Year in and year out, for the last 50 years, Florida has ranked high atop the list of the most popular and coveted meeting destinations in the country. In fact, the Sunshine State is not perceived as a single destination, but as home to a wide assortment of individual locales that offer an option for every taste and budget. And, it is especially popular with insurance and financial services groups.
Known as “the Magic City” and home to a handful of world-famous theme parks, Orlando is the No. 1 meeting place in Florida, as well as one of the most dominant and wildly popular meeting destinations in the U.S. And, it thrives on enthusiastic repeat business.
Nancy Dominguez, managing director of the Miami-based Florida Association of Public Insurance Adjusters, has chosen Orlando for the last four years for her annual three-day, three-night fall conference, held each October for 400 attendees, plus about 200 family members.
“The most important factor, for me as the meeting planner, is that Orlando is a big draw,” Dominguez says. “That’s because there are so many things to do. For example, our attendees love the theme parks. And, in recent years, we’ve been marketing the meetings by encouraging attendees to bring their families. We’re trying to make it more of a traditional annual ‘event’ rather than just a meeting. So, we particularly like Florida destinations that will be popular with families, who can enjoy a nice vacation while our attendees are getting some work done. Orlando provides that opportunity.”
“We particularly like Florida destinations that will be popular with families, who can enjoy a nice vacation while our attendees are getting some work done. And Orlando provides that opportunity.”
— Nancy Dominguez
This year, Dominguez and her attendees returned to the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnett Creek, which they first enjoyed in 2016.
“I originally found the Wyndham Grand through the site selection company Helms-Briscoe,” Dominguez says. “After that, my team and I visited the hotel. When I walked in, I realized it’s just a gorgeous hotel. It’s very modern, and it’s very warm and appealing in terms of its décor. That’s always important to me because I want the first impression of our attendees to be, ‘Wow, look at this.’ And, that’s the effect you get when you enter the Wyndham Grand. For example, there’s a huge glass wall — they call it a ‘window curtain ‘ — that looks out to the pool area, and the view is just phenomenal. The lobby is also beautiful.”
The resort’s accommodations are also exceptional, Dominguez says.
“The rooms are beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of hotel rooms during my time as a meeting planner, and oftentimes, you don’t sleep that well in a hotel. You miss your own bed, or the pillows and sheets aren’t that great. I slept like a baby in the Wyndham Grand. The beds are extremely comfortable, and the bedding is spectacular,” she says.
One factor that made the resort ideal for Dominguez’s group is its size in relation to her meeting.
“It’s perfect for the size of our group, which makes it very cozy because we basically take over the entire property,” she says. “And that makes the experience very pleasant for our attendees because no matter where you go in the hotel, there’s always going to be somebody you know. For us, it feels like you’re at summer camp, and that just makes the meeting a lot of fun for everybody.”
Although the Wyndham Grand’s food and beverage service is superb, and its meeting space is top-notch, the single most important factor for Dominguez and her attendees is the resort’s level of service.
“As a planner, I’ve seen it all, good and bad,” Dominguez says. “And I have to say, in all honesty, the service we got at the Wyndham Grand was the best service we’ve ever gotten at any hotel. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that we had the same team that we had two years earlier. So, not only did they adhere to a high level of service, but they also knew … exactly what we needed and wanted.”
It was so extraordinary, she says, that she hopes to convince her colleagues to return next fall. “I really want to go back because we had such an incredible experience.”
While Orlando is most revered for its vast meeting-quality hotel inventory and theme parks, Miami is hailed for its international cosmopolitan flair and world-famous beaches.
Sandra Edstrom, CMP, client relations and events manager, corporate marketing, at Hannover Life Reassurance Company of America (HLRC), chose Miami Beach as the destination for the company’s three-day, two-night underwriting symposium for 85 attendees last February.
In fact, the Miami area is so popular with her attendees that Edstrom has been holding the meeting there every other year since 2012. One of the primary reasons for the repetition is its proven drawing power.
“Our people also love to be on the ocean and sitting outside in the sun with a cocktail,” Edstrom says. “The meeting involves a lot of networking, and a destination like Miami is perfect for that. It just offers so much to do, and there are so many great hotels to choose from. The hotels are beautiful and located right on the ocean. It’s also very easy to get into and out of, including from the Midwest, because it’s such a popular tourist destination, particularly at the time of year we go.”
For this year’s meeting, Edstrom selected Miami Beach’s The Palms Hotel & Spa, located on Collins Avenue, just north of the world-famous South Beach district. It also offers direct access to the beach boardwalk that extends to the southern end of South Beach and as far north as the iconic Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel.
“We try to go to a different hotel every time we’re in Miami,” Edstrom says. “It’s just fun to always give our attendees a new experience. We chose The Palms Hotel & Spa because of the quality of the response we got to our RFP, and the fact they were able to accommodate some of our specific needs when it came to meeting room setups. The Palms also has very good meeting space, which was an important factor in our decision. It’s just an absolutely gorgeous property.”
Edstrom particularly liked the hotel’s outdoor event space. “That’s important to us,” she says, “because we like to stage our dinners outside.”
She also singled out the hotel’s accommodations for praise. “They are very comfortable and clean, and you also don’t feel like you’re in a typical hotel,” she says. “The décor also offers a great representation of Miami Beach. It’s very ‘beachy.’”
HLRC hosted all food and beverage events at the hotel. “The Palms has really good food, and they’re also very creative,” Edstrom says. “We do all of our meals buffet-style. They were able to create some really fantastic menus for us.”
A highlight of the meeting was its opening-night reception, held outside by the swimming pool.
“We also had dinner out there,” she says. “It’s a very nice setting. You really get to take advantage of the beach.”
During their free time, many of the company’s attendees explored the cultural amenities of the Miami area.
Several small groups ventured out to the world-famous Wynwood art district near downtown Miami and visited its acclaimed Wynwood Walls art installation and adjacent galleries. Wynwood is now home to a number of Miami’s trendiest and most popular restaurants, such as the art-themed Wynwood Kitchen & Bar.
The group also happened to be in town during the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which offers an opportunity to feast on the best of what local and international chefs prepare.
“We were in the middle of it,” Edstrom says. “That’s just another example of why Miami is just a great destination — because there is so much to explore and do. But the best thing about it is definitely the beach.”
As it has been for the last half-century, Palm Beach, located about two hours north of Miami on the Atlantic Coast, is Florida’s most exclusive destination, a throwback to Florida’s golden age as a getaway for the world’s rich and famous.
Today, Palm Beach boasts one of the most exclusive and critically hailed resorts in the entire state: the Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five Diamond Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa — the former Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach, now privately owned — which is situated on a secluded private beach.
In the 2015 Conde Nast Traveler “Readers Choice Awards,” the Eau Palm Beach — which also features the Forbes Five-Star Eau Spa — was recognized as Florida’s top resort. It has more than 30,000 square feet of expanded and updated meeting space.
Bethany Lipinski, director, event planning and promotions, at Pittsburgh-based HM Insurance Group, a Highmark Health affiliate, will host back-to-back incentive groups at the Eau Palm Beach for 200 qualifiers, plus spouses and guests, next spring. The first group will take part in a six-day program for approximately 50 to 60 of the company’s elite “Platinum” qualifiers and their spouses or guests. The second will be a four-day program for the “Diamond” group.
Why Palm Beach? “The parents of my best friend live in West Palm Beach, so I had visited there for leisure, and I always loved the area,” Lipinski says. “It’s just beautiful. Then, when I discovered Eau Palm Beach and learned that it was a former Ritz-Carlton, I knew it would be a property that would fall in line with what our attendees are used to because we have used Ritz-Carlton hotels for these programs in the past.”
Once she went on a site visit, Lipinski says the deal was cinched. “I was just super-pleasantly surprised to see how the new owners had transformed the resort,” she says. “And, that’s especially true of the rooms, which were designed by Jonathan Adler. They are really cool, just something different and unique that you don’t see in many properties.”
The rooms are not only large, she says, but they are also bright and cheerful and feature superb amenities.
“The décor is something that really sets the Eau Palm Beach apart,” Lipinski says. “It’s not just different, it’s very refreshing. There are also great views from the rooms. And, that includes the views of the ocean from the bathtubs in some rooms. That just shows you how much thought and planning they put into the design of the rooms and the experience that they want guests to have.”
In terms of the attention to detail she received on her site visit, she says Eau Palm Beach distinguishes itself as an outstanding property.
“The level of service they give you, as the planner, is exceptional,” she says. “From the minute I arrived, I got incredible service. When I checked in, the person at the front desk started a conversation about Pittsburgh and clearly knew quite a bit about the city. It was obvious to me that they had taken the time to learn who I was and where I was from, and that’s not something you see very often with hotels. They were also incredibly attentive to exactly what my needs were as a meeting planner.”
As a matter of fact, she says, she loved the Eau Palm Beach so much that she made a point of visiting for the weekend prior to this fall’s FICP annual conference in Orlando. “Now, I can’t wait to go back next spring,” she says.
Less well-known than its sister Florida destinations — but with the unique distinction of being the retirement home of more former Fortune 500 CEOs than any other place in the country — Naples, located on the Gulf of Mexico in the southwestern corner of the state, offers a special intimacy and exclusivity that is particularly appealing to high-end insurance and financial services groups.
Michael Seibert, president of Quinwell Travel in Boston, has chosen Naples for a number of his third-party meeting clients for years.
“Naples is one of the nicer destinations in Florida, even though it’s not as well-known as Orlando or Miami,” he says. “But it’s one of the most beautiful and sophisticated destinations in the state. It’s very cultured. It also has a great downtown area and great restaurants. And, the beaches are beautiful.”
He hosted his last meeting there in May — a five-day, four-night program for 350 attendees at the Ritz-Carlton Naples.
“This particular client returns to Naples and the Ritz-Carlton about every three years,” Seibert says. “They’ve been doing that for the last 20 years. The quality of the Ritz-Carlton has a lot to do with the fact we keep going back. The staff at the Ritz and the service standard are always maintained at a very high level. And, the hotel also offers great convenience when it comes to easily getting to the downtown area, where there are so many restaurants and shops.”
Given the reputation and prestige of the brand, Seibert says, it’s no surprise that the accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton Naples are outstanding.
“The rooms are well-designed and spacious,” he says. “There are also top-of-the-line amenities. And that includes all of the major amenities, from the spa to the swimming pool. The restaurants are also excellent. It’s a great facility for a high-level executive meeting. That’s largely because the level of service is extremely high. The staff is very attentive and consistent in the level of service they offer.”
A highlight of this year’s meeting was a Kentucky Derby-themed evening that took place on race day. “The staff did a fantastic job of turning the ballroom into the ‘Kentucky Derby,’” Seibert says. “It was an exceptional event that was a lot of fun for our attendees.”
Due to the quality of the hotel and the sophistication of the destination, Seibert says, Naples has earned its place as an A-list option for planners in the know.
Located on the Atlantic Coast in northeastern Florida, Daytona Beach once ruled as the state’s most famous and iconic destination.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, it served as the location for a number of classic Hollywood “beach” movies.
Barbara Watson, executive assistant to the CEO at Foundation Risk Partners, a property casualty and employee benefits insurance company in Daytona Beach, chose the organization’s hometown in September to host its two-day sales kick-off meeting, a 125-attendee event that launches its annual incentive travel program for the following year.
It was her first Daytona Beach program since joining the company earlier in the year.
“Despite having had more than 30 years of experience in meeting and convention planning, I was not really familiar with Daytona Beach as a destination,” Watson says. “But having planned the September meeting — and working with a property like the Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach — really opened my eyes to the area and what it has to offer.”
Chief among its most appealing characteristics is its status as an internationally known and timeless Florida beach destination that has been a prized family vacation destination for more than 75 years.
In addition, it is even more famous today as the home of the biggest event in NASCAR stock car racing, the annual Daytona 500.
Watson selected the Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach as her venue because of its affinity with Foundation Risk’s self-image as an enterprise. “It’s cool, and it has a great vibe,” she says.
That was an important factor, she explains, given the youthful demographics of Foundation Risk and its workforce. “The Hard Rock perfectly fits where we are as a young and energetic company. So, using the Hard Rock really demonstrated to the rest of the company where we are [in our evolution]. It also has a great location, right on the beach, about 10 minutes to the south of downtown.”
As a meeting venue, Watson gave the hotel high marks. She also cited the hotel’s excellent service. “It was very good — very hands-on,” she says. “Since the meeting, I have become friends with the director of sales and marketing. And, I really like the people I met there. They do a great job.”
Other top meeting-quality hotels in the area include the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, Wyndham Ocean Walk, Hammock Beach — A Salamander Resort and El Caribe Resort & Conference Center.
For her meeting, Watson had the advantage of access to a unique offsite venue, a classic American “muscle car” collection owned and operated privately in a warehouse by her boss, the company’s CEO.
Located north of Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast, Jacksonville is now emerging as a new option on the list of Florida meeting destinations.
While it has been popular as an association meeting market for decades, the city is now aggressively promoting itself as a corporate meeting destination, notes Katie Mitura, vice president, marketing and communication, at Visit Jacksonville.
“Jacksonville is a historic Florida destination, yet it’s also a very modern, innovative meetings destination that is now experiencing a major revitalization,” Mitura says. “We want corporate meeting planners to learn more about us and take advantage of our endless miles of beaches, explosion of local dining and cultural options and some of the most unique meetings venues in all of Florida. It will probably come as a surprise to some that we have been constantly ranked as a ‘Top 50 Meetings Destination’ in the nation.”
The city boasts a hotel inventory of more than 18,000 rooms — ranging from oceanfront resorts, full-service hotels along the St. Johns River and charming beachside inns.
“And, our meeting hotels offer some of the most competitive room rates in Florida,” Mitura says.
The city’s largest meeting-quality hotel is the 951-room Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, which features 116,000 square feet of meeting space. It has completed a major renovation of its lobby and ground level.
Other major meeting properties include the 354-room Omni Jacksonville Hotel, with 14,000 square feet of meeting space and the 193-room One Ocean Resort & Spa, with 10,500 square feet of meeting space.
The 323-room Lexington Hotel & Conference Center, with more than 35,000 square feet of meeting space, has completed a $20 million renovation. It is located along the Jacksonville Riverwalk.
Mitura also touts the city’s thriving and ever-evolving local dining scene as yet another reason corporate meeting planners should consider Jacksonville.
“We offer restaurants that feature fresh, local ingredients and specialize in seafood and southern flavors,” she says. “We truly offer an innovative food scene that is unlike anywhere else in Florida, and it has been powered by award-wining local chefs that have been nationally and internationally trained and recognized.
“Whatever your group’s craving might be, you will find the perfect restaurant in Jacksonville, from sophisticated fine-dining to casual fare.”
The city also offers an impressive array of offsite venues. Alhambra Theatre & Dining ranks as the nation’s longest continuously running professional dinner theater. Or take a tour of the Jax Ale Trail, 15 locally owned craft breweries, each with unique features and flavor.
The biggest and most modern one is Intuition Ale Works, located in the downtown Sports Complex. The brewery offers some of the best beer in Jacksonville from its rooftop taproom with views of the St. Johns River. Local museums include the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and Museum of Science & History.
“All we ask of meeting planners is that they take a serious look at Jacksonville,” Mitura says. “If they do, we know they will decide that we are one of the most unusual and best meeting destinations in Florida.” I&FMM