its own brand of magic, a heady blend of sun, sand, sophistication and an infusion of Latin sizzle that energizes the dining and entertainment scenes, among others. It’s also a place where Hollywood Golden Age glamour and today’s contemporary style intersect.
The 631-room Eden Roc Miami Beach exemplifies that with historic and contemporary towers set at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Eden Roc has 70,000 sf of meeting space and a variety of venues for functions, including the Cabana Beach Club Restaurant for informal dinners and in the gardens fronting the beach for group activities.
Miami is also the place for bucket-list golf incentives. One of the most storied golf courses in the country, the famed Blue Monster Golf Course, resides at the newly renovated Trump National Doral Miami. The Blue Monster — the official home of the PGA Tour for more than 50 years — was the most dramatically transformed of the five courses at the resort, courtesy of Gil Hanse, one of the world’s top golf architects. (For more on Trump National golf, see page 16.)
Trump National’s $250 million resort-wide makeover encompassed more than 100,000 sf of meeting and event space including three new ballrooms: The stunning, 7,300-sf Crystal Ballroom, perched on the top level of the resort clubhouse with expansive views of the Blue Monster Golf Course from indoors and out on the 8,000-sf outdoor terrace; the Ivanka Trump Ballroom, comprised of 8,100 sf of elegant indoor space; and the new 9,500-sf White & Gold Ballroom. Legends, the largest ballroom (24,000 sf), was reintroduced in October as The Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom. Also redone were the Majestic Ballroom (2,800 sf) and The Imperial Ballroom (7,500 sf). The 800-acre resort also offers abundant outdoor venues as well.
New restaurant and bar concepts have debuted at Trump National, including a BLT Prime restaurant, a highly touted restaurant from among the Trump global golf portfolio. With three private dining rooms encompassing indoor seating and an expansive veranda, BLT Prime seats nearly 350 guests. Other noteworthy updates include a new hotel lobby; a completely revamped pool complex; a 48,000-sf resort spa; and a redesigned state-of-the-art fitness center. The resort now offers 643 guest rooms, 49 resort suites and 48 deluxe spa suites.
Forty-seven miles of coastline, designer-centric shopping, classic resorts, fine dining, history and an impeccable sense of style put Palm Beach on the short list for many meeting planners. Palm Beach is well-suited for insurance and financial groups that want to reward high performers via incentive programs.
Among the county’s lodging options is classic Boca Raton Resort & Club, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, just wrapping up a $30 million renovation of its historic Cloister building. The famously opulent resort, which opened in 1926, has approximately 146,000 sf of function and meeting space, accommodating groups of 15 to 2,000 attendees.
At the northern end of the county and the other end of the historic timeline is the brand spanking new Wyndham Grand Jupiter at Harbourside Place, which opened in late October. Elegant yet decidedly modern and comfortable, the 176-room property has 15,000 sf of event space. Also at Harbourside Place will be Tiger Wood’s first restaurant. The Woods Jupiter: Sports and Dining Club is scheduled to open in early 2015.
Hollywood, Florida, right next to Fort Lauderdale, is another city on Cvent’s Top 50 list, and one reason may be its ongoing evolution.
Set to open summer 2015 is the 349-room, 17-story Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. Conference dates for 2015 are already open and staff is standing by to talk to planners and respond to RFPs. While the resort will embody the easy-going Margaritaville “lifestyle,” the meeting side is all about successful, professional conferences in well-designed spaces. Not surprising, possibilities for creative teambuilding (eco-friendly and socially conscious) and post-work bonding and relaxation are many. The resort’s 30,000 sf of meeting space includes a 10,000-sf ballroom accommodating up to 1,000 attendees, and an 8,800-sf waterfront venue with floor-to-ceiling windows. High-tech AV, custom lighting designs and children’s programs for those who bring family along are among additional amenities.
For many planners, Northeast Florida offers the right setting for corporate meetings, and Jacksonville is often the top choice in the area. Paul Astleford, president & CEO of Visit Jacksonville, says the city is a natural fit.
“Jacksonville is Northeast Florida’s urban hub, as well the area’s financial district,” he says. “Several fortune 500 companies call the city home, and a number of big banks make their presence known here, including EverBank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. The city’s strong corporate presence, meetings-and-conventions infrastructure and professional business community make Jacksonville an ideal destination for insurance and financial groups, who visit and feel right at home.”
The city has an active outdoor scene, a multitude of cultural attractions and many restaurants and other venues found only in “Jax,” which gives attendees a sense of place.
Honey Lake Plantation Resort & Spa, located in Greenville, 45 minutes east of the state capital of Tallahassee, is another option offering a more secluded setting, a good choice for groups that want to buy out a property for a very private conference. Accommodations at the Southern-style plantation are in a combination of cottages and lodges for around 168 guests, depending on the configuration. Some are shared quarters — ideal for meetings that include families — and others private enough for C-suite executives.
Among the plantation’s selling points is a robust teambuilding program. Denise Wilson, vice president and director of Star University for Capital City Bank Group, brought 16 market-service managers from the company’s retail banking offices to Honey Lake Plantation in May to participate in the “Teamistry” program.
“We wanted to meet indoors and team-build outdoors,” Wilson says. “Our intent was to create a stronger bond between the individual managers so they would feel more comfortable reaching out to one another for help with real-world banking challenges.”
Ultimately, the program changed the work experience for the participants in critical ways. “These managers have high-stress jobs, and because they are the only person in their location with their specific job function, they can feel alone and overwhelmed,” Wilson notes. “This reminded them that they are all in the same boat and that they are only a phone call away from having a lifeline.”
The Plantation’s Teamistry program includes such options as fishing tournaments, archery challenges, competitive cooking classes, sporting competitions and GPS-driven scavenger hunts, but two elements are common to all: teamwork — the tasks can only be completed via group effort — and fun. Challenges faced by Wilson’s group included crossing a swamp, answering quiz questions while a team member paddled a canoe and roasting marshmallows.
Wait. What? Marshmallows as a vehicle for teambuilding? Yes, when the roasting includes collectively building a fire with the minimal tools provided and making sure there is one roasted marshmallow for each team member at the end. It requires that the team work together, be resourceful, prioritize materials and steps, divide and fulfill roles and see the project through to completion.
For Wilson, the experience was a resounding success. “This is world-class teambuilding at a stunning location right in our backyard. The resort staff was professional, attentive, fun and willing to make adjustments when needed to meet our needs.”
She offers just one caveat: “The weather was beautiful, but warm. I wish we had planned it a little earlier in the season. On the positive side, the ability to go back and forth between the ballroom and the outdoors made it easier.”
The Daytona area has something no other place has: the Daytona 500, ranked in the top 10 of most highly attended sporting events in the world. Book a meeting during race week and there’s little need to budget for entertainment. The area also offers 13,000 hotel rooms and the Ocean Center Convention Complex with nearly 200,000 sf of meeting space.
Five miles south of the city, The Shores Resort & Spa sits between the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. Groups can take advantage of Daytona Speedway action or simply benefit from all the resort offers — plenty for a multiday meeting. Buyout packages give groups all 212 guest rooms and all 20,000 sf of function space, which translates to optimal privacy.
The AAA Four Diamond Shores completed a multimillion-dollar refresh this fall that includes a new private dining facility and enhancements to indoor and outdoor function space as well as to guest rooms. Significant technology upgrades and eco-friendly improvements also were completed.
Visit Tampa Bay President & CEO Santiago Corrada lists location, an international airport and the impressive waterfront Tampa Convention Center among the city’s draws for business groups.
Another Cvent Top 50 destination, Tampa has a slew of new hotels and restaurants to further entice groups. The old Federal Courthouse building has been transformed into upscale Le Méridien, where the stylish contemporary lobby and adjacent cocktail bar occupy what was once the corridor walked by suspects and convicts. The pool deck was where police brought prisoners into the building, and in Bizou Brasserie, a witness box has been repurposed into the host stand. Also giving a historical building new life is Ulele, a restaurant in the city’s former water works building, complete with its own brew house. It sits at the end of Tampa Riverwalk as part of the new Water Works Park, the perfect spot for attendees to stroll after productive business meetings.
The AAA Four Diamond, 315-room Westin Orlando Universal Boulevard, located across the street from Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, opened its new meeting and special event center, the Lotus Ballroom, earlier this year. The new space, which is adjacent to the outdoor free-form pool, features floor-to-ceiling windows and provides an additional 5,394 sf including prefunction space, allowing the property to accommodate groups of up to 300 attendees for a banquet. The hotel now offers 13,506 sf of total meeting space.
New in downtown Orlando is the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which held its grand opening in November. The largest theater is the Disney Theater, which seats 2,700. Other spaces for group events include an in-the-round experience in the 300-seat Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater and an outdoor events lawn.
Two new hotels are tapping into the Walt Disney World success. To B or not to B? No Hamlet-type agonizing at the stylish 394-room B Resort, which opened in June and features the B-Indulged spa, B-Active fitness center, FreeB Wi-Fi and 25,000-plus sf of function space. Definitely to B.
The new Four Seasons Orlando offers its quintessential Four Seasons experience with a little, or a lot, of Disney. Either way, the upscale resort, complete with expansive spa and complimentary children’s program, delivers. Features include 375 guest rooms, 32,750 sf of meeting space and a fantasy pool playground.
In July, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek unveiled Bonnet Creek Pavilion, 10,000 sf of permanent, air-conditioned function space with billowy ceilings hung with chandeliers. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the resort’s lush landscaping.
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel, located in Orlando between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, is in the midst of the largest makeover in its history. The hotel launched a multiphase, multiyear, $125 million redesign project that will transform every guest room in the 758-room Swan Hotel and the 1,509-room Dolphin Hotel. The project started at the Swan Hotel, with approximately 500 of the 756 rooms scheduled to be redesigned by the end of 2014. The first phase of the Dolphin Hotel rooms will begin in 2016 with the entire rooms project currently scheduled for completion by the end of 2017. The transformation will occur without disruption of service.
In early 2014, Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin introduced the Causeway Party, a food festival for groups modeled on its annual Food & Wine Classic. Customizable components include food and drink booths, live entertainment and lighting, all set along the causeway between the two hotels. Beverage experts can provide educational seminars on such topics as wine blending, beer and sake. Inside, a super-cool idea for private events is a cocktail reception for 60 in one of the hotels’ giant freezers — think martini bar and caviar on ice — plus parkas for attendees.
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando will open summer 2016, but planners can book meetings now. The resort will have 131,000 sf of meeting space and 1,000 guest rooms. Also, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which will be connected to the new hotel by an air-conditioned walkway, is expanding its meeting space from 85,000 to 141,330 sf, and planners can book now for fall 2015 dates.
In Miami, where 2,500 new hotel rooms are expected in 2015, the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach opened in September following a $90 million renovation. The 200-room resort with beachfront pool and chic cabanas melds old-style glamour with a contemporary aesthetic.
Ground broke in December 2013 on the Palm Beach County Convention Center Hilton Hotel, which will connect to the 350,000-sf convention center when the hotel is completed in 2016.
The renamed Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, once a Westin, is now part of Curio — a Collection by Hilton, a new brand of four- and five-star hotels. The historic Diplomat will receive significant enhancements starting this year.
Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay put the finishing touches on a $20 million makeover including all public spaces, the new 1823 Kitchen and Bar and a high-tech lobby lounge.
Two properties will soon open in the Florida Keys. Faro Blanco Resort and Yacht Club, debuting in December, will offer 125 Hyatt Place accommodations, an elegant bar and restaurant, and a combined 13,000-plus sf of indoor/outdoor function space. Set to open mid-2015, Playa Largo Resort, with 157 accommodations that include private bungalows, will offer more than 46,000 sf of meeting space and 14.5 acres where groups can meet and play — no need to leave the property.
Wherever planners meet in Florida, there’s a good chance that a sense of magic and wonderment will enhance the proceedings, whether in the form of mesmerizing ocean views and lush vegetation or ingeniously inventive themed hotels and venues, pixie dust included. I&FMM