Most meeting planners probably already know that Cvent ranked Orlando the No. 1 meeting and convention destination in the nation. But incentive program planners also have their site-selection radar tuned in to the top leisure destinations as well. According to JD Power’s inaugural rating this fall of the most popular vacation destinations in the U.S., Orlando ranked No. 3 in overall traveler satisfaction and also ranked high on the list of destinations with the best hotels and entertainment. Visit Orlando recorded more than 66 million visitors in 2015, setting a new record for the U.S. travel industry. What this means for planners is many more high-end choices in a destination that’s increasingly sophisticated both inside and outside the theme parks.
For one financial company, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando provided the perfect setting for a memorable event. The group played off of the theming of the hotel with an intimate reception on the hotel’s Harbor Piazza featuring a “tour of Italy-inspired” cuisine. The menu featured items such as heirloom tomato caprese salad, made-from-scratch ricotta gnocchi and a decadent gelato station. Themed décor featured string lighting, opera singers performing from a balcony overlooking the piazza and centerpieces utilizing re-purposed wine bottles with grape vines and votive candles.
The meeting planner felt the hotel and venues were perfect for her small, intimate meetings, as they could utilize flexible breakout spaces that accommodate groups from 10–45 people. In addition, she found the Donatello Boardroom to be professionally elegant — perfect for intimate meetings and one-on-one peer coaching.
Orlando and Portofino also have been on the A-list for Cheryl Rybka, registered principal, events director for Valmark Securities Inc., a national broker-dealer based in Akron, Ohio. She’s been holding the same business conference every October for 15 years in Orlando. “We like the predictability of the weather and the competitive air pricing,” she says. The meeting, which satisfies FINRA’s requirement for a live annual compliance meeting for registered broker-dealer representatives, has grown from 250 to 450 attendees. The conference often has been held at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando, using their entire meeting space: the lawn for an NFL party; the pool for an event; two large ballrooms — one for programming, one for meals; and several smaller spaces. “If you’re creative, you can do a lot with their space,” she says.
Easy access to CityWalk after hours is also a draw the group enjoys. Universal CityWalk features dining, shopping and entertainment including the Hard Rock Live concert and party venue and the Blue Man Group show.
For one dinner, she arranged a 13-restaurant dine-around; the group is partial to The Palm at Hard Rock Hotel. “Sometimes you can get a bait and switch in the group dining market, but they’re fantastic in that you get good quality of meal and more intimacy in 13 smaller groups,” she says.
After several years at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando and Loews, Rybka’s next move was The Waldorf Astoria Orlando. The five-star property agreed to address her need to maintain a high-end experience even with budget constraints. “They were really willing to come to the table and figure out how it could work,” she says. For example, the hotel agreed to a kind of à la carte arrangement wherein Rybka could use some of the resources of the adjacent Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek even as the group was based at the Waldorf. It also agreed to offer a grab-and-go breakfast option — which Rybka says attendees overwhelmingly prefer anyway — thus saving substantially on breakfast costs.
Tom King, director of professional development for the Financial Managers Society, brought his group of 50 bankers and credit union professionals to the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando — perhaps not, at first mention, an obvious fit. He has been holding meetings at the hotel for three years, but it wasn’t a no-brainer when he first considered it, despite its 6,000 sf of meeting space. He was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and environment. “You think it will just be loud — and it can be around the pool area. But the meeting space is silent. No one is walking through; it’s a professional setting. And then you can have fun at 5 p.m.,” he says.
The attendees, many of whom come from the Northeast or Midwest, love the venue, he notes. Since the meeting is held in March each year, they can bring their families for spring break. King cites the area’s supreme walkability. “There’s no need to bus people for activities; restaurants, parks, movies, all are a five-minute walk from the property. Ninety percent of the participants went to CityWalk or the parks.”
Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction garnered particular praise, as did The CowFish Sushi Burger Bar at Universal CityWalk.
The attendees were on their own for dinner, with breakfast and a plated lunch King arranged through the hotel. “The (Hard Rock) convention service staff is awesome; all of them are there to greet you by name when you walk in. They remember you from previous years. I found them easy to work with on contractual issues; no hidden fees,” he says of the meetings team. “It was a seamless process from start to finish. The banquet and convention services staff’s personal service is unmatched.”
There are many group dining options at Universal CityWalk, where groups of up to 60 people can enjoy private dinners in highly themed restaurants. High on the list are the NBC Sports Grill and Brew, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, the CowFish Sushi Burger Bar and, more recently, the 19th century-themed, Steampunk-inspired Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen. Also in CityWalk is Emeril’s Orlando — with a 10,000-bottle wine cellar.
Located in downtown Orlando is Two Chefs Seafood, started by a former corporate chef at Emeril’s Orlando and a onetime chef at The Palm, features a raw oyster bar and Southern-spiced seafood. Nearby is the North Quarter Tavern, a “chef-driven” tavern backed by the owners of trendy North Quarter District lunch spot Citrus Restaurant.
The new dining, entertainment and shopping complex I-Drive 360 on International Drive offers a smorgasbord of options. Grab a craft beer at Tin Roof, a concept transplant from Nashville, which offers attendees live rock and country music after the convention day, along with Southern staples such as pulled pork and shrimp and grits. For discriminating drinkers, Yard House at I-Drive 360 offers a prodigious selection of beers from around the world as well as rotating seasonal drafts from its Chalkboard Series. There’s also a sampling of “beer cocktails” for the adventurous. Case in point, the Cocoa Hazelnut Stout, composed of Frangelico, creme de cacao, Rogue hazelnut brown nectar and Young’s double chocolate stout.
Nearby I-Drive 360 is Mangos Tropical Café, another out-of-town concept first begun in South Beach. The Orlando incarnation includes 50,000 sf of nightclub space, notably including sufficient room for a floor show of the house’s salsa, bachatta, reggae and pop dancers. Another 12,000 sf encompasses the restaurant, featuring Floribbean cuisine.
Pointe Orlando, also on International Drive, is a dining destination in itself with Tommy Bahamas, RA Sushi, Blue Martini, B.B. King’s Blues Club and Cuba Libre to name a few.
Near the Orange County Convention Center is Restaurant Row on Sand Lake Road featuring more than 24 dining options from casual to upscale including Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar and The Whiskey, featuring more than 100 whiskeys, bourbons, scotches and ryes as well as gourmet burgers. The burger named for the restaurant features smoked Gouda, bourbon bacon, whiskey onions and dill aioli. Live music and chef showdowns round out the entertainment options.
Attendees can pamper themselves at the 5,200-sf Marilyn Monroe Spa at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, designed to invite comparisons to the late star’s Hollywood home. Among the signature treatments is the 240-minute My Day with Marilyn, which includes a massage, facial and manicure/pedicure.
A quirky but uniquely Florida experience is Gator Spot on International Drive, the latest draw at Fun Spot Orlando. The attraction, situated on 2.5 acres, houses more than 100 alligators including a rare white gator with blue eyes.
Group options at Universal Orlando include teambuilding activities, back-lot tours and private after-hours events in one of their theme parks — Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure — that can be kicked off with a red carpet entrance featuring select characters on hand to welcome attendees. For large groups, block parties can be arranged that combine a park buyout with a private event at a CityWalk restaurant. For example, planners can hold an event at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, where attendees can experience a fire-breathing dragon, a ride that offers Escape from Gringotts, a Leaky Cauldron restaurant and assorted wizard novelty shops.
In early summer 2017, Universal Orlando will debut a third park, this time with a water theme: Volcano Bay, on 30 tropical acres, will offer after-hours corporate parties and events complete with fiery lava effects erupting from a 200-foot volcano.
At SeaWorld Orlando, the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin attraction can be reserved for groups of 500-1,000 for exclusive receptions and entertainment set within the frozen realm of a population of tuxedoed pengins. Coming in summer 2017 are two new experiences: the Electric Ocean, a nighttime light, music and entertainment spectacular, and a new Virtual Reality enhancement option on the popular Kraken roller coaster — the only VR coaster experience in Florida.
At I-Drive 360, the Coca Cola Orlando Eye, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel, is available for groups (each private capsule holds up to 15 attendees), and Madame Tussauds offers buyouts for receptions and dinners that can be catered by nearby Wyndham Orlando Resort International Drive.
Artegon Marketplace Orlando on International Drive promises attendees something a bit more than the average mall with The Village, a one-stop shop for the Etsy crowd More than 150 shops in this artisanal mall within a mall offer handmade artworks, crafts and foods.
In downtown Orlando, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts has two performance theaters, a 300-seat community theater, an outdoor plaza and a banquet room that are available for private events.
Visit Orlando, the city’s CVB, has a new mobile app that allows attendees and others to explore and earn savings during their stay in Orlando. The app utilizes artificial intelligence to understand conversational language from users and offer personalized recommendations of Orlando experiences that best fit an individual’s needs and preferences. It’s available to download through iTunes and Google Play. “This innovative technology is like having your own personal Orlando expert 24/7,” says George Aguel, Visit Orlando president and CEO. “It analyzes numerous options, extensive data and insights from destination experts and fellow travelers to create a recommended experience that is just right for (each visitor).”
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which opened at Universal Orlando in July, added 115,000 sf of meeting space this fall that includes a 41,000-sf ballroom, 30,000-sf hall and 16,000-sf outdoor event area. The space connects by air-conditioned bridge to Loews Royal Pacific Resort, providing a combined 247,000 sf of meeting space in the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando, which officially opened in October.
Following a $17 million renovation to its 146 guest rooms, the Villas of Grand Cypress has reconfigured its Mediterranean-style Executive Meeting Center, a standalone complex that houses 7,200 sf of flexible indoor-outdoor event space with four meeting rooms divisible into eight self-contained spaces. The four-star, four-diamond resort, which claims 1,500 acres in Lake Buena Vista, boasts 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed golf; a golf academy; an equestrian center with options for equestrian-themed shows to entertain reception or banquet guests; and the Nine 18 Restaurant, which doubles as a fully equipped meeting space for small groups.
The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel began a $5 million renovation of its 329,000 sf of meeting space last summer to refresh all the meeting rooms at both the Swan and Dolphin hotels. The renovation includes updated carpet and paint, along with the installation of new technology in the meeting areas. The work will occur in phases with no impact to group programs, and completion is scheduled for December. The meeting space refresh is part of the hotel’s multiphase, multiyear $140 million redesign project, which also includes transformation of all 2,267 guest rooms. In 2015, the Swan guest rooms were completed; Dolphin Hotel guest room renovations will wrap up by the end of 2017.
The former Buena Vista Palace Resort & Spa was recently reflagged as the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace, located in the Disney Springs area. The 1,011-room hotel completed a major makeover featuring newly designed guest rooms, a new outside terrace and refreshed meeting spaces totaling 92,000 sf. As the hotel is an official Walt Disney World Hotel, groups are offered entertainment and event production services through the Disney Event Group as well as the Disney Institute’s educational programs.
The three Rosen Hotels convention properties — Rosen Plaza, Rosen Centre and Rosen Shingle Creek — are undergoing major renovations from guest rooms to restaurants. Rosen Plaza recently completed refurbishments in all 800 of its guest rooms and suites and now features expanded flexible indoor-outdoor event space with 3NINE, the hotel’s 5,000-sf state-of-the-art entertainment venue. 3NINE can accommodate 500 people indoors or 1,500 guests when the event is extended to the patio and pool deck ‘39 Poolside Bar & Grill. The venue provides groups with a dedicated, onsite daytime or evening event space outfitted with all audio-visual needs and already fully decorated and themed.
Rosen Shingle Creek will soon be unveiling the newly redesigned 18-hole Shingle Creek Golf Course, in partnership with Arnold Palmer Design Company.
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek recently completed a $5 million renovation including the new 3,500-sf Bonnet Creek Ballroom accommodating up to 360 people and the 2,155-sf Expedition meeting room. The renovation also includes a new wraparound balcony and terrace overlooking the 10-acre lake.
The Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, the only resort in Orlando with a AAA Five Diamond Award, has added 37,750 sf of meeting space to its eight meeting rooms, two event lawns, two ballrooms and multiple terraces.
The AAA Four Diamond, resort-style, Hilton Orlando added 13,000 sf of meeting space in the form of eight new rooms last spring. This is in addition to three ballrooms —15,000 sf, 30000 sf and 50,000 sf — and the 50,000-sf Promenade, a landscaped outdoor venue. The 1,470-room hotel is connected to the Orlando Orange County Convention Center. I&FMM