One of the New World’s first financial services incentive group meeting planners, Juan Ponce de Léon, was so struck by the greenery around him when he arrived that he thought “Whoa, Look at All These Flowers” might be a suitable name. Several heated committee meetings later, the name was of course changed, but today’s planners are still drawn to Florida by both a climate that allows them to hold events outdoors and by many hotels’ efforts to keep their lawns and their upkeep of those lawns “green.”
“The most wasteful thing a company can do is a low-budget meeting,” says Mary Ann Grovak, design and purchasing manager, event solutions, for BI Worldwide, an industry leader in event planning. “It’s not going to resonate. If you’re going to invest in bringing people out of their offices and to a destination, you need to make an impact. Go big, or stay home.”
To put that philosophy into practice for a group from a Fortune 100 company that does comprehensive financial services internationally, Grovak needed a game plan that would shake the 400 attendees up a little, defy their expectations and ultimately bring them closer together as an organization.
Her task was complicated by the diffuse nature of the group: two distinct business units with separate agendas, and a mix of established management, independent techies and ambitious millennials who traditionally tend to be mutually wary. “There was a broad spectrum of expectations, and the destination had to work for everybody,” Grovak says.
First salvo: an unexpected venue. The attendees were surprised to discover they would be spending several days together in Miami, and still more surprised and thrilled to find themselves at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. “It created a buzz; Miami was the cornerstone in a lot of ways in making this successful,” Grovak says.
Her team took advantage of the location to cater to the group’s various needs. They set up meeting rooms anywhere they could with an ocean view and provided numerous open-air breaks, including one nightly ritual that went over especially well with attendees: the “afterglow” — a nightcap either poolside or with the aural accompaniment of the nearby ocean.
The attendees kayaked, tried out a floating trampoline, played golf and indulged in spa treatments. “Taking this group from the financial industry and getting them into beach attire proved to be very popular. We carved out an afternoon to really experience Florida, and that melted away a lot of boundaries and borders these groups had with each other,” she says.
One evening event involved a dinner cruise on a yacht that pulled up at the Fontainebleau Marina; another was an awards dinner in the Sparkle ballroom.
But the real catalyst for solidifying the group was the Build-a-Bike charity teambuilding event. “This didn’t feel like the same old, same old,” Grovak says, “because we infused it with competition geared to their industry — they earned extra bling for the bikes by answering tough financial services trivia questions.”
To keep intact teams specially constructed to include people who would otherwise rarely interact, Grovak provided different-colored T-shirts. “That probably was the wild card. People said, “Why am I on this team?” and it made them uncomfortable initially, but they made deep personal connections while participating,”
Grovak’s team set up a special green room for the children with food and games, and once the bikes were built, the children rode them around the perimeter of the ballroom. Even the high-level execs were very emotionally moved, she says. “The client was over the moon excited with the results of the event. It exceeded their expectations.”
The Fontainebleau Miami Beach has 1,504 guest rooms and 107,000 sf of indoor meeting space.
Miami is no slouch when it comes to exceeding expectations. The city is exploding with new projects: the Miami Worldcenter, 28 acres of hospitality, retail and residential that will include a new 1,800-room Marriott Marquis Hotel & Convention Center with 600,000 sf of meeting and convention space, slated to open in late 2016; Brickell City Centre, a $1 billion, 8.3 million-sf project to be anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue and poised to give Bal Harbour Shops a well-heeled run for its money — the first phase to come to fruition in late 2015; and the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science currently underway in downtown Miami and set to open in 2016, are among the massive projects in the works.
The Miami Beach Convention Center began a $500 million renovation in January 2015 that, when completed in late 2018, will include the addition of 60,000 sf of ballroom space. The renovation will offer more flexible meeting spaces and, with a glass façade, more natural light for conventions. A nearly 2-acre park will replace what is now the 21st St. Recreation Center, and the current parking lot will be transformed into a nearly 6-acre park. The project also may eventually include an 800-room hotel.
What attendees can do now: visit the Pérez Art Museum Miami, with its collection of 20th century and later artwork. The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau’s initiative Miami Temptations showcases what the city has to offer via monthly themes such as cruise, film, spa and restaurant. Among Miami’s celebrity chefs are Michelle Bernstein of Michy’s; Daniel Boulud of db Bistro Moderne at the JW Marriott Marquis Miami; and Michael Schwartz, who opened an eponymous restaurant in 2013 at the Raleigh Hotel.
The Trump National Doral Miami is ready to show off the latest of its newly renovated golf courses, the Golden Palm. The redesign is courtesy of Gil Hanse, who also reconfigured the Blue Monster — just in time to welcome the PGA tournament as it has done for the past 50 years. The property has five courses in total. Also part of a $250 million facelift are three renovated and three new ballrooms. It should surprise no one that The Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom, at 24,000 sf, is the property’s largest. A BLT Prime restaurant that seats 350 also opened its doors, and the lobby, spa and fitness center have been updated.
For the last 14 years, Marilyn E. O’Brien, claim service consultant for Southeast Coast SIU, Allstate Insurance Company, has used the Caribe Royale All Suite Hotel & Convention Center for the Florida Insurance Fraud Education Committee’s annual June conference.
The group’s 2014 event saw record attendance, with 1,000 people registering for classes, information on the latest trends in insurance law and the chance to network. “Our biggest hitch is our growing pains; every year we’re trying to conquer that,” she says. The hotel is perfect for her group’s size, not so big that attendees get swallowed up. And it’s meeting-friendly in more ways than one. “Caribe is far enough away from the parks and entertainment that people will go to the meetings, but close enough that they can go later if they want to.”
The Caribe Royal, located a mile and a half from Walt Disney World Resort, boasts an impressive 150,000 sf of meeting space along with 1,218 one-bedroom suites and 120 two-bedroom villas.
O’Brien appreciates that all the rooms are suites, that the conference area is separate from the living area, and that reservations and registration are seamless — even when attendees register at the last minute, as many with demanding, unpredictable schedules do.
As a pointed example of smooth operation at the conference, she points to the awards luncheon. After a 20-minute ceremony recognizing standouts in the industry, she gave a nod, and a plated lunch for all appeared at once. Unusually, the attendees took pains to compliment the meal.
As for all planners, food is also top of mind for Joanna Munjack, vice president, corporate events for Pershing LLC, a BNY Mellon company. She’s traditionally held her annual conference for financial professionals at what is now the Hilton-owned Diplomat Resort & Spa. This June, given expected attendance of 2,300, she wanted a larger location and decided on the Hyatt Regency Orlando for its capacity, proximity to restaurants, nightlife and the Orlando Convention Center — and care. “The staff at the Hyatt Regency Orlando knows that it is a big change for a firm to move its annual conference to a new venue after hosting it at the same location for 12 consecutive years and has been extremely accommodating and receptive to all of our requests.” Visit Orlando also has been a critical part of their planning process, she says, providing marketing and promotions to attendees and suggesting venues and contacts for evening and CSR activities.
The Hyatt Regency Orlando, which connects to the Orange County Convention Center, features 1,641 recently renovated guest rooms and 315,000 sf of meeting space.
This will be the first year the conference hosts an evening event, and Munjack plans to reserve three venues in Pointe Orlando, a shopping, dining and entertainment district that is within walking distance of the hotel.
The planner admits she’s been spoiled by more than a decade of excellent food at the former Westin Diplomat. “Our attendees have become accustomed to a first-rate culinary experience when they attend our conference, and we are working hand-in-hand with the Hyatt Regency Orlando convention services and culinary team to make sure that we surpass the expectations.” For the 2014 conference, she partnered with the hunger-fighting Feed Foundation and hopes to do so again this year.
This also will be Munjack’s first year trying a new sustainable practice — no individual plastic water bottles. Instead, the attendees will use water-cooler stations.
The Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa broke ground in December 2014 on a new meeting space and retail development that will include 32,000 sf of flexible banquet and meeting space, a bowling alley and restaurants. The space is expected to be ready by the end of 2015.
When it opens in Orlando in the summer of 2016, the new Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando will feature a colorful, Caribbean atmosphere along with more than 131,000 sf of meeting space. The new hotel will be located between Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which will complete its own meeting space expansion from 85,000 sf to more than 140,000 sf this fall. An air-conditioned, covered bridge will connect Loews Sapphire Falls and Loews Royal Pacific. Together, the two resorts will have 272,000 sf of combined meeting space and 2,000 rooms.
I-Drive 360 near the Orange County Convention Center will bring a bit of Las Vegas-style spectacle to Orlando when it opens in spring 2015 with a million-dollar light and music water show as well as food, shows, shopping and attractions including a Madame Tussaud’s and a Sea Life Orlando Aquarium. Plans also include a 400-foot-tall Orlando Eye observation wheel, a 570-foot-tall roller coaster and 420-foot-tall swing attraction.
The Disney catering and culinary team offers hands-on teambuilding sessions in the kitchen for groups of five to 1,000. Attendees can get either the ride or the drive of a life at the Walt Disney World Speedway’s Richard Petty Driving Experience, designed for meeting group members to get behind the wheel of a specialty Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Audi and Nissan for several high-speed laps with an instructor.
The area of the re-imagined Disney Springs known as The Landing is scheduled to open in 2015 with Morimoto Asia in the former Mannequins Dance Palace; The Boathouse, which will serve steak and seafood; and a bilevel STK Steakhouse that will offer rooftop dining.
While not an instantly recognizable Florida destination, Streamsong, located in Central Florida between Orlando and Tampa, is making a name for itself among planners looking for an upscale, secluded executive retreat or incentive program oasis. Streamsong Resort, situated amidst 16,000 acres naturally reclaimed from a former phosphate mine, features a 216-room main lodge, 24,600 sf of meeting space and 40,000 sf of outdoor venues that showcase the property’s soothing natural surroundings. Streamsong is home to two nationally ranked golf courses, Streamsong Red and Streamsong Blue, which have been named to Golfweek’s list of Best Resort Courses for 2015.
Streamsong recently announced plans to build a third course, Streamsong Black, which will open in autumn 2017. The resort plans to add a second practice facility, clubhouse and restaurant to serve guests playing Streamsong Black. Streamsong also indicated that it is assessing various alternatives for a fourth course, the details of which will be provided at a later date.
Other outdoor group activities include guided bass fishing excursions, sporting clay shooting range, and trails for hiking and birdwatching. Attendees in need of some pampering can head to the 7,000-sf grotto-style spa featuring seven water treatments.
The Diplomat Resort & Spa, a Curio Collection by Hilton, South Florida’s largest convention resort with its 200,000 sf of meeting space — including a 50,000-sf Great Hall, four ballrooms, 39 breakout rooms and nearly 1,000 guest rooms — underwent a $100 million rebranding in fall 2014, from a Westin to a Hilton. The actual brand change happened literally overnight, as Kate Walsh, account manager for Maritz Travel Company, remembers it.
She has a 3,000-attendee incentive program planned for March 2015 for her Southern California-based client, independent financial advisers subsumed under one name. The plan is for meetings in the morning, afternoons and evenings at leisure. “For our attendees in Florida, a big deal is being able to bring families in before and after,” she notes.
At first, she was mildly concerned about what kind of disruptions the changeover might precipitate. “Thus far, we have not had any issues,” she says. “I have the utmost respect for Hilton and how they’ve managed this transition, everyone from the front desk to high-level management.” She says the hotel took part in weekly conference calls to ensure the process was completely seamless. The fact that “95 percent of employees remained and are still there” suggests to her that “it wasn’t brand allegiance; it was loving the property.”
As part of the change, the sales and marketing team has all been certified through Cvent’s Supplier Professional Certification Program in an effort to help them speed up the RFP response process.
The Diplomat’s convention center is LEED-certified, and the hotels’ in-room recycling bins and rewards for declining housekeeping help reduce waste.
In other news, the 349-room, 17-story Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort is still on track to open in summer 2015, and planners can set up their dates now. The resort will offer 30,000 sf of meeting space, including a 10,000-sf ballroom, as well as an 8,800-sf waterfront venue with floor-to-ceiling windows, and the 1,600-sf Landshark Bar and Grill on the Intracoastal Waterway. A spa and a two-lane wave rider also will open in time to welcome summer.
For those who prefer their greens edible, recently added vegan options in Daytona Beach include Kale Café and Juice Bar, which offers the likes of brown stew tofu, tabbouleh made with gluten-free millet and Ethiopian tomato salad; and Dancing Avocado Kitchen, with rainbow kale salad tossed with walnuts and craisins, several avocado dishes with multiple types of hummus, and vegan burgers on the menu. For omnivores, Fusion 43 at the Rose Villa in nearby Ormond Beach offers items such as Southern Fried Rabbit, Fried Veal Sweet Breads and Waffles, and Baked Duck Breast and foie gras in a Victorian setting; speakeasy The Library, serving old-school mixologist cocktails, also is onsite.
In December 2014, The Shores Resort & Spa rolled out its new look, with new carpeting, paint and decor throughout the 20,000 sf of function space, higher-bandwidth wireless throughout the property, an 80-inch flat-screen monitor with a built-in AV package in the Surf Boardroom, new banquet equipment and an additional check-in area in the lobby.
New beds, furniture, HDTVs, drapes and balcony patio furniture have been added to all 212 guest rooms and suites. Outdoors, the resort has added eco-friendly lighting for nesting turtles, an upgraded sound system for the Outdoor Terrace, new seating areas around the fire pits and the pool, and life-sized games to the pool deck. The Azure Restaurant and Lounge now has communal bar tables and new furniture.
The Museum of Arts & Sciences has expanded to include the 26,000-sf Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, a repository of more than 2,500 Florida-themed paintings from the Browns’ collection, which dates from the 19th century. Open in February 2015, the space includes conference and education rooms and a café with outdoor seating.
The Wyndham Grand Jupiter at Harbourside Place, just 20 minutes north of Palm Beach in the scenic coastal town known for its historic lighthouse and spectacular bluewater sportfishing and diving, opened in October 2014 with 179 guest rooms and 15,000 sf of event space, including a 5,000-sf ballroom. The newly opened, 360,000-sf entertainment hub Harbourside Place, which includes a 600-seat amphitheater and midmarket retail shops, celebrated its grand opening in December 2014; Jupiter resident Tiger Woods expects his first restaurant, The Woods Jupiter: Sports and Dining Club, to open there in March 2015.
Incentives are available to planners who book before the opening of the 400-room Palm Beach County Convention Center Hilton Hotel next to the Palm Beach County Convention Center, scheduled for spring 2016.
All Aboard Florida, a $2.5 billion project to provide private express rail service between Miami and Orlando with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, will be up and running from Miami to West Palm Beach by the end of 2016, and from Orlando in early 2017. The Miami to Orlando trip will take about three hours, one hour less than by car.
2014 was a big year for Key Largo’s exclusive Ocean Reef Club, situated on 2,500 tropical acres in the upper-most of Florida’s chain of islands south of Miami. The private, full-service resort, whose guest accommodations include 175 inn rooms, 100 spacious one-, two- and three-bedroom villas, and private homes, updated its 30,000 sf of meeting space with new carpet and wall finishings along with new in-ceiling AV. Newly added are a 12,000-sf spa, the new Beach Grill casual lunch spot on Buccaneer Island serving ceviche and conch fritters, and a golf academy with digital coaching software. The 36-hole golf course got some touch-ups including new Bermuda grass and an expanded chipping/putting practice area. Attendees can enjoy deep-sea, flats, reef or backcountry fishing off the shores of the resort, as well as a 175-slip marina and private airstrip. Group activities can include chartered yacht dinners, beachside events, eco-tours and teambuilding programs such as cooking school, golf cart scavenger hunts, cardboard boat regattas and beach olympics to name a few.
Opening in summer 2015 is the Playa Largo Resort, whose 14 acres of beachfront will offer 144 rooms and suites, a beach house for functions, pools, fire pits, tiki bars, water sports, a marina with a restaurant and bar, spa, ballroom with private courtyard, and a business and productivity center. It will take advantage of the Marriott reservation and points system.
Lufthansa will commence flights from Frankfurt, Germany, to Tampa International Airport in September 2015, the culmination of the airport’s efforts in recent years to court Swiss and German airlines — a nod to the dozens of European firms, such Credit Suisse Group AG and Zurich Financial Services, that have subsidiaries in the Tampa area.
Ulele, Tampa’s latest buzzed-about restaurant featuring Florida frog legs, gator hushpuppies, fried ice cream, candied duck bacon and house-craft brews in the remodeled Water Works building on Tampa’s Riverwalk, collected some accolades in late 2014. Open Table diners named it one of the Top 100 Restaurants in America, and Florida Trend magazine awarded it Best New Restaurant of 2014.
St. Augustine celebrates its 450th year during 2015, and planners can summon the spirit of Juan Ponce de Léon by holding special events at any number of St. Augustine’s historic hotels, museums and sites, including the Spanish explorer’s eponymous Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Attendees staying on “Florida’s Historic Coast” can access St. Augustine from top-rated meeting hotels and resorts such as the Ponte Vedra Inn & and Club on Ponte Vedra Beach, which has 25,000 sf of function space and 17 meeting rooms; the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, with 110,000 sf of meeting space; the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, Convention Center and Beach Club, with its 101,000 sf of function space and two golf courses — one co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer; and Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, which has refurbished its 56,000 sf of function space, guest rooms and villas. I&FMM