OrlandoJuly 1, 2013

Follow the Crowd to This Record-Setting Meetings Destination By
July 1, 2013


Follow the Crowd to This Record-Setting Meetings Destination
The Music Plaza at Universal Studios at Universal Orlando Resort is a permanent outdoor concert venue available for buyouts. Credit: Universal Orlando ResortFebruary 21, 2009 - Mardi Gras Concert stage in Boneyard featuring NE-YO. Universal Studios Florida USF, night time, bands, crowds, Photographed for Publicity, for possible selects for Orlando Sentinel, Photographed from Jimmy Neutron building, Monsters Building

The Music Plaza at Universal Studios at Universal Orlando Resort is a permanent outdoor concert venue available for buyouts. Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

Orlando’s reputation as one of the nation’s preeminent meetings destinations is borne out by some impressive, record-setting numbers: More than 55 million visitors flocked to Orlando in the past year, including 3 million meeting and convention attendees, and 2013 is looking as strong or stronger. Major meeting and incentive industry conferences also are flocking to Orlando: For example, this December, Site’s Global Conference will be held for the first time in Orlando at Loews Portofino Bay at Universal Orlando; the Destination Marketing Association International’s Annual Convention was July 15–17 at The Peabody Orlando. AIBTM, the Americas Incentive, Business Travel & Meetings Exhibition, announced that it will rotate to Orlando every other year beginning in 2014. The Event Service Professionals Association and Professional Convention Management Association held their annual meetings in Orlando in January.

“Orlando is widely recognized as the most visited destination in the nation,” says George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, “however, it’s important to us that planners are kept up-to-date on the growing appeal of Orlando. By hosting a series of important industry shows in Orlando, we have had the opportunity to showcase the breadth and scope of what our destination has to offer for incentive programs, as well as meetings, conferences and trade shows.”

“By hosting a series of important industry shows in Orlando, we have had the opportunity to showcase the breadth and scope of what our destination has to offer for incentive programs…”

— George Aguel, President and CEO, Visit Orlando

Many planners are already well aware of Orlando’s appeal.

“Honestly, it’s probably the best of any destination we use,” says Johnetta Riley, meeting planner at the Washington, DC-based Reinsurance Association of America (RAA), which has used Orlando for one of its most important annual meetings, a global conference for 350 to 400 attendees, for the past four years. “On the 1 to 10 scale, it’s a 10. And people also like to go there because it’s warm and beautiful in February. It’s also a big draw for our international attendees.”

Incomparable Airlift

Another thing Riley and many other planners praise about Orlando is its incomparable airlift, based on its status as the No. 1 family vacation destination in the world. The Orlando International Airport is the third busiest in the U.S., welcoming 35 million passengers each year and serving 84 U.S. destinations and 33 international cities. “The airlift is one of the most important reasons we use Orlando,” Riley says. “It’s very easy to get to, especially for our international attendees, who can get direct flights from almost anywhere in the world. It’s also easy to get from the airport to the hotels. For most of the hotels, it doesn’t take longer than 20 minutes to get there. And that’s very important to our attendees, too.”

Cynthia Tomei, CMP, CMM, meeting manager at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) in Chicago, also cites the city’s airlift as a key reason why she has been using the destination for the past 20 years. “The airlift into Orlando is just amazing,” says Tomei, who already had been using Orlando for a decade before joining BCBSA 11 years ago. “And that’s important because we not only have folks coming from major cities across the country, but also from smaller cities. So we try to use destinations that they can fly to without having to connect multiple times. There are so many nonstop flights in and out that you can get attendees here from anywhere. And relatively speaking, for the most part, the airfares are very inexpensive compared to other major meeting destinations. So, the combination of airlift and cost has always made Orlando a desirable destination for us.”

An Expanding Universe of Hotel Options

Shelly Wolfson, president of third-party intermediary DG Elite Network Inc. in North Merrick, NY, has also used Orlando for the past 20 years. In addition to formidable airlift, she hails it’s 116,000 hotel guest rooms, which include several thousand new rooms added during and since the 2008 recession.

“My clients, including insurance and financial services companies, like Orlando because of the high-quality hotels available at a fair price-value ratio,” Wolfson says. “There’s a large selection of clean, stylish properties with updated technology. The weather is moderate and enjoyable for most of the year, conducive to outdoor events.”

Another factor in Orlando’s favor, Wolfson says, “is that like Las Vegas, it has a vast and solid infrastructure for supporting meetings of all types and sizes. In terms of a long list of good options,” she says, ”Orlando likely has the most of any destination in the U.S.”

Tomei agrees that the city’s broad and sophisticated roster of meeting and resort hotels is another critical factor in its popularity with planners. “And a big part of that is the size of the major hotels and the amount of meeting space available,” she says. “And the layout of the meeting space is important to us. We don’t like for it to be spread out or on different floors. In Orlando, we’ve always been lucky at finding the exact amount of meeting space we need and having it be contiguous and very convenient, so our attendees aren’t running all over the place between sessions. And the number of hotels in Orlando that can offer that amount of space and that kind of convenience is just tremendous.”

Add everything up and Orlando delivers an almost unbeatable value proposition, says Kim Sky, CMP, meeting planning team lead at Chicago-based property and casualty insurance company CNA, which has used the destination multiple times in recent years. “We hold meetings in places like Orlando, Tampa, Chicago, New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Sky says. “And if you keep the conversation in that range of destinations, I would probably put Orlando as my No. 1 choice when it comes to value.”

Sky recently hosted two meetings in Orlando, one at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress and the other at the Hilton Orlando Altamonte Springs. “The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress was a great property for the conference we hosted there,” she says. “The hotel did an excellent job of planning and running the event. A lot of time and effort went into their preparations on our behalf. And the concierge was helpful with things like dinner reservations.”

Sky also hailed the Hilton Orlando Altamonte Springs for another successful event. Highlights included dinner at Brio in Winter Park and a boat excursion. “Both were recommended by Visit Orlando,” she says.

Unique Offsite Venues

High on the list of attractions is Orlando’s vast array of offsite venues, let by the mighty trio of Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando. “Orlando has a unique portfolio of options when it comes to venues to host events,” Aguel says. “From the Orange County Convention Center, which was recently rated the No. 1 meeting facility in the country by Business Review USA, to one-of-a-kind settings inside any one of our world-famous theme parks that call Orlando home, our destination has the ability to transform a meeting into a more productive and memorable experience.”

Greg Kaul, vice president of sales at Hello! Florida Destination Management, agrees. “In terms of offsite venue selection, Orlando is a great destination,” he says. “There are just so many options to choose from.”

Despite an almost unparalleled menu of choices, the three major theme parks continue to play a role in many major meetings that come to town. “Most events we’re seeing now use one night for an off-property evening,” Kaul says. “And the theme parks are a big part of those evenings.”

The venue that has continued to be the top choice since its debut three years ago is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. “It seems like every planner who comes to Orlando for a site visit ends up wanting to do an event there,” Kaul says. “It is the No. 1 offsite venue in the city.” Buyouts are available for groups as small as 250 attendees and as large as 6,000.

Another popular option is Universal CityWalk. The expansive complex, adjacent to Universal’s theme park attractions, includes a diverse selection of dining and entertainment options, including Emeril’s Orlando, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Pat O’Brien’s Orlando, the long-running and celebrated Blue Man Group performances, and the Latin Quarter restaurant and nightclub.

Kaul is particularly fond of Hard Rock Live. “A lot of planners think it’s Hard Rock Cafe, and ‘I’ve been there, done that,’ ” he says. “But Hard Rock Live is a separate venue with a separate kitchen. It’s actually a concert and entertainment venue. And you can theme it out for a great meeting event, and they are very flexible in terms of the kinds of things you can do there. We’ve done some amazing events there. It’s also right on CityWalk, so after the event, attendees can just go out the door and enjoy the rest of CityWalk for the evening.”

Sky has used Universal Orlando as an offsite venue. “We did a competition at the ‘Fear Factor Live’ venue,” she says. Based on the popular TV show, the venue bills itself as “the most extreme audience participation event ever.”

“It was really great,” says Sky. “And it worked well as a very creative teambuilding event.”

In May of last year, Sky returned to Orlando for a meeting that included an offsite excursion to The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman attraction at Universal, after it completed a renovation that includes all-new 4K digital high-definition animation, 3-D “Spider Vision” glasses and a new musical score.

Great Finds in Fine Dining

Although Orlando is now home to a number of restaurants from celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Todd English and Wolfgang Puck, it still comes as news to many planners that the city is now touted for its fine-dining scene. Visit Orlando points out that over the past five years, the city has doubled or tripled the number of high-end culinary experiences available.

“The growing diversity and sophistication of our dining scene is sometimes overshadowed by the excitement of our attractions,” Aguel says. “And if you haven’t been here in a few years, you would be surprised by how many more culinary experiences we now offer. At the end of the day, attendees want to enjoy time together in a dining environment and be entertained. Orlando delivers on all of that and more thanks to award-winning restaurants and unlimited nighttime entertainment inside and outside of the theme parks.”

A prime example of out-of-the-park options is the Pointe Orlando dining-and-entertainment complex near the Orange County Convention Center.

“It’s a large facility that also has good access for motorcoaches,” Kaul says. “It offers a lot of good dining options under one roof, like a Capital Grille and Oceanaire Seafood Room. They recently opened up The Pub, a British pub that has become very popular, and there’s also a great Cuban restaurant, Cuba Libre, which is also very popular with groups. B.B. King’s is another great venue, which offers Southern comfort-style food and a great band. And Taverna Opa is a fantastic Greek restaurant that is very famous with locals for being very lively and entertaining, but also serving really great Greek food.”

The Pointe offers so many options in a single facility that it can host a convenient dine-around program in one location, making logistics much less of a consideration.

“And after dinner, attendees can go to The Improv comedy club to be entertained,” Kaul says. “There are a number of options for creating a really fun evening.”

“The dining scene in Orlando, including the better restaurants at Disney and Universal, is critical for some of our meetings,” Sky says. “The quality of the local restaurants has really matured in recent years, and there are quite a few high-end options now. We’ve been quite impressed.”

For a meeting that drew lawyers and accountants who wanted to entertain during the event, Sky left an evening open and provided a list of fine-dining options provided by Visit Orlando and posted on the meeting’s Web portal. “That allowed our high-end attendees to plan in advance, and it was a great success, and they were very pleased,” Sky says. “It was also very convenient, because the restaurants were located within two or three miles of the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress hotel, where we stayed.”

Great Golf

Orlando also leverages a distinct advantage when it comes to golf — with some of the most acclaimed courses to be found anywhere. With an improving economy, golf is once again a must-have in an incentive program agenda, as it has always traditionally been, for networking and getting business done.

“It may come as a surprise to some that we are a significant golf destination,” Aguel says. “In addition to being named recently as the North American Golf Destination of the Year by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, Orlando is home to more than 175 golf courses, The Golf Channel and dozens of professional golfers and high-profile instructors of the game.”

Sky has made good use of Orlando’s golf facilities. “For some meetings, we take 50 or 75 people out for an afternoon of golf,” she says. “And there are a lot of great options in Orlando. And the DMCs and transportation companies are very good at getting people there and back.”

Hotel News

The competition among Orlando’s hotels and theme parks keeps the offerings fresh and exciting, making every visit virtually a new visit. Here’s some of the area’s latest news:

The big hotel opening on the horizon is the $360 million Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, which is scheduled to debut in 2014. The 444-room hotel will feature 37,000 sf of function and meeting space, including a 14,000-sf main ballroom and a 6,000-sf junior ballroom, as well as a full-service business center. Resort amenities include the existing Tom Fazio-designed Osprey Ridge championship golf course, three swimming pools and a lazy river, and basketball and tennis courts, as well as a complete fitness center.

The new resort also will feature a 14,000-sf spa with 18 treatment rooms, and dining options that will include a main restaurant overlooking the lawn and lake, and a rooftop restaurant designed to give diners a view of the nightly fireworks displays coming out of the Magic Kingdom.

B Hotels & Resorts will reflag and renovate the 394-room Royal Plaza in the Downtown Disney resort area in fall 2013. The B resort in Lake Buena Vista, which will remain operational during a complete renovation and repositioning, offers 20,000 sf of function space.

The Hilton Orlando has broken ground on a $2.1 million expansion project that will add a 50,000-sf Promenade outdoor space that can accommodate up to 3,000 attendees. The 1,417-room hotel, with 175,000 sf of meeting and function space, is connected to the Orange County Convention center by an elevated pedestrian bridge.

The 1,500-acre luxury Villas of Grand Cypress Resort recently completed the first phase of a resort-wide renovation that included all 146 villas.

The newly named Wyndham Or­lando Resort, will complete a renovation of its lobby and 613 guest rooms and suites by the end of this year.

Rosen Hotels and Resorts’ convention hotels now offer free wired and wireless Internet in all guest rooms and public areas. Rosen Centre Hotel recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of all 1,334 guest rooms as well as the presidential and hospitality suites. Rosen Centre’s 124,000 sf of meeting space includes a new 18,000-sf Executive Ballroom. Rosen Plaza Hotel recently completed a floor-to-ceiling renovation of all 800 guest rooms as well as hallways and hospitality suites. Rosen Shingle Creek’s mega-sized 445,000 sf of meeting space includes 66,000 sf of outdoor space, thanks to a recent 16,000-sf expansion. Shingle Creek Golf Club is home to the Brad Brewer Golf Academy.

The 720-room, four-diamond Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate earlier this year opened the 48,000-sf Osceola County Conference Center. With a 28,800-sf ballroom and accompanying indoor meeting space, the new conference center gives the Omni a total of 128,000 sf of indoor event space and an additional 70,000 sf of outdoor space. The hotel also boasts two championship golf courses and the world headquarters of the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. There’s a full-service Mokara spa, two heated outdzoor pools and an 850-foot lazy river.

Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando (42,000 sf of meeting space) completed a $14 million renovation of all 750 guest rooms in April. Renovations to the meeting space and ballrooms at Universal Orlando’s Loews Royal Pacific (1,000 guest rooms; 85,000 sf of meeting space) and Hard Rock (650 guest rooms; 6,000 sf) hotels were finished last September. Guest room renovations at Loews Royal Pacific will be completed in stages with the first half scheduled for a 2014 and the rest in 2015.

The 2,000-room Orlando World Center Marriott has just completed its five-year multimillion-dollar renovation project. The North Tower’s 514 guest rooms, including 10 suites, have been refurbished, as well as another 110 guest suites, the Hall of Cities meeting rooms and Falls Pool Oasis.

Other News

Along International Drive — nicknamed I-Drive — which runs through the heart of theme-park country and past the convention center, a $250 million redevelopment of the Mercado site will debut in the summer of 2014. Dubbed I-Drive Live, the new area will include more than 75 shops, restaurants and attractions, including a 25,000-sf Madame Tussauds wax museum, a 25,000-sf Sea Life Aquarium and a 425-foot Orlando Eye observation wheel.

The Orange County Convention Center has just begun a five-year, $187 million capital improvements project. The West Building is undergoing a major renovation, which includes aesthetic enhancements, life safety update, and retrofitting to provide flexible space for groups. And new furniture groupings and an upgraded system for wireless communications are designed to enhance both face-to-face and device-to-device connectivity.

Orlando’s theme parks continue to expand their offerings, and all of them provide a multitude of special group options within their parks for ready-made themed events. SeaWorld Orlando just opened the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins attraction. And in June Universal Orlando Resort unveiled Transformers: The Ride-3D at Universal Orlando Resort. Harry Potter fans will flock to Universal’s newest offering upcoming in 2014: the all-new Diagon Alley, located in Universal Studios, will complement the adjacent Hogwarts & Hogsmeade attraction in Islands of Adventure with recreations of London sights and experiences as described in the Harry Potter books.

Walt Disney World Resort recently opened The Little Mermaid phase of the all-new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom Park, the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history to open in phases through 2014. Downtown Disney will undergo a multiyear transformation and morph into Disney Springs by 2016. The destination will feature more than 150 establishments for shopping, dining and entertainment as well as new private-event options for groups.

Planners also should keep an eye on what’s happening in downtown Orlando: Currently under construction, with a scheduled completion in fall 2014, is The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which will be the latest of Orlando’s up-and-coming entertainment venues, providing two theaters, a public performance space, outdoor plaza and separate educational facilities. I&FMM

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