When people think of Orlando, they envision Mickey Mouse, theme parks and family fun, but there’s more to the area than just these popular attractions, which is why it’s a favorite spot for meeting planners when arranging conventions, conferences or association meetings.
The city is home to the NBA’s Orlando Magic, there’s a great night life, and beyond the attractions, meeting attendees can enjoy Orlando’s growing culinary scene with new celebrity chef-driven restaurants, including Four Flamingos: A Richard Blais Florida Kitchen from the Top Chef All-Stars winner; or a fast-casual dining experience at Gordon Ramsay’s Fish & Chips.
Not that the theme parks should be dismissed for meeting attendees, as plenty of adults enjoy these attractions. And some might want to bring their family along for the event, taking advantage of off times or spending extra time in Orlando before or after the meeting. With both Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort theme parks located within the greater Orlando area, there is a lot to do either as a planned group event or at the attendees’ leisure.
Those attendees with young families can spend the day at the world’s first Peppa Pig Theme Park Florida; Star Wars fans can immerse themselves into Disney World’s new Star Wars-themed hotel, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser; thrill-seekers can enjoy the exhilarating new Ice Breaker roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando or the Reef Plunge water slide at Aquatica Orlando, as well as plenty of additional experiences throughout the destination’s theme parks and attractions. “Orlando is constantly evolving and has a plethora of new experiences to offer,” says Casandra Matej, president & CEO of Visit Orlando. “Beyond our convention area, Orlando is home to a diverse group of districts and neighborhoods, ranging from downtown Orlando to Winter Park, to Winter Garden, each with distinct offerings for entertainment, nightlife, outdoor activities and chef-driven dining options.”
While it’s always been easy to get to Orlando, the city is doing more to improve its travel infrastructure. “The largest construction project in airport history is underway at Orlando International Airport — The South Terminal Complex,” Matej says. “Phase one of the $3.82 billion, multiyear project is expected to be completed later this year. The new terminal will feature 15 gates, a state-of-the-art radio frequency baggage system, shopping, dining and lounge facilities, as well as the Intermodal Terminal Facility (ITF), which is designed to accommodate up to three train systems, including the Brightline train with service to and from Miami.”
Orlando is the most-visited destination in the country, and has been consistently ranked as the nation’s No. 1 meeting destination by Cvent. “Orlando’s convention district is an ideal hub for meetings, with a wide variety of budget to luxury hotels, offering 7,600 rooms within 1 mile of the Orange County Convention Center [OCCC],” Matej says. “After wrapping their day, attendees can enjoy access to more than 75 restaurants and over 100 entertainment experiences within a 2-mile radius of the OCCC.”
The Orlando destination has nearly 130,000 rooms across more than 480 hotels and resorts of every size and budget, which includes more than 150 convention hotels that host a variety of events. Orlando offers true convention hotels that can host exhibits, large general sessions and breakouts, along with having guest rooms — all under one roof. If you do need a convention center, the OCCC is state of the art and within walking distance of thousands of hotel rooms. “Additionally, Orlando has 5.8 million sf of total meeting space beyond what is offered at the award-winning Orange County Convention Center, which has 2.1 million sf of exhibition space,” Matej says.
New hotels include the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, with 50,000 sf of meeting space; The Swan Reserve, which has nearly 16,000 sf of meeting space and is part of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts; Tru by Hilton Orlando Convention Center Area, which is adjacent to the West Concourse of the OCCC; AC Hotel Orlando Downtown and the Lake Nona Wave Hotel, with 12,000 sf of meeting space. But it’s not just the hotels that are great for hosting meetings. In downtown Orlando, Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts opened early this year. The new hall is available for groups and can accommodate 850 for a reception, 600 for a banquet and 1,700 theater-style.
In addition, the Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando are a great option for groups as the hotels have outstanding on-property meeting and event venues, as well as easy and complimentary access via shuttle or bus to the Universal parks and Universal CityWalk, giving a lot of flexibility for groups during free-time or in the evenings. “Our meeting clients love to be outside for social events, and ideally in an area close to the meeting space,” says Barb Bowden, area managing director for Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando. “We offer plenty of options, all with a distinct and unique sense of place that attendees enjoy. We remain focused on making our meeting attendees feel safe and comfortable.”
Plus, meeting planners rave about its banquet staff being open and flexible with their menus, which always helps when planning dining choices. For instance, the executive chef at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando will allow for customizable menus and create new experiences for guests. Plus, the 115,000 sf of meeting space is expansive, yet consolidated so attendees can easily move from one meeting to another with ease. Loews also partners with approved local partners to offer a vast array of branding opportunities to create an immersive experience for groups within the meeting space.
Caribe Royale Orlando’s Grand Caribe Convention Center boasts 220,000 sf of meeting space indoors, and plenty of options outdoors, which is of great interest to planners. In fact, the resort recently completed a $125 million transformation to make things more inviting for meeting attendees. Some of its nontraditional outdoor event spaces are the 6,900-sf Boca Pier/Pavilion, cabana-studded pool decks surrounded by lush tropical landscaping and the AAA Four Diamond Venetian Chop House, featuring a fireside terrace for intimate al fresco business gatherings. “Outdoor events both accommodate a larger group of people while also easily providing a comfortable and safe distance between attendees,” says Gladi Colón, complex director of event management & catering for Caribe Royale Orlando. “Outdoor events also lend themselves to more casual interactions and, depending on local and state guidelines, can have a longer timeline than indoor events.”
There’s a reason Disney World is one of the most sought-after destinations on the planet. When business is over, attendees will find practically every kind of entertainment and recreation they could want. The resort is always growing and changing as well, which means there’s always something new for attendees to discover. Amy Pfeiffer, director of convention sales & services at Disney Destinations, notes now more than ever, attendees are looking to engage in meaningful connections. “They want content and experiences which are both impactful and inspiring, and Walt Disney World Resort is perfect for delivering a memorable experience,” she says. “Disney also stands alone in its ability to deliver for planners and attendees. It starts with the draw of the destination and its proven ability to drive convention attendance. Add to that our award-winning convention facilities, world-class culinary experts, unforgettable entertainment and one-of-a-kind content from Disney Institute and National Geographic. It all leaves a lasting impression on attendees.”
World-renowned Disney theme parks offer dozens of elaborately themed locations, and the parks can accommodate meetings and groups of all sizes. “Many venues are outdoors too, which is a top priority for planners right now,” Pfeiffer says. “With built-in décor, these one-of-a-kind locations can also be surprisingly affordable. And nothing ‘wows’ attendees like having exclusive access to a world-famous Disney attraction or theme park during a private event.”
At EPCOT, attendees can enjoy the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure attraction and Harmonious, the largest nighttime spectacular ever created for a Disney park. At Magic Kingdom, attendees can enjoy the new Disney Enchantment, which lights up the nighttime sky over Cinderella Castle. These and other shows are perfect backdrops for private receptions, dessert parties and networking events.
Disney Meetings & Events also offers planners a single-source for support services. “This means we can source talent, production facilities, supplies and other resources more efficiently than other providers,” Pfeiffer says.
Also, the Walt Disney World Resort 50th Anniversary celebration kicked off last fall, offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Bleisure has always been a big reason planners bring their events to Walt Disney World Resort,” Pfeiffer says. “Quite simply, there’s something here for everyone, and attendees relish the chance to add pre- and post-visits to their meetings. It’s another reason why we have an incredible track record helping associations drive record-breaking attendance for their events.”
Finally, at nearby Disney Springs, the new “Drawn to Life” presented by Cirque du Soleil & Disney, which premiered late last year, combines Disney animation and awe-inspiring performances, and is available for group buyouts.
Over a 28-year-career, Geoff Cassidy, senior vice president of exhibitions and meetings at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), has planned a number of conventions, meetings and events for the association. The NAHB has partnered with the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show on a co-location show a number of times in Orlando, including earlier this year. Between the two shows, there was 750,000 sf of exhibition space with a combined 70,000 registrants. “That was down relative to past years due to COVID-19, as we had risen to a level of 1 million sf for exhibit space and 90,000 registrants,” Cassidy says. “By all measures, this show has been considered to be a success, and Orlando played a significant role.”
Not only is the OCCC beautiful aesthetically, but its proximity to quality hotels and top restaurants is also attractive, he says. “[Visit Orlando] brings a community approach to the support of trade shows that are hosted by the Orange County Convention Center, and the visitors bureau is incredibly supportive and has helped me plan these big events year after year,” Cassidy says. “In my mind, the convention’s team is second to none. They help you with transportation challenges to get people to and from, and do whatever we need to make things run smoothly.”
Being that the show is normally held in January or February every year, the weather of Orlando is a big reason why attendance is so large. “It’s definitely a lot nicer than where most of the people are coming from,” Cassidy says. “Anything that enables us to get outside is always a positive. Golf is a major activity for our members, and there are so many options nearby.” Cassidy adds that, from an attendee perspective, Orlando brings a one-stop shop for a large array of interests, while being very convenient. “As a planner, you get to work with the best of the best in venue and vendor partners, so it’s where you want to be,” he says.
Kim Becker, CMP, DES, SEPC, MBA, owner of Louisville, Kentucky-based Emerald Meeting & Event Planning, has planned meetings at the Rosen Centre hotel, formerly the Omni Rosen, the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress and Disney’s Contemporary Resort during her two decades in the business. “Orlando rivals Vegas in terms of conference registration outpacing previous registration numbers, and it also is an excellent destination for increasing pre- and post-conference hotel room numbers,” she says. “There is a plethora of hotels to suit any budget and size, and a plethora of special event venues and options to create a really exciting attendee experience. Orlando also has good air service from almost anywhere in the country and internationally.”
The city is a favorite for her as it offers great airlift, large high-quality hotels, good weather and a variety of activities when meetings aren’t in session. “The ability to bring large groups to a destination with direct flights from many U.S. destinations starts meetings off on a positive note,” she says. “Having a large convention center with enough rooms within walking distance to accommodate extremely large groups is a great value. The cost of doing business in Orlando is lower than most Florida destinations, and the service in this destination is outstanding.”
While historically, her attendees enjoy visiting Disney World and SeaWorld when their families are involved, for those traveling without children, she notes Orlando offers great shopping, plenty of golf courses and a lot of outside activities in general, including swimming, tennis and biking, and is just a short drive to Cape Canaveral/Atlantic Ocean beaches, Tampa/St. Petersburg/Gulf of Mexico beaches and other Central Florida locations.
Becker recently planned a sales incentive trip for approximately 300 people at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress. “In this case, it was nice to be off the beaten hotel path a little bit, because Disney did not play into the mix for this group,” she says. “The company was located in Michigan, so they were all about taking advantage of the sunny Orlando weather. We had golfing, tennis and pool time, and we did a special concert at the House of Blues, which really captured the energy of the group. They danced almost all night long.”
Annette M. Suriani, CMP, CFMP, DES, business events strategist with Fairfax, Virginia-based AMS Meetings Solutions, has been planning meetings in Orlando since 1985, and has enjoyed seeing the city evolve and cater to the industry in a greater way over the last 37 years. “Orlando is a fabulous place to host business meetings when you want to really promote the family environment and encourage participants to bring their families and enjoy some time together,” she says. “Orlando offers a myriad of hotel types that fit everyone’s budget. More importantly, it is a great location if you’ve started outgrowing hotels but are too small for a convention center.”
Orlando has served as a leader in the recovery of the meetings and events industry, and has built a solid reputation as a healthy meetings destination. “Since July 2020, our destination has hosted nearly 200 live events, and another 100 city-wide conventions are on the books at the Orange County Convention Center for 2022,” Matej says. “We continue to work with our groups to respond to individual planner needs.”
The OCCC was among the first in the nation to achieve GBAC Star reaccreditation — the gold standard for cleaning and disease prevention. “Visit Orlando also pioneered a medical concierge program for groups — the first of its kind in the country — through a partnership with our convention center and Orlando Health, which provides planners with tools such as customized medical plans and access to an on-site medical expert during their event,” Matej says. “Orlando is home to some of the most-trusted brands in the world that have comprehensive safety measures in place to create safe travel experiences.”
With all it has to offer, it’s no wonder people of all ages are ready to pack their bags when Orlando meeting opportunities pop up. | AC&F |