When it comes to desirable weather year-round, formidable airlift, an almost endless selection of meeting hotels and resorts, and exceptional value, no other statewide destination can rival Florida. That’s why the Sunshine State reigns supreme year after year.
“We frequently use Florida as a destination,” says Linda Cunningham, vice president, conference development at the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) in Washington, DC. “We hold about 12 meetings each year. And at least two or three of those each year are somewhere in Florida. The kinds of meetings we do in Florida are typically C-suite meetings, and we go to Florida because of the nature of those high-level attendees and their desire to be in a resort setting at a time of year when the weather is cold where they are.”
For their most recent Florida meeting, Cunningham and ACLI hosted 500 C-level executives from insurance companies in Orlando last October. For the first time, Cunningham chose a hotel in the vast Universal Orlando Resort complex, the new Loews Sapphire Falls, which opened in fall 2016. “I booked the hotel before it opened,” Cunningham says, “and one of the reasons was my comfort level with the Loews brand. I had also seen all the drawings and specs, and I knew it would be a top-notch meeting hotel.”
The hotel lived up to her expectations and earned excellent reviews from attendees. “The property is fresh, because it’s new,” Cunningham says. “It has a very open, bright design, with lots of windows. It has a very airy kind of ‘island’ feeling, which is very nice for a meeting. It also has excellent meeting space and amenities. But the thing that really sets it apart is the level of the service. The staff just helps you as the meeting planner in every way possible. And that makes my job easier.”
She also praises the food and beverage at Loews Sapphire Falls. “It was very good, especially for a large hotel with about a thousand rooms,” she says. “I was impressed not only with the quality of the food, but also with the presentation and the service. Our attendees were very impressed.”
Cindy Villa, senior events manager at Covina, California-based financial services company Transamerica, used Orlando twice last year, for meetings in January and May. For both events, she chose the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate.
“Weather is our No. 1 reason for going to Florida,” Villa says. “And the weather is good year-around, not just in the winter. The airlift is good from everywhere. We also get very good hotel rates compared to other destinations. And the range of activities and entertainment available are another thing that makes the state very popular with our attendees. It always provides a memorable experience.”
Among her reasons for selecting Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate for back to back meetings last year were its highly acclaimed pair of championship golf courses. “Another reason,” she says, “is the hotel’s meeting space. It is wonderful, just impeccable. The location of the hotel is also perfect for our meetings. And the staff is excellent.”
For the first meeting, Villa kept all food and beverage onsite. “The F&B at the hotel is excellent,” she says. “And the service is also very good.”
For the second meeting last May, the group went offsite for a dinner and evening of entertainment at the House of Blues. As entertainment, she opted for the Blues Brothers band. “I’ve used House of Blues Orlando five times now,” Villa says. “And they always deliver a spectacular event. We’ve used different entertainment, but it has always been excellent.”
Located 90 minutes north of Miami on one of Florida’s most famous stretches of beach, Palm Beach is another time-honored destination that is particularly popular with high-end groups from the insurance and financial services industries.
Cunningham used it for a three-day CEO roundtable conference late last year. Her hotel was the legendary The Breakers, which hosts the meeting every other year, alternating with The Ritz-Carlton Naples.
“That event is our crème de la crème meeting,” Cunningham says, “and the reason we rotate between those two properties is that because the attendees are CEOs, we want a five-star resort with a good golf course. We always do evaluations of destinations and hotels for all of our meetings, and those two properties are just the hotels that our CEOs rank most highly, so we keep going back.”
Now establishing itself as the premier meeting venue in town is the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, formerly The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach. Set on tony Palm Beach island, the hotel features more than 30,000 sf of meeting and event space and a Forbes Five Star spa.
Eric Czerlonka, principal creative director at Boston/Los Angeles-based meeting and incentive house Czerlonka Productions, chose the Eau Palm Beach for a client’s 2018 incentive program to be hosted in May for 100 qualifiers plus spouses and guests.
“The program went to The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island near Jacksonville in 2016 and the client wanted to go back to Florida for the second time in three years this year, so we started looking at properties,” Czerlonka says. “I was already familiar with what is now Eau Palm Beach from back in the day, when it was a Ritz-Carlton. I had not been back since the change of ownership and branding, but as I started to do my research, I realized that I wanted to go back on a site visit and experience it again to see what was different.”
During a site visit to Palm Beach with his client, Czerlonka visited several hotels. What clinched the selection of Eau Palm Beach, he says, was its extraordinary preparation for and treatment of him and his client during the site visit. “Everything the Eau did set itself apart from the other hotels,” he says. “The best way to describe the experience we had is to say that from the moment we arrived and got out of our car, the site inspection was completely dialed in, down to the smallest detail. It was all about them introducing us to the hotel and having us personally experience the level of service they offer. They also wanted to make sure we understood the culture of the Eau brand. It’s an independent brand and when you walk into the hotel you can tell immediately that there is a lot of pride in the brand and the property. It becomes obvious that they do not settle, in any way, for anything other than the best in terms of everything, from the flowers in public spaces to the amenities. They have worked very hard to create an old school luxury hotel that is just exceptional. And the service is second to none. At every turn, someone is there to assist you.”
A key element in Czerlonka’s recommendation of Eau Palm Beach was its updated room product. “The guest rooms, designed by Jonathan Adler, are modern and stylish. And that’s unusual for an old school luxury hotel. It’s just a very different look and feel from what you see in most luxury hotels. It makes the Eau unique.”
Another factor in Eau’s favor was its F&B capabilities. “This group is a heavy user of food and beverage for four days,” Czerlonka says. “That means we need a lot of variety. So one of the things we look for is flexibility and creativity from the chefs. And the Eau gave us that. We weren’t just sold on standard banquet menus.”
Over the last decade, Miami has evolved into one of the most acclaimed international travel destinations in the world. As a result, it has emerged as one of the most diverse and multicultural places in the U.S. That unique stature, along with its stunning array of new hotels and its widely acclaimed dining scene, has made it a red-hot meeting and incentive destination.
“Our sales pitch is always the fact that Miami is a unique destination,” says Ileana Castillo, associate vice president of convention sales at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“That’s a word that is overused, but it really does apply to Miami. First of all, we are a truly international destination that does not require a passport because we’re in the U.S. That also means we’re easy to get to. We have a wonderful climate that is great any time of the year. And we literally offer something for everyone.”
Because of its extraordinary cultural diversity, Miami also delivers what Castillo calls “a unique flavor” in terms of the experience it offers. “There is nowhere else where you can have the kind of experience you have in Miami,” she says. “It is unlike any other place. And a big part of the reason for that is that Miami is a byproduct of so many other cultures from all over the world.”
A major factor in Miami’s prominence as a meeting destination is its unique and widely celebrated hotel product. Several new hotel brands, including the acclaimed green brand 1 Hotels and the Edition brand from Marriott and boutique hotel king Ian Schrager, made their high-profile debuts in Miami before spreading elsewhere.
Among the most acclaimed of the new hotels opened in the last several years is the exquisite, Forbes Five Star Faena Hotel Miami Beach, built by visionary Argentinean developer Alan Faena, who is completing a Faena Arts District to complement his hotel. The property’s interiors, which epitomize old world glamour, were designed by The Great Gatsby movie director Baz Luhrmann and his Academy Award winning wife, costume designer Catherine Matin. The Faena was named the No. 1 hotel in the world last year by readers of Condé Nast Traveler.
“Many meeting planners are always looking for the next ‘hot’ thing, and what they find is that next hot thing often originates in Miami,” Castillo says.
The city’s next major hotel opening, scheduled for next year, is the 1,700-room Marriott World Center, which will anchor a 30-acre mixed use project that will feature a dynamic mix of dining, shopping and entertainment.
Among the new hotels that opened last year are a new Four Seasons Hotel & Surf Club in Surfside, north of Miami Beach; an SLS Lux and Hyatt Centric in Miami’s Brickell financial district; an Aloft Hotel in Coral Gables, and an Aloft in the upscale enclave of Aventura.
As new hotels open, the Trump National Doral Miami, continues to reign as one of the area’s dominant meeting properties, thanks in large part to its sprawling and lush tropical setting. But what sets Trump National apart more than anything else is its four wildly popular championship golf courses, led by the universally acclaimed Blue Monster. The hotel’s flagship restaurant, an outpost of BLT Steak, is another major factor in its popularity with discerning meeting groups.
Naples and Marco Island, located in Southwest Florida — now fully operational following Hurricane Irma — have an array of vacation and meetings options year-round. With more than 30 miles of soft, white sand beaches, a thriving arts and culture scene, distinctive dining, family attractions and the best of outdoor adventure, the Paradise Coast is truly a destination with it all. Located just two hours from Miami, four hours from Orlando and three hours from Tampa. Travelers outside of the Sunshine State can fly into Southwest Florida International Airport, which provides nonstop service to 49 destinations on 15 different air carriers.
After a two-month closure due to Hurricane Irma, LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort reopened mid-November to guests after an $8 million renovation. The transformation includes luxurious new guest rooms in the Gulf Tower, a reinvigorated lobby, and a stunning new look for award-winning signature restaurant, Baleen — known for its toes-in-the-sand dining on the beach. “Our resort is a welcoming haven for guests seeking a quintessential Floridian coastal elegance and experience,” says Marco Perry, managing director of LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort.
Naples Grande Beach Resort reopened in December, following a 31/2-month closure due to Hurricane Irma. The independent, luxury resort had a multimillion-dollar refresh that is reflected in its guest rooms, meeting and public spaces, pools and lush outdoor landscaping. Director of Sales & Marketing Frank Cavella says, “It’s been a challenging few months, but we’re excited and eager to come back stronger than ever, offering our new and returning guests upgraded amenities and accommodations, with our signature grand gestures and passion for service. We’re so thankful for the support of the Naples community, specifically our hardworking staff, to get us back in the business of hospitality and memory making.” The 474-room property is set on 23 waterfront acres adjoined by a pristine 200-acre nature preserve and mangrove estuary.
Florida is known for having top-notch golf resorts, exemplified by The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. The Golf Club recently completed a $9 million total redesign of the AAA Four Diamond beachfront resort’s historic 125 acre golf course. The redesign was done with input from golf icon and acclaimed course designer Jack Nicklaus in collaboration with noted course architect John Sanford. The course is open for public play as well as for resort guests. The resort made $50 million in renovations and enhancements over the last few years. “The staff has done an outstanding job getting the resort ready to again welcome guests and groups, and I am so proud of the work they’ve put in. The resort looks great,” says Jason Parsons, the resort’s general manager.
Located on the northeastern Atlantic coast is Jacksonville, a less well known but increasingly popular meeting destination that is steadily gaining increased awareness and popularity.
“My background is as a meeting planner and a CMP,” says Monica Smith, vice president of sales and services at Visit Jacksonville. “And in that context, there are things about Jacksonville that immediately appeal to corporate planners. One is how accessible we are. We have excellent airlift. And our airport offers exceptional ease and convenience. It’s very easy to get into and out of.
“Another big factor in our favor today is affordability,” she says. “We are a very affordable destination and that has been widely acknowledged in the industry. We deliver great value. And at the end of the day, one of the big issues for planners today is how much the meeting is going to cost because budgets remain under scrutiny and pressure.”
Smith cited five hotels as the city’s premier meeting properties. They are the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, located on the St. Johns River; the Omni Jacksonville Hotel, located downtown near the beach; and the Jacksonville Marriott and Sheraton Jacksonville, located in the city’s south side business district. The area’s top beachfront hotel is the One Ocean Resort & Spa, located on Atlantic Beach.
A new $77 million luxury resort complex, The Atlantis Project, which will include a full-service hotel, will break ground this year on Jacksonville Beach.
Future plans, now in the discussion stage, include a new Jacksonville convention center and hotel, which Smith says will further cement the city’s evolving reputation as a serious contender in the Florida destination sweepstakes.
She also invokes the city’s local dining scene as another key factor in its success as a meeting destination. “That is another thing that really sets us apart and which meeting planners really like when they come here,” Smith says. “We have concentrated for the last couple of years on a program we call ‘Only in JAX,’ which highlights our best local restaurants, meaning wonderful restaurants that are unique to Jacksonville and which feature the best of our homegrown chefs.” Among her favorite eateries for groups is Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails, owned by a husband-and-wife chef-manager team that also owns three other popular and innovative restaurants. Moxie serves steaks, seafood, pasta dishes and comfort foods such as meatloaf.
“We also feature a number of micro-breweries and micro-distilleries that are very popular with corporate groups,” Smith says. Examples include downtown’s Intuition Ale Works and Manifest Distillery, both of which feature meeting and event space.
“We also offer a variety of attractions, especially for people that love sports and the outdoors,” Smith says. “Jacksonville is a great place to be able to take advantage of the natural beauty of the Florida coast, including our beaches and our hiking trails and activities such as kayaking on the St. Johns River and its tributaries.” Among the city’s most popular major attraction for groups is the Jacksonville Zoo.
Yet another factor that keeps Florida perennially at the top of the heap of statewide meeting destinations is the wide assortment of resort properties that dot the state in all directions.
In the northwest corridor is Destin, home to what are often hailed as the best beaches in the country. Its unique and laidback meeting properties include Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, which has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 1 resort on Florida’s so-called Emerald Coast. The resort features more than 20 restaurants, a spa, marina, and four golf courses that are hailed as the best in the area.
Another exceptional property is The Henderson, a Salamander Beach & Spa Resort. The property features four restaurants and two coffee shops/cafés, as well as a spa. It is located near a pair of top local attractions, Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park and Henderson Beach State Park.
Located in Hardee County near the tiny, quiet community of Bowling Green, the 16,000-acre Streamsong Resort is one of the Sunshine State’s most unique and special properties. It offers bright, cheerful and stylishly modern guest rooms complemented by first-rate amenities, including a trio of championship golf courses.
Debuting last fall, along with a new clubhouse and restaurant, is the third championship course, Streamsong Black, designed by Gil Hanse. Hanse also is the architect of the Olympic Golf Course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and co-designer of Castle Stuart Golf Links in Scotland. Streamsong Black was named best new course in the U.S. last year by Golf Magazine.
Streamsong Resort features 228 guest rooms, 25,000 sf of indoor and 40,000 sf of outdoor meeting and event space, five dining options, conference and event facilities, the grotto-style AcquaPietra Spa and infinity pool.
In Tampa, Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club has built a solid reputation and is one of the state’s premier meeting properties. It features four restaurants: Packard’s Steakhouse, Market Salamander Grill, Grill at Loch Ness and Turnberry Pub. The Market is a to-go market that features chef-prepared specialty foods from around the world, featuring American and Mediterranean influences. Innisbrook also boasts four championship golf courses and a world-class spa. I&FMM