If America’s first visitors were the crew helmed by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León in 1513, then it could be said that Florida has been playing host for longer than any other state in the union. While Ponce de León didn’t get to venture far beyond the swaying palms and silken sands lining the coast, the visitor infrastructure that followed in his wake has blossomed, and how — particularly for association meeting planners.
Sun, sea and sand only begin to tell the story of today’s Sunshine State, where the range of backdrops offers a variety of environments. From the multicultural big-city buzz of Miami to the backwater escape of Amelia Island, and from the historic charm of Key West to the theme park thrills of Orlando, there is truly an ideal setting for almost any style of gathering or budgetary consideration. Throw in a climate that invites outdoor gatherings year-round, plus some of America’s best-connected airports, and it’s not hard to see why Florida sits high on the list of options for most meeting planners.
Miami is an Attractive Option
Dawn Williams, CMP, CMM, senior director of conferences, meetings and events for the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), says her group is thrilled to be bringing their event to Florida for the organization’s 49th anniversary this fall. “Miami is not a hard sell to our attendees,” Williams says. “There’s something about retreating to the beach views at the end of your day, and the average temperature is in the 80s. Additionally, the availability of nonstop flights and the cultural diversity of the destination are pluses. Our 1998, 2007 and 2010 events were in Miami, and we would have been back sooner, but put it on hold during the renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC).”
The $620 million convention center renovation was completed before last year. William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (GMCVB), says the project involved an expansion of about 263,000 sf, the bulk of which was a 60,000-sf ballroom, separate from the four exhibit halls. “We went from an old, tired box with no windows to waves, glass and a sense of place,” Talbert says. “We can now have two meetings going on at the same time.” Previously, when guests left the convention center, they exited into a barren, asphalt parking lot. Today, that space is a 6-acre public park with wandering paths, a central lawn and trees, a play and fitness area, and a Veterans Plaza.
Williams applauds the renovation. “Our attendees will be pleasantly surprised by the new MBCC, starting with the brightness of the building from all of the natural light — a stark contrast to the old convention center,” Williams says. “With the renovation of the MBCC, we are able to host virtually all of our activities in the center. And the new 60,000-sf grand ballroom is perfect for our awards gala.” Williams also notes that many of the city’s hotels the organization has previously used have also been recently renovated, including the Royal Palm South Beach Miami, A Tribute Portfolio Resort; Eden Roc Miami Beach and Fontainebleau Miami Beach. “And LIV in the Fontainebleau offers a great new private event space,” he adds.
2020 Presented Challenges
As for meeting planners everywhere, 2020 presented challenges for the NMSDC’s Annual Conference and Business Opportunity Exchange. The four-day, B2B networking event, which normally attracts 6,000 attendees, connects certified Asian-, Black-, Hispanic- and Native American-owned businesses with Fortune 1,000 corporate members. Last year’s conference was scheduled to take place in Phoenix in the fall, but as the pandemic spread over the summer, Williams says the group planned to go with a hybrid format. Ultimately, the NMSDC pivoted to a fully virtual meeting. “Our destination partners in Arizona — Visit Phoenix, the Phoenix Convention Center, Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott — were great to work with,” Williams says. “We scheduled regular check-ins to update one another, and shared what was going on within our organization and what we were hearing from our constituents; they shared what was going on in their respective organizations and on the ground in Phoenix. We worked through it together.”
Fast forward to October, when the group plans to arrive in Miami for this year’s conference. Williams says the MBCC began sharing its new protocols for cleaning, physical distancing, food and beverage service, and other safety measures last summer. The group’s base hotel, Loews Miami Beach Hotel, has been diligent in communicating their standards as well. Williams continues: “But the situation with this pandemic is still evolving. For example, not only will we need to plan for existing regulations, but there will also be responses that are implemented from the new White House administration. So, we will continue to monitor the situation and remain agile. Additionally, we will keep a pulse on our constituents as they will have their own corporate travel protocols and restrictions, which may lag behind relaxing of government regulations and a return to normal.”
Although the availability of vaccines is shining a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the NMSDC is still planning for the possibility of a hybrid event this year. “Based on anecdotal feedback from our constituents, many are undecided about whether or not they will travel to Miami for our event or join virtually,” Williams says. “In concert with our destination partners, we will plan for the best case and the worst case.”
Of course, even planning on a small scale presented challenges in 2020. The Florida Ports Council rotates three board meetings around the state annually. Christy Gandy, director of administration for the council, says last summer’s meeting at the Tampa Airport Marriott shifted to a hybrid format, with about half of the attendees coming in via Zoom call. The Annual Board Meeting, originally scheduled to take place in Key West at the end of August, also went hybrid, with most board members attending in person at the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport while others tuned in remotely. “We ended up having to hire A/V,” Gandy says. “Normally, I don’t need to have an A/V budget — I carry my own projector and screen for a couple of power points. Instead, each person had to have a microphone, and we needed a technician to work the sound board. The cost was about $6,000, which I had not budgeted for.” Adds Gandy, “My concern is having my members there. My port directors were concerned with health and safety, and some wore a mask throughout the meeting. But so many of our discussions need to be conducted face-to-face, and when they discussed the budget, the ones that were on the call got left out. We need to have those virtual components.”
Gandy says she usually utilizes perimeter seating for the board meetings. “We had to have those 6 feet behind and 6 feet apart. Fortunately, they put us in a huge ballroom. The Hyatt Regency has gone over and above with all the COVID stuff.” Gandy says she also had to get up-to-speed with food-handling guidelines, and instead of a buffet, she offered a plated lunch. “It worked out fine,” she adds.
Groups Stay In State
Like the Ports Council, the National Guard Association of Florida also stays in-state. Retired Col. Ron Corey, executive director, says his group often selects Orlando for its annual meeting for its median location within the state. The event, typically scheduled in early summer, draws about 400 attendees, plus spouses and guests. “The majority of our members like Orlando because it’s a central point to drive to,” Corey says. “Plus, their families can take the kids to SeaWorld or Disney, or Universal. Last year, we had it scheduled for the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, but when the pandemic set in, we had to cancel. We always include a force majeure in our contract, to cover us in the event of a hurricane when the guard may have to be deployed.” Instead, the group pivoted to a two-hour virtual meeting last July. “We were lucky in that one of the universities allowed us to use their platform for attendees to participate.”
The association started fresh in requesting proposals for a host this year, and landed at the Caribe Royale Orlando. “The Caribe is going through a total renovation that will be finished before we get there in June, and they actually gave me a lower rate on rooms. In fact, it was a better contract,” Corey says. The event is heavy on corporate sponsorship and includes professional development sessions, a golf tournament and a ball, which is typically attended by the governor. Corey says he’s anticipating an uptick in attendance this year following the restrictions of the past year. “Lord help me if COVID restrictions still require us to be 6 feet apart,” he adds.
As Central Florida’s largest all-suite convention hotel, the Caribe Royal’s $125 million renovation includes a complete refresh of its 1,215 one-bedroom suites, the addition of a grand ballroom, and a new lobby featuring extensive lighting upgrades and a dramatic new arrival experience. The new, 50,000-sf Palm Ballroom will bring the total meeting space to 220,000 sf, which includes three other flexible ballrooms, 54 breakout rooms, three executive boardrooms, 120 fully renovated lakeside villas suitable for small breakout sessions and poolside venues. All meeting rooms offer an in-house A/V provider and both hard-wired and wireless internet connections. Construction on the ballroom is expected to be complete in the spring, along with the first tower of newly renovated suites. The remaining suites are projected to be completed in the fall.
Another association tied to the state is the Florida Academy of PAs. The group has relied on the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort to host its summer symposium, providing continuing medical education (CME) to physicians assistants. But, last year, after postponing to the fall, on just two months’ notice, the group opted to go virtual, using the JW Marriott as a broadcast point for the event. “We had me, my staff and speakers there,” says Lolita Jarido, executive director. “We still utilized their space, but otherwise, it was a virtual platform, with both livestream and some prerecorded sessions. The JW worked with us on the contract so we didn’t have all of the minimums we would have had. They were flexible and very patient; it was a true partnership.”
Jarido says the virtual event wound up costing less than an in-person conference, even after purchasing computers and cameras for the livestream. About 40 attendees who had booked to attend in-person kept their hotel reservation and attended the virtual meeting from the resort. “We absolutely love Marco Island,” Jarido says. “For the past six or seven years, we’ve looked at other places, but we always find our way back. In fact, we just signed a contract and we’re going to be there the next three years.”
The JW Resort features 140,347 sf of meeting space. A $320 million renovation was completed recently, and as part of the renovation, the property added a 93-room, adult-exclusive tower offering a rooftop pool, gourmet restaurant and 12,000-sf, state-of-the-art indoor entertainment center. Jarido says the Academy has not ruled out a hybrid gathering for this summer. “There are older, more seasoned members who need to acquire their CMEs, but don’t really need time at the resort. A hybrid symposium is a way to reach a greater population — both those who want to come to Marco Island, as well as those who might not be able to travel or can’t afford the time.” Still, Jarido is anticipating attendance will be close to normal this year, and that those attending virtually will be added to the usual size. “I don’t foresee [this year] being much higher cost if we go virtual. We already absorbed some of the cost when we purchased equipment to livestream. The added cost would be the platform itself for the virtual livestream.”
A Southeast Commitment
One group committed to the Southeast for its events is the NCAA Sun Belt conference, which last spring announced its basketball championships would move from New Orleans to Pensacola starting this year. Keith Gill, Sun Belt Conference commissioner, says the conference, which runs from Texas through the Carolinas, had 10 municipalities that were interested in hosting the championship. “As we began to evaluate the materials from those locations, it became clear that Pensacola was the perfect choice for our championship,” says Gill, who adds that the city was a unanimous choice by Sun Belt CEOs and the Sun Belt directors of athletics. “Our original plan was to be in the city for five years, but our goal is to be in Pensacola for a long time. A lot of our members vacation in Gulf Coast areas. It’s centrally located for a lot of our fans, and Pensacola is a great community.” As March Madness arrives, the Pensacola Bay Center will receive almost $900,000 in upgrades, including a new scoreboard, shot clock technology and Wi-Fi.
Each year, the Association of National Park Rangers rotates its Ranger Rendezvous around the country. Last fall, the group chose Jacksonville for the four-day meeting, which has averaged 100 to 120 attendees in recent years. “We were planning to go to Jacksonville,” says Bill Wade, the association’s treasurer and manager of the meeting. “But in May, when we were due to provide the Lexington Hotel and Conference Center a big deposit, it just looked like things were not going to be good.” Fortunately, the property — now run by Marriott and renamed Southbank Hotel Jacksonville Riverwalk — renewed the contract at the same rate, he says, adding, “The hotel has been really great to work with. I thought we were going to have to go back and do some negotiating, but they honored the rates. Our plan is to go this October, and we’re hoping COVID doesn’t change that.”
Wade says the rangers move their event around the country, usually aiming for locations close to national park sites. “Often what happens is we have a retiree that lives in a particular vicinity who will suggest we bring it to that area,” Wade adds. “Absent that, we’ll look geographically for a place we haven’t been before and put out an RFP. In Jacksonville, we have a lady who was the former superintendent at Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve, and she volunteered to get initial proposals and do some of the ground work. The whole area was attractive because our members could visit parks they hadn’t been to before. The beaches aren’t far away, and St. Augustine is an attractive town to visit.”
Wade notes that the support of a CVB in developing the program can be instrumental in deciding a location. He explains: “Jacksonville has been really great to work with. They offered an extra amount of money if we met our room block, to offset F&B or meeting room costs. We’re also persuaded by room rates — a number of our attendees are temporary or seasonal rangers, so they are lesser paid than those who are at a higher level. Sometimes, they’ll make a decision to attend based on the room rate, without even thinking about the cost to get there — that’s the first thing that will make or break the number of attendees.”
The Southbank Hotel Jacksonville Riverwalk is a centrally located downtown hotel that draws inspiration from the St. Johns River, ports and area bridges, aiming to provide an authentic Northeast Florida experience. This year, the hotel, which offers 40,000 sf of meeting space, will transition to Marriott’s newest upscale brand, Delta Hotels by Marriott. The property is receiving upgrades during the rebranding. “The area on the south side of the river is the more historic district, with really nice restaurants within walking distance,” Wade says. “Often, we try to look for a property that has options nearby, so [attendees] don’t feel like they’re completely stuck at the hotel, especially if they don’t have their own transportation. The location offers a great opportunity for people to wander around and experience things.”
Warm Weather is Always a Draw
For the American Staffing Association’s ExecuVision 2021 gathering, Florida’s warm weather was a drawing card when the event was scheduled for January. The group successfully met last year, but this year’s meeting was postponed. “We pushed the event to June in hopes of a vaccine being available, to allow more people to attend,” says Lisa Simpson, CMP, the association’s vice president, events & supplier relations. Simpson adds that air access from most major cities and a selection of high-end properties on the beach were other factors in selecting Florida, eventually settling on Eden Roc Miami Beach. “The meeting is an invite-only event for C-Suite executives that focuses on strategies and best practices to help their staffing firm grow,” Simpson says. “It’s intended to be an intimate event allowing attendees to share ideas and strategize together, with high-level networking and featuring speakers who hold master classes for the participants.” Simpson continues: “When looking at options for this meeting, we like to consider high-end properties, and if they’re on the beach, that’s even better. Most of these executives are used to four- and five-star properties with top-notch amenities. A smaller hotel is always nice because it lends itself to even better networking opportunities in the restaurant/bar outlets as well as on the elevator or in the lobby. Other factors we consider are date availability, pricing and size of meeting space.”
Eden Roc includes the hotel-within-a-hotel Nobu at Eden Roc, the brand started by famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa and Robert De Niro. The Nobu wing occupies Eden Roc’s original tower, built in 1956 by famed architect Morris Lapidus. Nobu offers an adults-only pool that was added last year, but otherwise the facilities are mostly shared. The property has more than 70,000 sf of indoor and outdoor venues, with ballrooms ranging up to 7,850 sf. “During the rebook process, they were very understanding and easy to work with considering the COVID circumstances,” says Simpson, who adds that she is not considering a hybrid option if the pandemic is still an issue in the summertime. “The event relies on extensive networking and wouldn’t work well as a hybrid and/or virtual event. If the event cannot be held in-person, we’d rebook for 2022. But, we are looking at the hotel’s outdoor spaces as a backup for meal functions, if needed.”
With the pandemic not quite yet in the rear-view mirror for meeting planners, Williams suggests staying in constant communication with stakeholders. “We’re all in this together,” she adds. “Revisit your risk management plans regularly. Gain consensus on risk triggers and go/no-go parameters ahead of time so that you can respond to situations quickly. Be sure to utilize the industry resources made available by the Events Industry Council and/or by professional organizations like PCMA, MPI, IAEE and others.” | AC&F |