Dana Young, president & CEO of Visit Florida, says domestic visitation to the state is up 6% from 2019 levels. And, in spite of continued restrictions on international travel at the time, estimates are that 1.1 million international travelers visited Florida in Q2 of 2021 — an 854% increase over 2020. “Florida tourism’s skyrocketing growth in Q2 2021 is an incredible achievement for our state’s economic recovery and underscores the effectiveness of Visit Florida’s marketing,” Young says.
While those numbers aren’t specific to meetings and conventions, we had no trouble finding groups to verify that in-person meetings are back in the “Sunshine State” — at times in new ways.
Building on a PCMA meeting format from January 2021, ASAE held a virtual annual convention, but added pop-up, face-to-face meetings in 10 destinations to give attendees the option of in-person networking and learning. One of those pop ups took place in late summer at the Palm Beach County Convention Center (PBCCC), hosted by Discover The Palm Beaches (DTPB). “We partnered with ASAE to give members the ability to reconnect at an in-person event, and to show planners how they could successfully hold meetings in these unprecedented times,” says Jorge Pesquera, president & CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches. “We provided over 70 association professionals with education and inspiration from our local leaders, and challenged them to think differently when it comes to planning their own meetings. Finally, we took the opportunity to highlight The Palm Beaches, and attendees were able to see and hear firsthand the distinct features and offerings that set our destination apart. This includes our meetings-ready area hotels, culinary scene, attractions and more.”
Dan Melesurgo, alliance partner growth & strategy leader with ASAE, agrees that, overall, the concept was successful. “Since the 2021 meeting was going virtual, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity for members to engage F2F in various markets around the country. We also thought this would be a great way to engage our alliance partners by offering them the opportunity to host a pop-up event.” He does wish that they’d been able to engage more people via the pop-ups. Not surprisingly, some locations were more successful than others. “Washington, D.C. and Chicago were the best attended,” Melesurgo says, adding that both have large association communities, which drove attendance.
Certainly pop-up attendees were happy to be back in a creative, F2F environment. One aspect of that may be related to the fact that partners, including DTPB, offered additional destination activities that, Melesurgo says, “provided a robust networking and learning opportunity for attendees.”
Is this a blueprint for future meetings? Pesquera thinks it could be. “The ASAE pop-up event was a fabulous blueprint for The Palm Beaches and other organizations on how to execute a hybrid event successfully and collaborate with partners to provide a safe, experiential and memorable meeting,” Pesquera says. “ASAE members received inspiring and educational content while getting to enjoy Florida’s finest travel experience and our signature hospitality. We were able to bring our community partners together, like our local artists, coffee roasters and even fresh coconut vendors, to emphasize how collaboration and partner activation customizes events and benefits everyone.”
Pesquera thinks hybrid meetings are here for the foreseeable future. “We believe the hybrid meeting format is viable for months and even years to come,” he says. “It provides in-person attendees with a safe event experience and a feel for the destination, while still allowing organizations to reach a more expansive audience, and the opportunity to upgrade content with talent and speakers from anywhere in the world.”
Whether ASAE will retain this exact concept going forward remains uncertain. “We haven’t finished the evaluation process,” Melesurgo says, “but I do think our goal will be to drive F2F attendance in the future.”
In-person meetings are back in Miami, too. In early fall, an association group of 750 financial and insurance professionals met for an incentive program at Loews Miami Beach Hotel. Joe Fijol, DMCP, and principal, ETHOS Event Collective, says COVID-19 has created many changes in the meeting planning process — including where groups meet. “We’ve needed to rethink meetings from start to finish,” Fijol says. “[Such as] adjusting our planning and operating procedures for things like transportation, seating, off-site experiences, hotel check-ins, registration and dine-arounds. Today, we must carefully manage expectations, as details often change from planning to execution. In terms of destinations, COVID has changed how planners make selections. In fact, the meeting [at Loews Miami Beach Hotel] was moved from an international destination as they could no longer travel out of the country.”
Travel is still a powerful incentive. “The client polled attendees to gauge interest and concerns, and found most wanted to travel,” Fijol says. This meeting was fully in-person, and Fijol adds that he’s seeing interest in virtual meetings declining dramatically compared to even six months ago. “Most companies are looking for our assistance to meet responsibly in-person,” he says. He adds that the group chose Miami for its weather, cultural offerings and outdoor activities. “Miami,” he says, “is a top destination for meeting and event planners because it always offers something new and cutting edge. It has A-list appeal, an array of unique cultural experiences and an energy that creates excitement the minute attendees land.”
Also key was Miami’s flexibility, given that the client had trouble finding availability for a group of its size on short notice. “Miami and The Loews Miami Beach were able to make accommodations,” Fijol says. He also has high praise for the [Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau]. “The [GMCVB] offers a great way for planners to get a high-level view of any destination and determine the best fit for their group. For this program, they provided real-time information about local COVID-19 cases and changes to restrictions,” Fijol says. “As this meeting was moved to Miami from another destination, up-to-date information was critical for the three months leading up to the event. Additionally, Miami’s weather and large number of open-air venues, restaurants and experiences make it easier for groups to socially distance. Moreover, Miami has the appeal of an international destination with its unique range of cultural experiences.”
Fijol calls Miami “a market that’s constantly changing” and says the CVB is “a great partner and resource for information, as well as a leader in promoting Miami both domestically and abroad to drive group business.”
The Loews was also a valuable partner in the meeting’s success. “The Loews Miami Beach was able to provide the space and amenities needed on very short notice,” Fijol says. “It’s in the heart of South Beach, attendees were in safe walking distance to most experiences and had premier access to the beach.” Additional standouts at the property for this group, Fijol says, include “ample outdoor space, beach services and the overall range of amenities that offered activities for smaller groups. For other groups, the unique opportunity to do an event on the beach is a popular reason for selecting this property. This group had never been to Miami,” he adds. “Following their experience, they expressed an interested in returning. Our team has been doing events in Miami for over a decade, and has worked with the Loews Miami Beach to plan and execute meetings and events for five years. It’s a special destination and hotel.”
For those planning a meeting in these challenging times, Fijol advises: “Allow for more time in the planning process to build in contingencies that support operations when changes occur. There are so many new questions that need to be asked to ensure program success and attendee safety,” he says. “Lean on local experts to help identify potential issues and leverage past experience. In some ways, it’s a whole new world, so local experience navigating these recent challenges is important to mitigate risk. For Miami, consider a meeting or event in the summer or early fall, as price and availability are better than in winter and spring months.”
Orlando is one of the country’s premier meeting destinations, and the choice for the late spring 2021 Christian Music Broadcasters Momentum conference more than 700 attendees. The event was based at the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Like other planners, Michelle Younkman, executive director, Christian Music Broadcasters, has made adjustments during COVID. “In addition to our annual Momentum event, we offer smaller events throughout the year. We’ve moved four of those to virtual,” she says. “We’re planning three more in-person meetings in 2021. Attendance is significantly impacted by COVID, but we’re not offering a virtual component with these upcoming events because we’ve found that our attendees have Zoom fatigue. In-person events are necessary for mentoring and hands-on opportunities. Our attendees are ready to get back to being around their industry peers. Bringing our community together is essential to creating the inspiration, direction and purpose that our industry is craving right now.”
Orlando is a good fit. “Everyone wants to go to Orlando. Throw in the theme parks and it’s almost heaven,” Younkman says. “When we did a cost analysis, overall, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort was the best fit financially for our attendees as well. Most of our attendees come from the nonprofit world, so to attend an event at such a luxurious resort is a huge benefit to them. A significant number of attendees bring their families so they can enjoy the resort post conference. The convenience of the theme parks is a big win.”
But Loews offers something even more significant. “Everyone involved on the conference side — from sales to the conference manager, to catering — is exceptional to work with. They all go above and beyond for our group. We’ve had many challenges throughout the years [hurricanes and COVID], and we’ve weathered them together. Their partnership means so much to us that we’re not willing to move locations. They play a vital role in the success of our Momentum event,” she adds.
Additionally, Younkman notes, “I love that the hotel is adjacent to the convention space. That makes it very appealing. The pricing is respectable, and the brand is a trusted name.” But it’s the Loews Sapphire Falls team that really stands out. “[The] complex managing director welcomed us with open arms. [And] our convention manager went above and beyond for our group. She had just returned from being furloughed and was amazing to work with. We can’t say enough great things about [our convention manager]. [Also], our sales rep is definitely the best in the business and always made us feel like we were his top priority. The team at Loews Sapphire Falls is like family to us.”
The group previously met at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, also in the Universal Orlando Resort complex. “We love the space at Loews Royal Pacific,” Younkman says, “but Loews Sapphire Falls has a more fresh and warm appeal to it.” Her tip for those considering Loews Sapphire: “Know that this hotel is very flexible. They will make sure your attendees understand that their safety is the top priority. One tip is to use their beautiful outdoor space. It’s very unique.”
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort is another superb Orlando meeting property with easy access to theme parks. In early summer, the Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF) ran its hybrid PowderMet2021/AMPM2021 meeting with a total of 530 attendees. However, Diane Haggerty, CMP, director, events, exhibits & advertising, says 850 to 900 is typical. Like other planners, Haggerty emphasizes the necessity for back-up plans — “and back-up plans to those back-up plans. With COVID causing such a fluid environment, we need to adjust how we execute meetings and the protocols we put in place. We need to share and relay that information to attendees, so they know what to expect on-site,” she says. “Our attendees want to get back out, travel again and meet in person. However, their corporate policies may restrict them from doing so. We started to see travel restrictions being relaxed, but with the surge of the Delta variant in many areas, these restrictions [were] being instituted again.”
For the recent event, Haggerty says, “We felt it was important to offer the in-person experience for those who were comfortable and willing to travel, but we also needed to provide for those who were not able to attend, whether because of international restrictions or company restrictions,” she says. “The next meeting coming up this year will be fully in-person, and we’re expecting around 100 people.”
Orlando, Haggerty notes, works well for this group. “It’s a great location and easy for our attendees to travel to. It’s also great because many of our attendees bring their families along and make a vacation before or after the conference,” she says, adding that the resort is also a good fit. “We selected The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin because of its outstanding convention services and reputation for hosting meetings. The service we receive at the property is exceptional,” Haggerty says. “The staff is accommodating, supportive, personable and on top of all the details. Our conference fits perfectly within the meeting space at the Dolphin; we can keep our meeting self-contained with sleeping rooms and meeting space in the same building. We can work with the staff to customize menus and talk through room set-ups. You can tell they’re listening and absorbing all the details of our meeting as they don’t miss a beat. The location is fantastic, being right on Disney property.”
Haggerty calls the resort’s convention services manager exceptional. “I can’t put into words how wonderful it is to work with him. No matter what I threw [his] way, he was able to help come up with a great solution and I always felt he had our best interest in mind. He has a calming demeanor that makes me feel confident in his abilities and puts my mind at ease. He’s so detailed oriented — he remembers everything,” she says, “Not one detail goes undone, and he executes his job flawlessly. I wish there was [one like him] at every property I work with, as it would certainly reduce my stress levels.”
Haggerty also lauds the F&B. “We held a dinner at the property where we worked with our catering manager to create a food-truck environment. The hotel was able to showcase its house-made barbecue sauces and all of the food was phenomenal,” she says.
Haggerty has extensive experience with the resort, both with a previous organization and with MPIF. “We’ll absolutely return,” she says. “We like to keep Orlando, and the Swan and Dolphin, on our rotation every few years. I never had any concerns about the hotel. They have their protocols in place and they walked us through everything. They had groups in-house early in the pandemic, which gave them the advantage to see how the new normal works best and ways that protocols can be improved. The property is clean, and I would see hotel staff throughout the day cleaning, disinfecting and upholding those protocols.”
To planners, Haggerty says, “Make sure you’re communicating, communicating, communicating with your members. Let them know what the hotel is doing, what you’re doing, what’s mandatory to attend your event and what may be optional. The more comfortable they are in attending, the more they’re willing to travel and participate. Let the hotel know what your expectations are, and you know what their expectations are, so there will be no surprises. Be clear on your room-set requirements — how much space you want between chairs, tables, etc. — to ensure your room sets fit in the meeting space you’ve reserved.”
Not to be overlooked, the Fort Myers and Sanibel area on the Gulf Coast side of the state offers its own attractive options for meetings and conventions. Just south of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, there are pristine, white-sand beaches and plenty of the outdoor and water activities for attendees.
Some of the larger resort hotels include Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina, which offers more than 37,000 sf of meetings and events space, including the Lido Grand Ballroom, at 2,110 sf, and the Captiva Ballroom, at 3,000 sf.
Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa offers more than 82,500 sf of indoor and outdoor event space. Its Calusa Ballroom offers more than 14,000 sf of meeting space, and can accommodate more than 1,400 attendees in a theater setting. The expansive outdoor terrace can fit 660 attendees for formal dinner or 1,000 for a reception.
Meanwhile, across the southern part of the state to the east, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood beckons. The recently refurbished resort offers 120,000 sf of meeting space, including a 38,000-sf, carpeted exhibition hall that can be tailored to host trade shows, association conventions, large corporate groups and social fundraisers. Its iconic Guitar Hotel features 638 upscale guest rooms, 168 luxury guest rooms and unique swim-up suites in the adjacent Oasis Tower.
Its many amenities include a 42,000-sf spa, with a range of wellness and health-focused offerings, such as a 3,200-sf fitness center and a 3,600-sf salon; a 26,000-sf promenade of boutique storefronts; 13.5 acres of recreational waterscape and the Sound of Your Stay program, an exclusive audio experience that puts guests up close and personal with their favorite music.
The Florida Keys present another alluring destination for planners and groups. The Florida Fire Sprinkler Association (FFSA) planned its annual in-person conference for mid-fall 2021 at Hawks Cay Resort. Just prior to the meeting, Lorrell Bush, executive director, says her group has not changed much in terms of planning other than offering masks and sanitizer. “There’s been very little reluctance to travel, everyone is looking forward to it. I’m in constant contact with the staff at Hawks Cay discussing ways to keep people safe.”
The association’s fully in-person meeting has garnered the largest registration of any in years. “Our group has been doing a conference for more than 20 years at Hawks Cay every other year,” Bush says. “We choose this hotel because of location and because it has a resort feel and is close enough to Miami and Key West for air travelers. We’ve had great success with negotiating room rates. Ease of access,” she adds, “is not how I would describe Hawks Cay, but the location is worth the drive. It’s a beautiful resort with some great restaurants close by.”
The group uses both ballrooms. “Overseas Ballroom is great, with high ceilings and great sound in the room. It’s the main facility we use all week,” Bush says. “We use the Dolphin for dinners. [And the] food is always delicious. In the past, I worked with the same staff for years. This year, it’s all new, and it was an adjustment for me. So far, though, they’ve been fantastic”
Bush says her experience with staff and F&B over the years “cannot be compared to any other conference we do. They’ve been exceptionally accommodating, and their desire is for the customer to have a great experience. In October, [they] once again [went] over and above to make sure my group is happy.”
The location, she says, sells itself. | AC&F |