As a meeting destination, Florida avails an impressive variety of backdrops. From awesome to intimate, with locations ranging from sleepy to downright buzzy, there is truly something for almost every style of gathering. And when it’s time for a breather, meeting planners will find Florida replete with water sports options and theme parks, beach combing and wildlife viewing, and a climate that invites al fresco events year-round.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, Stacia Gueriguian, CMP, was hired on as the associate vice president, events for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). She was given a mandate — to “re-envision” its annual meeting for 2022, managing what would be the organization’s first standalone event. Previously, the meeting had been tied in with a separate trade show. NALP needed a sure-fire location, and negotiations started in 2020. “It was risky,” Gueriguian says. “This was our first-ever standalone event, and we booked it during COVID, sight unseen.”
Working without any hotel history for the organization, Gueriguian chose the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee. “I’ve never been very fond of Gaylords in the past, but in the end they provided everything we needed — a convention center within a high-end hotel. Now, I’m a fan — they made my life very easy.”
With 1,800 attending the recent event, NALP used the Gaylord Palms as the base hotel, with overflow going to Orlando World Center Marriott and Staybridge Suites Orlando Royale Parc Suites. Both are almost 2 miles away, so shuttle service was offered. Guests staying at Gaylord Palms enjoyed the fruits of a recently completed, $158 million resort expansion. The project added more than 100,000 sf of new meeting space, more than 300 new guest rooms and new outdoor meeting spaces, including a terrace venue and an event lawn. The resort’s water park was expanded with an “action river” attraction attendees can enjoy when taking a break or after meetings. In total, Gaylord Palms now has 1,718 guest rooms and more than 500,000 sf of meeting and event space.
“We sold every single booth,” adds Gueriguian, noting that when the RFP went out, there was an option for a two-year package combining with the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center for next year. “We had some naysayers on the board who were asking ‘Why we would want to do a two-year contract with Gaylord?’ But the Gaylord knocked them off their socks. You arrive on-site, hand it over and hope for the best when you have a lunch buffet for 1,200 and you’re worried about the flow of people getting through hot buffet lines. But I was amazed at how well they did — they blew us away.”
The community of Kissimmee is 19 miles southwest of the Orlando International Airport, and is defined by low-rise hotels and motels. But the event was marketed as being in Orlando, and included an evening buyout at Universal Orlando Resort’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. “Kissimmee’s CVB helped us solidify contracts,” Gueriguian says. “They were with us at every step.”
For its annual conference, the American Association of Dental Office Management also had to select its location sight unseen. “We had to make a quick decision about 2021 after our contracted hotel closed for a renovation,” says Kim McQueen, executive director. “We typically bounce back and forth between East and West coasts, and our members will try to coordinate this meeting with a family trip if the destination warrants it.”
The organization did a virtual site visit with Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando, and wound up selecting Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando and Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando for its event last fall. “Loews was very accommodating, and we did a three-year contract,” McQueen says. The only challenge: Anticipating the number of attendees while a pandemic was still festering in the background. “We didn’t know what to expect, but it ended up being our largest conference to date, with 960 attending. We sold out our room block at both properties, and Loews worked quickly to open up additional rooms at Universal’s Aventura Hotel,” she says, adding that some attendees were concerned that Aventura was an off-site hotel, creating a stigma, but attendees arrived to find the hotel had an entrance directly into the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando, about 200 feet away.
McQueen notes that the three hotels carried different price points, which provided options. Attendees staying at the more-expensive Royal Pacific received the Universal Express Unlimited package, allowing them to skip the regular lines at some Universal theme park attractions — attendees not bringing family tended to choose Sapphire Falls. But even after the virtual visit, McQueen’s eventual site inspection of the property happened while the hotels were still closed.
“When you’re looking at the diagram of meeting space, it doesn’t do it justice,” McQueen says. “You see different levels, but until you’re there, you don’t know how close some spaces are to one another. I would encourage anyone to get a site visit. The property is very versatile; there are so many things you can do with it. But, when we finally got on-site, seeing the walk from Sapphire Falls to Royal Pacific told me that we were going to need signage. Loews provided us branding options to direct people where the events were taking place. It’s still a long walk between hotels, but we told attendees to wear comfortable shoes.”
Over the last decade, Universal Orlando has expanded both its hotel footprint as well as facilities for the meeting sector, supplementing its two theme parks, water park and CityWalk shopping and entertainment complex with eight hotels offering more than 9,000 rooms. Meeting facilities are found at four of the resorts, while Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls are clustered around the meeting complex, with 247,000 sf of combined space.
McQueen says the overall service was amazing. “The staff was so accommodating, and our members had incredible compliments about the food,” she says. “The actual properties themselves are beautiful, and got very high marks in our post-convention surveys.”
McQueen also called out the property’s A/V team, Encore. “Use the on-site A/V team, nobody knows the property better. They worked with us on every aspect, and when we made changes, they were able to accommodate.”
Another Central Florida property that sees a lot of association meeting business is the Caribe Royale Orlando Resort, which came out of the pandemic with a $127 million renovation and expansion. The hotel now features 200,000 sf of meeting space, including three ballrooms ranging from 26,000 sf to 50,000 sf, and more than 30 breakout rooms on one level. All of the resort’s 1,215 one-bedroom suites and two-bedroom villas received a complete overhaul that was completed in late spring.
“We are the only all-suite convention hotel in Central Florida, and with all of our meeting space on one level, planners love our convenient layout,” says David Wahba, the resort’s director of sales & marketing. “We actively work with associations as an important part of our overall business mix, and understand the importance of this group segment to our hotel and owners and to Orlando in general.”
The Tampa/St. Petersburg area was perfect for the Council of Academic Deans from Research Education Institutions (CADREI), according to Erin Wilson, assistant to the past president, CADREI. The proximity of the international airport, the multitude of hotel options and the variety of things to do were contributing factors in choosing the destination for its recent event.
“The weather during October was ideal for our attendees to enjoy outdoor activities and check out local attractions,” Wilson says. “The area is also great for folks who may want to add on a few days to their conference stay to take a vacation with their partner and/or family.”
The council has members from across the United States, and rotates the location of its annual conferences between East and West coasts. For this year’s event, CADREI chose The Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach.
“It was a wonderful location for our conference,” Wilson says. “Given the size of our group — over 130 attendees — the facilities and the property were a perfect match for our needs. The conference rooms, common areas, dining rooms and reception locations were ideal, and the service and food at The Don CeSar really stood out. ”
Behind-the-scenes changes were another area where Wilson said the hotel stood out. “At one point, we realized, somewhat urgently, that we needed to reconfigure the tables and chairs in one of our larger sessions from classroom style to a large open U. The staff were easily able to work with us to rearrange the space for our attendees in a matter of minutes.” Wilson also notes that the on-site technology support through Encore was convenient, and last-minute changes were easy to manage.
Adam DePiro, vice president of convention sales for Visit Tampa Bay, says the culture and history of Tampa sets it apart from other Florida locations, and is an asset that is more important than ever. “Culture and history has played such a role in diversity, equity and inclusion, which are such an important focus for destination selection today,” DePiro says. “We’ve celebrated our culture and history for, literally, decades, back to the 1800s with the cigar-rolling industry and the immigrant population that came here. The different ethnic groups coming here wove diversity into the fabric of the community. In other cities you have a Chinatown or Little Havana, but we don’t have that, we’re very diversified. Because of that, ‘welcoming’ is not a reaction to current events — it’s something we’ve been doing for decades.”
DePiro continues: “What we promote is that, in Tampa Bay, you enjoy the best of Florida all in one destination — whether it’s sports with our Buccaneers and Lightning teams, or the arts and culture. For theme parks, we have Busch Gardens, and if you enjoy gambling there’s [Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa]. We have 19 restaurants represented in the brand new Michelin guide, outdoor recreation with water sports and golfing, and nightlife in Ybor City.”
No wonder Money Magazine just recognized Tampa as the No. 9 Best City to Live, calling it “a rare combination of action-packed and affordable.”
For a recent manager training meeting, the North East Florida Educational Consortium chose the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa for its group of 110 attendees. Located in Ponte Vedra Beach, 33 miles southeast of the Jacksonville International Airport and next door to the TPC Sawgrass golf club, the resort offers traditional hotel rooms and suites, plus family-friendly villas set against miles of pristine beachfront.
“The Sawgrass Marriott is one of very few options in North Florida that met our conference space needs as well as our budget limitations,” says Shay Starling, the organization’s associate executive director. “Public education receives a limited amount of money for professional development, and being able to have our conference at a facility as nice as Sawgrass Marriott at a respectable price is vital. The Sawgrass Marriott is a perfect location for our service area — far enough to require overnight stays for the vast majority of our customers, but not so far away that travel expenses limit the number that can participate.”
The Sawgrass Marriott will debut property upgrades to its meeting spaces and private beachfront club later this winter. The resort’s meeting spaces are undergoing a full refresh, bringing a new modern ambiance to the ballrooms, breakout rooms and pre-function areas, with design inspired by its Ponte Vedra beach location. Updates will include new furnishings, accents, paint, vinyl and carpet, with oceanic and earthy textures to surround attendees in an airy oasis throughout more than 90,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor event space.
The resort is also opening an all-new venue, the Cabana Beach Club, an upscale rooftop restaurant offering spectacular views of the Atlantic and featuring indoor/outdoor seating. “The conference space is excellent,” Starling says. “We are able to keep all of our concurrent sessions together in terms of distance. The A/V staff is very helpful and always respond immediately to special needs by our presenters and vendors. The catering is excellent as well. We have various size luncheons and a reception that our participants rave about each year.”
Starling continues: “The biggest hurdle has been securing the amount of conference space needed each year during the small window that educators have available to attend. We absolutely know that more lucrative contracts are available to Sawgrass, but our repeat business and long-term relationship is important to them. Loyalty goes both ways, and we appreciate that.”
This summer, the Southbank Hotel at Jacksonville Riverwalk played host to Alpha Delta Kappa’s Gulf Region Conference, the International Honorary Organization for Women Educators, which rotates annually between the seven states in the region. Now part of Marriott’s fast-growing Delta Hotels brand, the Southbank offers 39,425 sf of event space at a location that draws inspiration from the St. Johns River, ports and area bridges, providing an authentic Northeast Florida experience.
“It was Florida’s turn in the rotation,” says Lottie Roy, conference chair and president elect of Alpha Delta Kappa, Gulf Region. “Florida is a wonderful state to spend a summer vacation. Sun, sand and a beautiful, changing city on the St. John’s River was the right place to be.”
Roy notes that Jacksonville and the hotel offered ease of access to and from Jacksonville International Airport and major interstates, plenty of attractions and shopping, cost-effective accommodations, and great presentation room access for many workshops and presentations. “The Southbank’s newly renovated spaces with their modern decor lend class to all types of functions and events.”
Roy adds that the hotel’s convention manager, banquet manager and all department heads met with her before the 323-attendee conference to go over every detail, no matter how small. “They were available for changes, additions, and to put out fires at a moment’s notice,” Roy says. “I was given keys to each room for 24-hour access, an A/V tech was available for the entire conference, and we were given time before and after the conference for set-up and tear-down. The entire hotel, from the front desk receptionists to the housekeeping staff to the behind-the-scenes maintenance staff, provided the most professional assistance possible.”
Although the Southbank is centrally located, Roy says transportation to certain city attractions was a problem. “The free Beach Buggy service was only available Thursday through Sunday, but our convention was Sunday through Wednesday,” Roy says. “Many participants did not have transportation, so Uber and Lyft were used a lot.” But, Roy adds that St. John’s River Taxi & Tours was very helpful in meeting the needs of a large group for a river cruise. “We also had a dinner party for 15 at the Chart House Restaurant, which was within walking distance from the hotel.”
Roy says Visit Jacksonville was a great help in planning the event, transportation and offering possible grant opportunities. “Visit Jacksonville also provided a workshop on the city, as well as providing travel brochures, attraction discounts and the swag bags for our conference — a big savings for us,” Roy says.
A new $300 million concourse at Jacksonville International Airport is in the works, and is expected to be completed by mid-2025. Concourse B will add six new gates and two ground boarding positions for smaller planes, and will also include an overhaul of the security checkpoint area.
For its annual program, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) recently partnered with The Palm Beaches and The Boca Raton resort to host its annual SITE Classic, bringing members, buyers and suppliers to discover the hotel and Palm Beaches area. “Since the program is typically held in August or September, Florida provided an excellent warm-weather destination during this time,” says Jacqueline Acomb, director of events for SITE. “In addition, since the vast majority of the attendees were based in North America, having the host hotel located in South Florida within driving distance of three major airports was excellent in terms of ease of travel.”
Acomb says the program’s highlights included outstanding F&B offered by the hotel’s culinary team, as well as innovative A/V with long-time partner, Encore. “There are a variety of room types and buildings at The Boca Raton,” Acomb says. “Our group size, 280, allowed for us to use the host hotel meeting space for the most part, which was ideal for our budget, as we did not require transportation off property every day. The majority of the guest rooms are located very close to the meeting space, while others are a bit of a walk. But, isn’t it good get to some steps in when you are sitting in meetings for a couple of hours?”
The Mizner Center offers 80,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including the 26,037-sf Grand Ballroom, while the resort offers accommodations in five distinct ways. The Tower has 224 rooms and suites, all of which were fully renovated this year. The all-suite, adults-only Yacht Club offers personal butlers and concierge service overlooking Lake Boca Raton. The 294-room Cloister is the resort’s original hotel, originally opened as the Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn in 1926, and situated amid lush grounds and grand architecture. Bungalows include 58 two-bedroom suites, while the Beach Club offers 212 sun-filled accommodations close to the resort’s private beach.
Acomb says, “The hotel also provided numerous activities, which were all on-site at the property: cooking with Chef Andrew, various fitness classes — HIIT and Orangetheory workouts, pickleball and yoga — and of course, the spa, pool and Beach Club.” She adds, “We secured excellent partnerships with the golf course, transportation companies, area DMCs for activities, and we had the full support of The Palm Beaches as DMO. The Boca Raton’s service matches its reputation, and the renovation is truly breathtaking.”
The Florida Osteopathic Medical Association (FOMA) selected the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa for its recent Annual Convention early this year. In addition to having plenty of physicians in the Fort Lauderdale and Miami area attending, Michelle Winn Larson, CMP, CAE, FOMA’s associate executive director, says the destination offered plenty of activities for the physicians and their families. “It was a good fit for our attendees, and besides the beaches, there is shopping and great restaurants in close proximity,” says Larson, who explains that not all of the 250 attendees are physicians licensed in the state of Florida. “Some of our physicians live up North and enjoy traveling to Florida in the winter to vacation in the sunny weather and be able to earn continuing medical education credits. The beaches of Fort Lauderdale were certainly a beautiful, warm destination spot for our attendees in February.” She adds: “Many families took advantage of the location to spend their winter break and earn continuing education credits.”
During COVID, the organization transitioned to virtual continuing education and board meetings, but by this year, most physicians wanted to return to live meetings. “With this location, we were still able to offer excellent education, the ability to have exhibitors for our attendees to interact with, and we changed our banquet to an outside reception with a live band and several food stations,” Larson says. “The attendees and board were so impressed with the hotel and their services, they asked association staff to plan the same for 2023 and 2024. The outside meeting space and beach was beautiful, and our attendees enjoyed both our activities and those offered by the hotel.”
Larson continues: “The hotel helped us change our awards banquet to an outside party, with a live band and food stations. Everyone danced and had a great time celebrating all night.”
Also in South Florida, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood offers an appealing option for meetings and events. Home of the iconic Guitar Hotel, the 87-acre resort offers 1,271 rooms as well as boutique storefronts, a 42,000-sf Rock Spa & Salon, several dining options and more than 120,000 sf of flexible meeting space. The space includes a 38,000-sf, carpeted exhibition hall — perfect for hosting trade shows and large corporate events of up to 5,000 attendees.
Three years after the resort completed a long-awaited $1.5-billion expansion, the buzz around the resort just keeps getting louder. | AC&F |