Florida: Planners Keep This Destination High On Their ListsMay 21, 2020

May 21, 2020

Florida: Planners Keep This Destination High On Their Lists

Universal Orlando Resort’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort features Waturi Beach  and other activities for attendees, and their families, to enjoy. Florida offers hundreds of various venues delivering something for any taste.

Universal Orlando Resort’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort features Waturi Beach and other activities for attendees, and their families, to enjoy. Florida offers hundreds of various venues delivering something for any taste.

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 budgetary consideration. 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.

For Barbara Connett, education and event manager for the Industrial Fabrics Association International’s Marine Fabricators Association, Florida offers warmth — and value. “Our conference attendees are primarily small shops with less than five employees,” Connett explains. “When they come to the conference, it is also generally their yearly vacation, so they are particular about where the event is placed. It needs to be warm, near the ocean and affordable. When asked about preferred locations for future years, Florida is always high on their list, even in years when we are already in Florida.”

Daytona Beach is Dynamite
For the group’s January meeting, the association chose Daytona Beach, with cost being a big factor in the decision. “Daytona Beach provided great value,” Connett says. “The room rates and catering prices were very affordable. Catering alone was about 20% less than our conference last year in Long Beach.”

Connett required a place with ample meeting facilities, so she chose The Plaza Resort & Spa, which offers 40,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space. The hotel represents the city’s second-largest meeting option for groups, and includes the 12,922-sf Plaza Réal Ballroom. “When we were doing site inspections for this event, the hotel was in the midst of hurricane repairs,” Connett says. “We were looking at some venues in Clearwater-St. Petersburg at the same time, but The Plaza was looking for business and offered great pricing. It was also an opportunity to contribute to the area’s hurricane recovery and the board was unanimous with the decision.”

While Connett notes that The Plaza is an older hotel, and ballroom temperature and lighting was inconsistent during her events, she says there were no challenges working with the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau(DBACVB). “Lynn Miles from the CVB is the shining star,” Connett says. “She reached out to me many times during the planning process and during the event helped me come up with ideas for local presenters, and helped me make those connections. She was the best city rep I have ever had.”

Dr. Micheala E. Edwards, vice president and convention coordinator for the American Black Chiropractic Association, also lauded Miles. “In planning our convention, I worked hand-in-hand with Lynn Miles at the DBACVB,” Edwards says. “She was such a breath of fresh air to work with, spending valuable time on the phone going over plans, and she also organized my planning visit with an itinerary that allowed me to see everything I needed to see in order to make vital decisions. I highly recommend seeking out the services of her team and office. They are great.”

For the chiropractors’ gathering last summer, the Hyatt Place Daytona Beach – Oceanfront was used as a base hotel, with Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach serving as an overflow property. “Hyatt Place offered our group a great rate, breathtaking views of the ocean, and good food options for our registrants,” Edwards says. “It also sits in a good, central location on the main strip. We received positive feedback from all who lodged there. Among the favorite things reported, most spoke of the awesome breakfast buffet.”

Edwards says the group “thoroughly enjoyed” an evening at the Daytona Beach location of Stonewood Grill & Tavern. “We had our Doctor’s Roundtable here, and they offered us a private room that accommodated our group with a private entrance,” Edwards explains. “Some ordered full meals while others enjoyed the various appetizers we pre-selected. The cocktails were fantastic and the environment was very inviting, with a wait staff that was attentive and fast. A visit to Daytona Beach is always a fun time.”

Cool in the Keys
Stretching toward the Caribbean from the south end of Miami, the Florida Keys aren’t known for big conventions, but various islands avail a series of small and medium-sized resorts that can be perfect for an intimate, incentive-based meeting. Lyn Peterson, managing director of the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts, has used various locations in Florida for the annual strategic planning conference for many of its 27 years. “We had our first conference in Key West, in the early 1990s,” Peterson says. “But when cruise ships came in and everything went upscale, we couldn’t afford it anymore. But, then, I heard from Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo that they were doing a huge renovation after Hurricane Irma.”

Peterson says the School Transportation Association found Baker’s Cay’s location and hotel so appealing, that they went ahead last year and set their gathering there even though the resort wasn’t fully functional yet. They liked it so much that they already have a contract set to return next year. “The Florida Keys are a beautiful tropical paradise, but right here in the U.S.,” Peterson says.

Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, is at the south end of Key Largo, a 65-mile drive from Miami International Airport. Most of the resort has guestrooms with views extending over the mangrove canopy to the sea, and has 12 different meeting spaces ranging up to the 3,705-sf ballroom. “All the attendees really love it,” Peterson says. “We have families, older ones, singles. Baker’s Cay seems to take care of everyone. There are activities right from the beach; kayaks, paddleboards, jet sk. Some in our group did paragliding off a boat. It’s hard to find a good beach in the Keys, but Baker’s Cay has a beautiful beach. It’s quiet, it has the mangroves for shade and a lot of chaise lounges.”

Peterson continues, “We have a welcome reception and dinner buffet on Friday, and they really came through and did an awesome job. It was on the top level, a beautiful spot where you can see the sunset over the water, but secluded enough in a separate area. They really nailed it. Everything was, ‘Sure, that’s fine. No problem.’ I always ask the hotel if we could have the rate three days before or after, and we have some who take advantage of it.”

Moving southwest through the Keys, Cheeca Lodge & Spa in Islamorada amps up the amenities and exclusivity. Cheeca was the location for the National Electrical Contractors Association’s annual finance and fishing conference last May. Douglas Lung, executive director of the organization’s Santa Clara Valley Chapter, says the Florida Keys are the perfect spot for his group for a variety of reasons. “First and foremost, there’s the quality and abundance of our favorite things,” he suggests. “You have the wonderful ability to stay in one spot, or enjoy 160 miles of scenic roads and 280 miles of coastline. There are first-class resorts — particularly Cheeca Lodge — the best fishing anywhere, fantastic food and drink, live music everywhere and great people — both locals and vacationers.”

Lung continues, “I was introduced to Cheeca Lodge 20 years ago when I attended a conference and stayed for a fishing tournament. It was love at first sight. I booked a conference there the very next summer, and we have been returning on a consistent basis ever since. They really do have everything you could ask for, along with quality and attention to details, so it’s a no-brainer.”

Cheeca Lodge is midway between Miami and Key West, giving groups the option of flying in to either airport, about 80 miles away. The lodge has 214 rooms, and 6,300 sf of indoor and outdoor event space includes the 2,065-sf Bougainvillea Ballroom and 1,870-sf Sunrise Ballroom. Facilities include a Jack Nicklaus-designed, nine-hole, par-3 golf course, full-service spa and three first-class restaurants. “I have a very discerning group,” Lung adds. “They are wealthy and well-traveled, and Cheeca is always one of my best-attended conferences. One of the things we enjoy is the ability to keep our meetings and dinners very relaxed and casual. It truly gets you away from the ‘same-old-meeting-space’ feel.”

Lung does offer a few planning suggestions to ensure a good incentive program. “Use main building rooms for any of your guests that don’t get around well, or else some walking or golf carting will be involved. If you have people who enjoy suites, the two-bedroom units are beautiful, with full kitchens and a full bathroom in each bedroom.” He continues,“I think the biggest thing with the Florida Keys is always weather and travel. There is only one road in and one road out, so don’t cut your time window too close just in case there is a traffic problem. Pay close attention to the annual weather patterns when booking. Also, if your people want to fish, I would look at the annual fishing calendar as well.”

Twenty-one miles further south along the Overseas Highway lies Hawks Cay Resort, on Duck Key just east of Marathon. Although the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association rotates its summer board meetings throughout the state, Ashley Dover Gholston, the association’s director of Industry Relations & Events, says the group so loved Hawks Cay five years ago that they booked it again last year. “With our summer board meeting held in June, we find our members enjoy making a family vacation out of it, and there is no better place than Hawks Cay Resort,” Gholston says.

Hawks Cay is one of the largest properties in the Keys. The resort also offers more than 20,000 sf of waterfront meeting space, more than any other Keys option, including two ballrooms ranging from 5,544 sf to 5,733 sf, and each providing various breakout options. “Hawks Cay’s meeting space and restaurants were perfect for our size group,” Gholston says. “Sheldon Suga, our regional managing director and Cheryl Matyi, senior conference manager, helped us as we hosted committee meetings during the day, and our final board meeting was set in one of the ballrooms. They were able to accommodate small groups, such as our Executive Committee Luncheon and a VIP dinner of 15 in the Angler & Ale Restaurant at the Marina, and the private spaces allowed for more variety than a traditional meeting room and offered great views. We had an outdoor reception with the dolphins out by the pool on the Lagoon Deck, we hosted our annual Captain’s Dinner with our anglers out on the Sunrise Lawn, and our Gala was held in the Dolphin Ballroom.”

Gholston adds, “The F&B team at the hotel was attentive and professional. Whether it was adding more seating or adjusting to a dietary restriction, they were very accommodating. We used the onsite PSAV group for all of our A/V needs, and I find the team organized and great to work with whenever we are in the Keys.” She says Hawks Cay is a very large property, which should be accounted for when booking larger groups. “Their team is great at organizing shuttle carts to assist in transporting guests to their condos but, for rooming assignments, we found putting our guests all on one side and at the main lodging area was more convenient for members to walk and access the meetings,” Gholston says. “Hawks Cay does rent golf carts and this is something we did for our staff to assist in transporting our VIPs and board members.”

Attendees of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s annual summer board meeting enjoy themselves at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys. Ashley Dover Gholston, director of Industry Relations & Events, says,  “There is no better place than Hawks Cay Resort.”

Attendees of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association’s annual summer board meeting enjoy themselves at Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys. Ashley Dover Gholston, director of Industry Relations & Events, says, “There is no better place than Hawks Cay Resort.”

Enjoyable Jacksonville
As with the restaurant and lodging association, the Florida Ports Council rotates its annual board meeting around the state. “I put three cities on the block each year — one in the north, one in the south, and one on the west coast,” explains Christy Gandy, director of administration for the council. “We have 14 ports as members, so we try to give each one their fair share. I put my RFP out, then do a site inspection. We hadn’t been to Jacksonville for 10 years, but I found the city had so much to offer. Ten years ago, you didn’t want to go out and walk around downtown. Today, it’s a lot more user-friendly; more walkable. There’s been a lot of updating downtown and along the Riverwalk to make it more accessible.”

For the meeting last fall, Gandy used the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, the city’s largest hotel both in terms of number of guestrooms and amount of meeting space — 77,564 sf, including the 27,985-sf Grand Ballroom. The hotel, built in 2001, was renovated two years ago. Gandy says primary considerations for choosing the Hyatt Regency were the downtown location and an attractive room rate. “They have a great amount of function space,” Gandy says. “We didn’t feel crowded, or like we were on top of any groups. We didn’t use the ballrooms, but there’s a lot of breakout space.” She says Melanie Green, the hotel’s event coordinator, was particularly helpful. “One of our meeting rooms was a bit too large and, in a snap, she quickly and easily changed it for us with no extra charge.”

Gandy lauded the hotel for one bit of special attention. “I have a gluten-free member, and the hotel went over and beyond specifically for that person,” she says. “The chef actually came out and brought the meal to them. They were overjoyed.” Gandy says she found Visit Jacksonville very accomodating, and she recommends checking out offsite venues during a site visit. “There are a lot of other venues to choose from,” Gandy explains. “We did our sponsored event at Cowford Chophouse, just two blocks from the Hyatt Regency. They hosted our Board of Directors, sponsors and officials in one of their private rooms. The crab soup is absolutely to die for. The presentation is awesome.”

Magnificent Miami
For the annual meeting of the Society for Academic Continuing Medical Education (SACME), Miami was chosen largely because of its airport. Colleen Miglio, CMP, meeting manager with association management company Bostrom Corporation, says airlift accessibility is very important to her attendees. “The Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay is only a 15-minute ride from the airport, making it very easy to access,” Miglio says. “This hotel has beautiful views of the bay, and convenient access to South Beach for those who wish to enjoy the beaches and its vibrant dining and nightlife. We received a great rate for our group during peak season. Many who attend these meetings bring their families, and extend their stay to enjoy the beautiful location and weather.”

The hotel has 20,846 sf of meeting space, including the 9,237-sf Grand Ballroom, and many of the rooms offer views of Biscayne Bay. Miglio says that, although the hotel’s meeting spaces are spread onto two floors, the layout allowed for all of her events to be handled on one level. She also notes how busy Miami can be in winter. “My event took place just two weeks after the Super Bowl, which I know made it even busier,” Miglio says. “It was challenging, at times, to get in touch with my partners in Miami for planning; however, they responded as quickly as possible and made sure that we had everything we needed for a successful event. Joe McCray, Brandi Scott and Barry Moskowitz with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau are a knowledgeable, hospitable and fun group to work with. My hotel sales contacts — Bertha Galindo-Crucet and Carolina Moreno-Araujo — and Carrie Leahy, my convention services manager, and the PSAV team, were true partners in ensuring a successful event.” Miglio adds, “The banquet food was outstanding, and the hotel staff were all very flexible to accommodate last-minute program changes and set-up requests. The hotel is also connected to the Grand Retail Plaza, which offers convenient quick-meal options, retail shops, and a convenience store. The Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay provides a wonderful home base for attendees to explore the various downtown neighborhoods or South Beach when not in session.”

Another fine Florida option is the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Hollywood. The resort wrapped up a $1.5 billion expansion last fall, making it home to three hotel towers, including the world’s first guitar-shaped hotel tower, which has 638 luxury guestrooms and an adjacent 168-room tower overlooking a new pool lagoon. The property also has an expanded gaming floor with nearly 200 table games and more than 3,000 slot machines, a new Rock Spa, 13.5 acres of recreational waterscape, an entertainment venue and retail shops. The Hard Rock Hollywood also offers 120,000 sf of meeting space, including a 38,000-sf Exhibition Hall. The resort’s flexible meeting space can be reconfigured to accommodate groups as large as 5,000 attendees or smaller, more intimate meetings. | AC&F |


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