Here’s the good news: According to a tracking study of American travelers by Longwoods International, 87% of respondents now have travel plans in the next few months, the highest level since early March last year. And as business travelers begin to set their sights on destinations for both work and play, many will explore Orlando as the ideal spot to visit — and for good reason: Orlando is not only an affordable escape, but one that offers meeting options and attractions for everyone.
With 450 hotels, meeting and event planners have choices from multi-acre resorts to themed boutique hotels. And in light of the ongoing pandemic, Orlando’s trusted theme parks, attractions, hotels and businesses have developed comprehensive safety measures and worked closely with medical experts to create safe travel experiences.
Of course, keeping your eye on the latest hotel openings also is vital to find the ideal spot to host an upcoming meeting or event. For a taste of the Orlando cityscape, the newly opened AC Hotel Orlando Downtown boasts a sleek, European-inspired design and the SkyBar Rooftop Terrace with 360-degree city views. This summer will also see the opening of the Drury Plaza Hotel Orlando Lake Buena Vista at Disney Springs. The first phase of the 604-room project will include 264 guest rooms and a variety of on-site meeting venues that can be customized for small to mid-size events. This summer also will see Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort opening a new 14-story hotel tower, Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, with a new restaurant, health club and 90-foot pool.
Orlando is the epitome of a “work some/play some” destination and is a major draw for meeting planners from a variety of organizations. Michelle Issadore, M. Ed., executive vice president, association and training operations at TNG, recently helped orchestrate the conference for the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) at the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista – Disney Springs Area in Orlando. ATIXA is an association supporting campus and district Title IX coordinators, investigators and administrators, to advance gender equity in schools and colleges. The meeting, held annually in January, offers several highly engaging, and interactive, training and certification courses over a four- to five-day period that focus on regulatory compliance, best practice, case law, investigation, and prevention education and professional development from the top experts in the field. ATIXA has been coming to Hilton Lake Buena Vista since 2017, and each year they have had anywhere from 600 to 800 attendees from various institutions from around the country and abroad.
“We find the Hilton Lake Buena Vista is a terrific location, especially since it is in walking distance to Disney Springs, which is very attractive to our attendees,” Issadore says. “Disney Springs is a perfect respite for our attendees as it is easily accessible and offers a variety of price points for our clients to walk for lunch, dinner, or shopping and entertainment after a full day of training. We also find Orlando as a destination is affordable and easy to get to.”
The ATIXA conference is in the Annex building, which is closest to Disney Springs and makes it easy for conference attendees to walk over during their down time. “The hotel team is fantastic, and makes my organization’s job easier,” Issadore says. “Especially after 2020, the flexibility in making changes to our 2021 meeting and adjusting quickly to our needs is so appreciated. Many of our attendees have dietary restrictions, and the hotel has always been so helpful in creating separate areas on the buffet and labeling those items that are gluten free or vegetarian, etc., which is greatly helpful not only from an event planning point of view but our attendees noticeably appreciate it as well.”
Issadore stresses that Orlando is a great destination as it offers many attractions, opportunities and options for attendees. She also says that while many think Orlando is always hot, the weather can change rapidly, and to make sure to advise attendees of expected temperature changes. “Some days and nights can be chilly, and even in summer, the hotels, attractions and restaurants keep the air conditioning cold, so I always advise to pack layers. It makes everyone more comfortable and allows us to focus on learning together, rather than variable temperatures,” Issadore says.
ATIXA is still in the planning stages for its 2022 January meeting, and while they can’t predict the future, Issadore says she has found the team at Hilton great to work with on providing guidance for social distancing, how best to set up their meeting and cleanliness protocols, and says they have been flexible in attending to their needs. “I will say hotels in general are much more transparent about their cleanliness practices, which we appreciate,” she says.
Selina Mullenax, CMP, CPCE, account executive at CORT Events, agrees that Orlando is a diverse city and hosts everything from intimate, and destination weddings to annual meetings and citywide events. “Having been in the industry for a decade, I have helped orchestrate corporate anniversaries, pharmaceutical meetings and dine-arounds, and many themed opening-night or closing-night celebrations,” Mullenax says. “Orlando is best suited to service events because of the multitude of vendor partners available. It’s important to lean on your strategic event partners for support in any needs for your meetings. The industry is made up of millions of people, but it’s definitely a small circle as we work with each other on various events throughout the years.”
Meeting planner Heather Pilcher, CSEP, CMP, CEO & Executive Producer at Blue Spark Event Design, has turned to Rosen Shingle Creek as the host of an annual conference for more than 1,400 attendees. In addition to offering team-building activities, the conference included a welcome reception with a 007 Theme that included casino tables, a swing band and other entertainment. The on-site gala featured silver-and-black tones, and an off-site private event at Universal Orlando Resort included a buyout of the Simpsons, Men in Black, and Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley zones with dinner and dessert. A concert event on-site at Rosen Shingle Creek also featured name-act talent. “Orlando is an amazing location for meetings and events because it’s built for hospitality. Where else can you go and buy out an entire theme park on a regular basis?” Pilcher says. “The hotel service and quality vendors in this city produce meetings that really set the standard across the country.”
To meet the interests of today’s meeting and event attendees, Rosen Shingle Creek has recently introduced 37 Grand Suites, each of which boasts more than 1,300 sf of space. In addition, Rosen Shingle Creek features various column-free ballrooms of differing sizes to accommodate groups, as well as an open-air terrace that offers an outdoor event option. The company touts it Rosen’s Total Commitment, which includes the recent GBAC STAR Facility Accreditation. Attendees can be assured that the company has implemented the industry’s highest standards for cleaning and disinfection of infectious agents like COVID-19.
At Blue Spark, they travel with clients around the globe producing events. In certain areas of the United States, they really struggle with finding quality vendors and facilities that offer the same level of service that you can find in Orlando. “Plus, Orlando has the magic of Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld, which attract guests who wouldn’t normally travel for a conference,” Pilcher says. “That draw alone inspires guests to go from a ‘Maybe I’ll attend’ to a ‘Yes, I’ll attend, and I’m going to bring my family and stay for a vacation after the conference.’ Talk about a selling point for increasing your attendance.”
One thing Pilcher has learned as a meeting planner is to book well in advance when considering Orlando, due to its versatile location for all styles of events, not just association or corporate. Sports teams, school trips, and religious groups all head to Orlando for its many opportunities in the theme parks. So if you’re a larger conference, getting on the books early is important. “For planners looking at where to book in Orlando, they should first figure out how important the Disney brand is to their conference. Some of our clients love to be fully immersed in the Disney environment, but others prefer not to be,” Pilcher says. “Then you can start to narrow down the key areas of Orlando where you want your conference to live, and what experiences are important to them and their guests.”
For those looking to enjoy the Disney environment, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort is an option many meeting planners are exploring. In fact, David Sherrod, president and CEO of Southeast Produce Council Inc., held an annual trade show and conference at the Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in mid spring. “We are very excited to meet again in person, as well as meeting through our hybrid platform, the SEPC Virtual Garden. We are expecting around 1,200 in-person attendees,” Sherrod says. The meeting complex at the Swan and Dolphin Resort features more than 333,000 sf of meeting and event space, as well as more than 128,000 sf of outdoor space. The resort also boasts 110,000 sf of contiguous convention and event space, which is also divisible if needed.
The Southeast Product Council has been a partner with the Swan and Dolphin for almost five years. As Sherrod explains, the venue has so many amenities that appeal to their guests, and it is the perfect size for the SEPC show each year. “We feel an added piece of mind this year that we are coming back to one of the safest venues in the country due to their experience with handling the Major League Soccer players and staff during their tournament this past summer,” Sherrod says. “We believe that has convinced several of our guests to decide to come because they feel it to be a very safe venue.”
In fact, safety of attendees and guests is paramount at all Orlando resort venues, many of which have taken significant steps to initiate safety and cleanliness protocols that keep the health and well-being of staff, and guests, top of mind. The Hilton EventReady with CleanStay program ensures a safe experience for all guests. One favorite Hilton property in the Orlando area is the aforementioned Hilton Lake Buena Vista Orlando. Located in the Walt Disney World Resort, Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista features 78,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including three ballrooms with ample pre-function space, 38 breakout meeting rooms and exclusive access to Disney Theme Park venues. The resort’s outdoor function areas are ideal for private event attendees who want to experience the outdoor environs of the surrounding area.
Another gem within the Hilton family of Orlando hotels is the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, which is in the middle of Orlando’s theme-park experience. Nestled on the 482-acre Bonnet Creek nature preserve, the resort features more than 100,000 sf of flexible event space, and is ideal for everything from large conventions to small meetings. When it’s time to relax and unwind, meeting attendees can enjoy the resort’s 3-acre lazy river pool with water slide, championship golf course, lush tropical environs and a relaxing spa retreat.
Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate also offers a great option for golf aficionados in a group. Featuring more than 248,000 sf of meeting and event space, Omni Orlando Resort also boasts two championship, 18-hole golf courses designed by golfing legend Greg Norman, as well as a nine-hole, par-three course for those looking for a quick golfing experience between meetings. And for attendees who may want to spend time improving their golf game, Championsgate is home for the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, a golf clinic for individuals and groups. In addition, Omni Orlando Resorts also includes 15 sprawling acres of pools and recreation areas, an invigorating space and AAA Four Diamond accommodations.
And speaking of exquisite accommodations, Caribe Royale Orlando recently announced the resort will undergo a $125 million expansion that will include renovating all one-bedroom suites, the addition of a grand ballroom, and a beautifully redesigned lobby. Many meeting planners enjoy Caribe Royale Orlando due to it being an all-suite hotel, providing ample space for attendees to enjoy. Currently, the meeting spaces within the resort feature more than 220,000 sf of meeting and event space in the Grand Caribe Convention Center, and by the middle of this year, will include the new 50,000-sf ballroom, and meeting spaces on one contiguous level. In addition, Caribe Royale features a plethora of outdoor spaces, as well as private dining rooms that are ideal for small to mid-sized groups.
Of course, no meeting or event to Orlando would be complete without partaking in all of the theme park attractions and entertainment venues found throughout the region. And for meeting planners looking for a one-stop shop locale where attendees can participate in meetings and events, and engage in the theme parks for which Orlando is known, look no further than Universal Orlando Resort. The resort includes three amazing theme parks — Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay — the Universal CityWalk dining and entertainment complex, more than 9,000 guest rooms and 295,000 sf of meeting space. In addition, the various hotels found within Universal Orlando all feature separate meeting entrances, registration desks, business centers, ballrooms and private meeting planner offices, so you can get down to business when needed.
In addition, Universal Orlando works with meeting planners to design overall experiences that are truly memorable for attendees, including after-hours theme park events, team-building activities, group dining options, and even the private use of the CityWalk clubs and restaurants.
While travel destinations have experienced a hiatus of sorts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Orlando has a wealth of new activities which will thrill meetings and events attendees to the area. Opening this summer, Jurassic World VelociCoaster, at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, takes the claim of Florida’s fastest and tallest launch coaster. What’s more, Aquatica Orlando is scheduled to soon open Florida’s first dueling waterslide, Riptide Race. Guests will race side-by-side at top speeds, navigating tight loops and accelerations through nearly 650 feet of splashing slides. And the Flamingo Mingle at Discovery Cove is a new, exclusive animal experience where guests can feed and learn about flamingos in an outdoor setting.
And while many groups enjoy the myriad of offerings at the area’s theme parks, other groups may enjoy the new Museum of Illusions Orlando, a mind-bending “edutainment” experience offering 50 interactive, immersive and mentally deceptive exhibits based on math, science and psychology. Also opening this summer, ICON Park Slingshot is the world’s tallest slingshot ride at 300 feet. The two-tower attraction launches riders out of an “exploding volcano” 450 feet straight up, reaching 100 mph. | AC&F |