Looked upon as a statewide destination that offers a multitude of local destination options, Florida is the No. 1 meeting destination in the U.S.
A big part of Florida’s attraction is based on its beaches and climate that provide endless opportunities for outdoor activities such as a round of golf (Florida has more golf courses than any other state) or a relaxing stroll along the beach. But the Sunshine State also offers solid value and almost limitless array of hotel and entertainment options.
From Orlando to Miami, and from the intimate coastal enclaves of Destin, Clearwater and St. Augustine, Florida offers a good choice for a meeting of any size or taste. All of the planners we interviewed for this article bring their meetings to Florida year after year after year.
Although Florida boasts an impressive and diverse roster of individual meeting destinations, none is more popular than Orlando.
In fact, Visit Orlando President and CEO George Aguel recently announced that Orlando welcomed 59 million visitors in calendar year 2013, setting an all-time record for U.S. destinations.
The city combines a world-class, easy-to-navigate airport with formidable airlift, a vast hotel inventory that truly offers something for every group size and meeting type, and internationally acclaimed dining and entertainment.
Adrienne Gutbier, second vice president, corporate marketing, Ohio National Financial Services, Montgomery, OH, used Orlando for the first time in 2012, selecting the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek for a four-day seminar and incentive program for 80 attendees.
“Orlando is a great destination,” Gutbier says. “It’s easily accessible for us, with people coming from all over the Midwest. And now, we also have more people coming from other parts of the country, too. And most of them can get direct flights to Orlando from anywhere in the country.”
The city’s airlift was among the key reasons they picked Orlando for the 2012 meeting, Gutbier says. The company had held the same meeting in Daytona Beach for several years. “We moved down to Orlando because we wanted a destination that had better airlift,” Gutbier says. “There are just a lot more direct flights to Orlando than there are to Daytona Beach from the places our people travel in from.”
Gutbier chose the Wyndham Grand because “it is a perfectly sized property for this meeting,” she says. “It absolutely fits us like a glove. And we are able to have meeting space that works perfectly for our program and really be the only group in-house, in terms of using meeting space. So that means the entire staff is devoted to us and our meeting. It puts our meeting center stage.”
Given her specific needs for a specific and important meeting, Gutbier says, “the Wyndham just hits the mark across the board for us, including cost.”
In fact, the property worked so well for Ohio National that they went back in February and will go back for a third straight year in 2015.
“In terms of what we need and want, the Wyndham offers exactly what we look for in terms of room product and meeting space product,” Gutbier says. “And the F&B at the hotel is remarkable. Many of our attendees commented on the fact they have not ever experienced F&B like they had at the Wyndham. It’s really second to none. So in every sense, for us, the Wyndham was a home run. So it made coming back for a second year and now going back for a third year a very easy decision.”
The property recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation that included a remodel of all guest rooms.
Gutbier also took advantage of the many offsite venues and activities Orlando offers to add some sizzle to her event.
For a previous meeting group, she planned a sit-down dinner at Bongo’s, a wildly popular Latin-flavored restaurant co-owned by Miami music legend Gloria Estefan and located in the Downtown Disney dining and entertainment complex. “Bongo’s is a great venue, and its location gave our attendees the opportunity to explore Downtown Disney on their own after dinner,” Gutbier says.
This year, Ohio National went back to Downtown Disney, this time using one-year-old luxury dining and bowling venue Splitsville Lanes for a dinner and bowling party. “I give them exceptionally high marks for service,” Gutbier says. “It’s a terrific venue for groups.”
Another planner who favors Orlando is Ellen Wofford, chief operating officer of Charlotte, NC-based Financial Research Associates LLC, which hosts 75–80 for-profit financial conferences each year, with about 15–20 percent of them being held in Florida.
“We use Orlando a few times a year,” Wofford says. “We’ve used Disney properties, including the Grand Floridian and the Contemporary, multiple times. We’ve also used the Buena Vista Palace, which is an off-Disney property near downtown. We’ve also used the Waldorf Astoria, which is a strong draw for high-end meetings.”
“We use Orlando a few times a year. I tend to use Orlando when I know that people will want to bring their families. Orlando is a fantastic family destination.” — Ellen Wofford
One key reason why Wofford uses Orlando when she does is its status as the No. 1 family tourism destination in the world. “I tend to use Orlando when I know that people will want to bring their families,” she says. “Orlando is a fantastic family destination.”
Although not as well-known as Orlando, the Gulf Coast beach resort town of Destin is a perennial favorite of meeting planners in the know. Year after year, Destin is globally acclaimed for having some of the most beautiful and pristine white sand beaches in the world — taking the No. 1 slot in some polls.
The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa is located directly on the famous sugar-white sands and emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The resort ranks as Northwest Florida’s largest full-service beachfront resort hotel, with 598 guest rooms and more than 32,000 sf of meeting space. The Hilton Sandestin also boasts a world-class spa and fitness center, and six onsite dining venues — including a AAA Four Diamond restaurant — as well as access to four championship golf courses and close proximity to the area’s best attractions.
Jennifer Meyer, director of agency services, Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company in Baton Rouge, LA, used Hilton Sandestin for the first time in October 2012 for an incentive program for about 125 qualifiers. She took another incentive program back last June and will return for a third time in September.
“We chose Hilton Sandestin the first time because they have a great location right on the beach,” says Meyer, who was familiar with Destin from previous visits. “They also have a shuttle that takes you to nearby attractions like the outlet mall just across the street. And everything is really centrally located in Destin, so it’s just a very convenient destination for a meeting.”
Meyer chose the destination specifically because of the Hilton Sandestin property, she says.
“I was looking for an upscale property that is very clean and well-maintained,” Meyer says. “I was also looking for spacious guest rooms and a nice pool and bars. I was also looking for things to do in the area, like shopping and golf. And Hilton Sandestin had everything I was looking for.”
The property was a hit among Southern Farm Bureau’s attendees last year, which built anticipation of and excitement for this year’s program.
“Our attendees just loved the property and the destination,” Meyer says. “There is just so much to do right in the area. And that just made for a good trip. But in addition to that, as a planner I also got very good support from the hotel. The sales staff was willing to work within our budget, and that has always been a big factor for me. And that was one of the key reasons we chose to go back in 2013 and then again this year.”
Meyer also singled out Hilton Sandestin’s sales manager, Maria Rous-sel, for praise. “She was always there for us, available from the start of our meeting until the finish,” she says. “She’s just great. She and her team just did a great job for us on that first program back in 2012. And the entire staff was just amazing.”
Hilton Sandestin also offered Meyer a chance to take advantage of the hotel’s spectacular setting.
For her June program last year, she hosted an outdoor function on the pool deck that overlooks the beach. “It’s just beautiful, so that was a real high point of the trip,” she says.
Another highlight of the 2012 and 2013 trips was the famous Silver Sands Premium Outlets mall just down the road from Hilton Sandestin. “That was a big draw for our people,” Meyer says.
In addition to its beaches, the area also offers phenomenal deep-sea fishing, with charter boats available for groups of all sizes.
Like Destin and also located on the Gulf of Mexico, Clearwater is a laidback, smaller destination that claims some of the best beaches in Florida. It’s due west of Tampa and northwest of St. Petersburg. To its east is Tampa Bay.
Robyn Renner, executive assistant at Tampa-based B&B Protector Plans Inc., a subsidiary of Brown & Brown, has been using Clearwater regularly as a meeting destination for 15 years.
Her property of choice is the 390-room Sheraton Sand Key Resort, in Clearwater Beach, which was recently renovated and features more than 24,000 sf of meeting space.
Her most recent event was a five-day meeting last October for about 150 insurance agents from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
“We always do our due diligence, and we do check other hotels in the area,” Renner says. “But the key reasons we keep going back to Sheraton Sand Key are the price and the service we get. They’re very flexible in terms of working with us on costs. And that’s something that is very important to us.”
Renner and her attendees also take advantage of the local golf and fishing. “We do that because most of our attendees are coming from other parts of the country, so we like to have them come down to Florida, to the beach, and have a good time,” Renner says. “So we always look for fun things to do.”
The golf course they used for the most recent meeting was Belleair Country Club, about 10 minutes from the hotel in the town of Belleair.
Renner keeps going back because the long-established relationship with the hotel delivers clear practical benefits. “They know our routine,” she says. “They know what we do. So that just means the meeting runs very smoothly when we’re at the hotel.”
St. Augustine, located in Northeast Florida near Jacksonville, is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the continental U.S. In 2015, it will celebrate the 450th anniversary of its founding. St. Augustine offers a unique taste of history and culture.
Wofford held her first-ever meeting there in late February for 100 attendees. She chose the The Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, Convention Center and Beach Club as her venue.
“It’s a great property,” Wofford says. “And we didn’t pick it for the golf. We picked it because it’s a wonderful property for a meeting.”
Her use of St. Augustine was based on a recommendation from her colleague Denise Adams of HelmsBriscoe.
“The CVB came out with a promotion called ‘Try St. Augustine,’ and they offered a package that included complimentary shuttle service,” Wofford says. “That just goes to show you how such seemingly little promotions can really pay off and become a real selling point. And in this case, that was important because in St. Augustine, the hotels are a little bit farther from the airport, and complimentary shuttle service from the airport to the hotel made it a no-brainer for me, because it saved me money and time in planning.”
Because the big 450th anniversary of St. Augustine is coming up next year, Wofford says, her meeting had a special sort of wow factor. “It just gave the meeting a certain buzz in terms of history,” she says.
Although Miami is best known for the boutique hotels and world-famous nightlife of South Beach, insurance and financial meeting planners are increasingly focusing their attention on the city’s ultra-modern financial district along Brickell Avenue, which is adjacent to downtown Miami.
Miami is Wofford’s No. 1 go-to Florida destination for her financial conferences. “The main reason our attendees like Miami so much is the ease of getting in and out,” she says.
“It’s also really convenient to be able to get from the airport to the hotels very rapidly.”
She also favors the Brickell financial district as a location. “When a lot of people think of Miami, they automatically think of South Beach,” Wofford says.
“But when it comes to financial meetings, we’ve found that the financial district along Brickell is a much better choice.”
For example, she says, the local infrastructure and hotels are much more modern and state-of-the-art than the typically older properties on South Beach.
The hotels she favors include JW Marriott Marquis Miami, JW Marriott Miami, and Four Seasons Hotel Miami — all in or near the financial district.
“The JW Marriott Marquis is just fantastic,” Wofford says. “The 17th floor has a basketball court that converts to a tennis court that you can also use for receptions. It’s just fabulous. The views of Biscayne Bay are gorgeous.”
And then there’s always South Beach for after-hours entertainment. I&FMM