It’s no accident that Orlando has become the top destination in the U.S. for corporate meetings. That title has emerged from a decade-long campaign to build its hotel inventory, improve its dining scene, and promote its world-famous theme parks and roster of other unique activities. And all of that effort had paid off with an unusually high repeat business factor.
“Orlando has developed its reputation as a great meeting destination for a number of reasons,” says Fred Shea, senior vice president, sales and services, convention sales, at Visit Orlando. “We have tremendous hotel inventory, and we offer an amazing range of attractions and activities, led by our world-famous theme parks, which everybody knows and loves. And we also offer great value. So when you combine all those things, which are the key things planners are looking for, you realize that Orlando is one of the top meeting destinations in the country.”
The city also claims an exceptionally high level of repeat business — planners who bring groups back year after year and companies that host multiple meetings and events in Orlando during the same calendar year.
“One of the things planners tell us about why they come back over and over again is that they come here with different groups,” Shea says. “For example, we have insurance and financial services clients who come here with a major third-party meeting, then they come back for a smaller in-house employee meeting, then they come back with an incentive program. And they do that year after year because for all of their meetings, they find that their attendees love coming to Orlando because of the experience and the fun they have.”
Among the insurance and financial services companies that have used Orlando for a major meeting every year for a very long time is Akron, Ohio-based ValMark Financial Group. The company has hosted one of its two most important annual meetings here every year for two decades. Last October, its Member Summit, attended by third-party financial-insurance advisors who represent ValMark, as well as key vendors, drew 407 attendees to the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and adjacent sister property, the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek.
“Over the years,” says Cheryl Rybka, registered principal and director of ValMark Events, “we have received recommendations (to think about) changing the destination. But this year in particular, we didn’t get many of those. Our attendees are very happy with Orlando, so we keep going back every year.”
One big reason for the extraordinary loyalty from Rybka’s perspective as a planner: “An important advantage of using Orlando is that event resources are available at reasonable prices. We tend to do business directly with vendors, and not through middlemen, when we’re planning entertainment and activities. And in that sense, Orlando is a dream.”
Another factor in ValMark’s loyalty is the high quality of hotel food and beverage product in Orlando. A highlight of last October’s meeting, Rybka says, was a formal sit-down dinner hosted in a ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria. She also rates the F&B at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek as excellent. “We used every restaurant they have. And they were all excellent.”
In order to ensure consistently excellent delivery of services from two hotels she had not previously used, she retained a local food and beverage expert to assist in meal planning and management. “I had done it before for other meetings,” she says, “but I had never done it with anyone of the caliber of the person I hired in Orlando. And it really paid off, because F&B is always one of the challenges you face in planning a major meeting.”
A trio of additional key factors in Orlando’s formidable reputation as a meeting destination are its unparalleled airlift, both domestically and internationally, its value-based airfares and its top-quality airport. Those benefits accrue to groups, Shea says, because Orlando is perennially ranked as the No. 1 family vacation destination in the world. Orlando International Airport is also very modern and easy to access, and it is now adding a new $1.8 billion terminal that will make its debut in 2019.
Rybka agrees that airlift, low fares and an exceptional airport are factors in ValMark’s loyalty. “The airlift and pricing of flights into Orlando are important to us and our attendees,” she says. “It’s hard for comparable destinations to compete with the airfares we get with Orlando. And the airlift itself, and the quality of the airport, are also very important factors in why we keep going back every year. The airport is very clean and very conveniently laid out.”
Of particular importance to the insurance and financial planners who use Orlando is the city’s hotel inventory. “We currently have,” Shea says, “a total of 120,000 hotel rooms and about 150 meeting-quality hotels, including 38 properties that are defined as convention hotels, which means at least 300 rooms and 20,000 sf of meeting space. And together, they offer the best quality and range of pricing a planner will find anywhere.”
Rybka agrees that the city’s hotel product is exceptional. “The 2017 meeting was our first use of the Waldorf Astoria and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. And both properties offer extraordinary quality. We used both hotels in order to give our attendees the option of two different price points. But both of them are exceptional in terms of quality.”
And the city’s hotel inventory is constantly being expanded and renovated, Shea says.
The most recent debut of a new hotel was the Loews Sapphire Falls, which opened last year at Universal Orlando Resort. Loews Cabana Bay at Universal also has been expanded to 1,200 rooms. A new 600-room Aventura hotel will open at Universal next summer at Universal. Disney currently is expanding its Coronado Springs property by 500 rooms, which will come online in 2020. The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort recently completed a $140 million renovation of all guests rooms and meeting space. A new 500-room JW Marriott being developed in Bonnet Creek will open in 2020. Doubletree Hotel by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld is in the process of adding more meeting space, including a 20,000 sf ballroom.
Another major factor in Orlando’s popularity as a meeting destination is its ever-evolving dining scene. As a repeat customer, Rybka has been pleasantly surprised by the steady improvement of Orlando’s dining scene. Last fall, she planned a dine-around night that featured the use of private dining rooms or areas in 13 local restaurants. Among the favorites among attendees were Chatham’s, which features classical fine dining with a French twist, and Christini’s Ristorante Italiano, located in the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips and featuring fine Italian cuisine.
Rybka says she was particularly impressed that more than 400 attendees could be dispatched to 13 restaurants and enjoy a universally superb experience. “In our post-meeting attendee survey,” she says, “all of the restaurants got excellent reviews.”
That report comes as no surprise to Visit Orlando’s Shea. “What’s been happening over the last decade, and has really accelerated in the last five years,” he says, “is that there has been an explosion of more upscale dining in Orlando. And that has been in direct response to what meeting planners were telling us, which was that they needed more high-end dining options for their groups. And that was particularly true among insurance and financial groups. And we have responded to that. In addition to the area known as ‘Restaurant Row,’ we now also have excellent dining options up and down International Drive. And in terms of meetings, the great thing about most of our restaurants, especially those in the convention center district, is that they are available for buyout.”
Claudia Vila, managing director of the Central Florida office of statewide destination management company Florida Meeting Services, adds that another key factor in the growth of Orlando’s dining scene has been its ever-expanding population of celebrity chef restaurants. Among the first celebrity chefs to help establish Orlando as a fine-dining destination, she notes, were Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Todd English. Now, many more have joined them.
Among the new restaurants Vila cites as among the city’s best are Homecoming, from chef Art Smith, and Norman’s, from legendary Florida chef Norman Van Aken, at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. She also cites a new STK steak house, which opened in 2016.
Another new option Shea highlights is the Orlando outpost of South Beach Miami landmark Mango’s Tropical Cafe, a Latin-themed restaurant/entertainment venue that opened in 2016 near the Orange County Convention Center. Popular with corporate groups, Mango’s accommodates up to 2,000 for special events.
A dining-related fact that makes Orlando unique is that it features a trio of major offsite dining and entertainment complexes — Disney Springs, CityWalk at Universal and Pointe Orlando on International Drive near the Orange County Convention Center — that each is capable of hosting a dine-around “under one roof” for groups of up to several thousand attendees.
“Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney,” Shea says, “has been doubled in size and now offers a wide range of fine dining options, with more still opening.” Among the most popular restaurants for upscale groups is Morimoto Asia, from TV’s “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto.
Universal Orlando’s CityWalk offers a vast range of options, including a Hard Rock Cafe, at a range of price points. Vila soon will use a buyout of it for a group of 2,200 attendees.
Pointe Orlando also features a vast range of options, including Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, B.B. King’s Blues Club, and Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, which accommodates up to 1,000 for private events.
Perhaps the most interesting development in Orlando’s rise as a meeting destination has been the rise of its theme parks as a draw for attendees. “When I first started here at Visit Orlando, I represented the third-party market,” Shea says. “And I talked to a lot of third-party customers who would say, ‘Tell me about new attractions in Orlando. I don’t want to hear about the theme parks. My people don’t want to go to the theme parks. They want something new and different.’ And we’d always show them new stuff. But then what we found, as the date of the meeting got closer and closer, was that people do want to go to the theme parks. That’s because everybody knows about them, and so they’re curious. And then once they go, they love them. So that has made the theme parks our top attraction for meeting groups.”
The other thing that has played a role in the popularity of the parks is their unique ability to deliver turnkey access to Hollywood-quality production services that consistently deliver spectacular events. “The planner doesn’t have to do anything but tell the park what he or she wants,” Shea says. “And not only does it get handled for you, but you get a level of production that means you get a truly memorable offsite event.”
Vila goes even further. As a DMC executive who provides support to many corporate meetings and incentive programs every year, she says that the use of a theme park as a venue is now almost considered mandatory.
“Our theme parks are the thing that really comes to mind when people think of Orlando,” she says. “So today, most meeting planners realize that if they’re going to do a meeting or incentive program here, they have to include one of the three parks — Disney, SeaWorld or Universal — in their agenda, because attendees will expect it.”
What many first-time users of Orlando find surprising, she says, is the vast roster of options available for groups of all sizes, even small ones. “You can do everything from a buyout of and major event at a venue like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal to a small teambuilding event, to just buying group tickets so people can enjoy the parks in their free time. The existence of the theme parks also often means that attendees bring their families to the meeting, either for a few days before it opens or for a few days after it ends. And those people always want to experience the parks. It’s one of the reasons they get so excited about coming here for a meeting.”
All companies want their meetings to be as memorable as possible, Vila notes. And nothing, she says, makes a meeting more memorable than a visit to one of its trio of world-famous attractions.
Despite the popularity of the theme parks with meeting planners and attendees, they are not the city’s only activities.
“We are much more than just the theme parks,” Vila says. “New attractions are being opened all the time. And that is the other side of the Orlando story. An attendee can come here many, many times and always find something new to do. I know there are planners who believe that after you’ve been here a few times, there’s nothing new and exciting left to do. But that’s not true. The reality is that every time you come back, even if you come back every year, you’re going to find every time that there is something new and fun to do.”
For example, she says, a new attraction that is already popular with planners and their attendees is the Topgolf Orlando complex, which combines a high-tech driving range with an excellent onsite restaurant and lounge.
A time-honored favorite activity, unique to Orlando, is the world-famous Kennedy Space Center, located just 45 minutes away on the Space Coast near Cape Canaveral.
The city also offers a pair of upscale and popular bowling venues, King’s Dining & Entertainment on International Drive and Splitsville Luxury Lanes at Disney Springs.
Vila also cites another unique venue, Winter Park’s Morse Museum, which boasts the largest private collection of Tiffany glass in the U.S.
Vila and Shea agree that once planners take a serious look at Orlando, they will discover that it is one of the most unique and compelling meeting destinations in the country. And like ValMark, it’s a good bet they’ll keep coming back. I&FMM