For planners and attendees alike, Florida is a glittering jewel with delightful destinations and amazing amusements. With numerous options for activities from sunny beaches to natural wonders to tantalizing theme parks, it’s no wonder the ‘Sunshine State’ remains a top spot for hosting any type of event.
No discussion of Orlando is complete without mentioning the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). It offers more than 7 million sf of meeting and exhibition space, making it the second-largest convention center in the U.S. A $605 million expansion includes work on the Convention Way Grand Concourse and the Multipurpose Venue. When the work is complete, the South Building will have 675,141 sf of exhibit space and a grand total of 1.15 million sf of space. The Convention Way Grand Concourse expansion includes an additional 60,000 sf of meeting space and an 80,000-sf ballroom. The expansion, expected to wrap up in late 2023, will bring total exhibit space at the OCCC to 2.3 million sf.
“We wanted somewhere with great value, abundant meeting and evening event spaces, and warm enough for outside activities.” Angela C. York
While the OCCC has its appeal, for Angela C. York, senior manager of events and special projects for law firm Thompson Coburn LLP, the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate was the ideal venue.
“We wanted somewhere with great value, abundant meeting and evening event spaces, and warm enough for outside activities.” York says. She understood that in late fall, only a few places can fit the bill. She plans a retreat for partners every few years and chose Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate “because of the championship golf courses, layout and location of the meeting space, and their amazing spa.” For four days last fall, some 230 partners, chiefs and departmental directors descended on this Orlando resort for a series of programs, activities and events.
Rather than convening all the partners each morning, York offered them breakfast vouchers, coordinated by the hotel’s conference services manager. “They were able to have breakfast when and where they wanted, and it was billed back to our master bill. The best part was that they could either enjoy the full buffet at Trevi’s or simply grab and go from Morsel’s.” Lunches were catered and held at the spa, the golf course or in a hospitality suite.
“Each evening event was kept on property, which is not normally the case for this program — indeed, some of the partners initially expressed disappointment that they would stay on property each night. A lot of planning and details went into each dinner, York says, crediting once again the conference services manager with creating “three amazing, yet very different evening events. She made the planning unbelievably easy. She is extraordinarily creative and has a vision like no other.” By the end of the program, York says, she knew she had a success on her hands — everyone was pleased with the decision to hold evening activities on-site. “Some of the comments and feedback that we received: ‘the food on Saturday night was simply amazing,’ ‘The options at dinner last night were incredible,’ ‘The presentation at each food station was over the top’ and my favorite was ‘This was the best retreat ever!’”
The attendees were also thrilled with the planned activities: golf tournaments, a tennis match, spa treatments, reserved cabanas at the pool, helicopter tours and eco-fishing tours, all available at or departing directly from the resort. “There are so many incredibly different meeting and event spaces that over multiple days, many in our group didn’t even see half of the property. We were able to create three totally different evening events that were unbelievably memorable experiences for our attendees,” York says.
Since her visit, many changes are afoot. Planned for this year are: New carpeting, woodwork, furniture and artwork in the lobby, and meeting rooms, as well as decor, furniture and fixtures upgrades to all guest rooms. David’s Club, the sports bar and steakhouse, whose four signature steaks feature 30-day, wet-aged prime Angus beef, will get new wall coverings, carpets, refinished wood flooring, new leather seating, new tables, and new flat-screen TVs.
Attendees who stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort have access to the Disney World theme parks, two of which are within walking distance, as well as complimentary transportation throughout the Disney resort, extra hours at the theme parks, and priority golf reservations. At the same time, they need never encounter a single Disney character if that’s their preference. Planners can take advantage of the Disney meeting and event production team, and make use of meeting and convention theme park tickets. The beauty of the set-up is clear: it’s practically impossible to know when one has actually left the property at all. For example, attendees can head to the latest themed dining space at Epcot, Space 220, which when open will mimic the physical sensation of dining on the space station. While space food has come a long way from those early freeze-dried, Meals-Ready-to-Eat, the menu at this restaurant will veer more toward contemporary American.
Without ever leaving the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, groups have at their disposal more than 333,000 sf of meeting space as well as the Mandara Spa and 18 restaurants and lounges. Last year, the Swan debuted sandwiches-and-coffee venue, Java, and Chill, the alcoholic and nonalcoholic frozen drink counter. At the Dolphin, a new 1,600-sf meeting room called The Caribbean Room is geared toward breakouts and small meetings. Shula’s Steak House got a complete refresh of the space and menu: An expanded bar and lounge featuring a three-sided, wraparound bar, as well as new menu items, such as a 22-ounce dry aged, rib-eye steak. A new 14 story tower, The Cove at the Walt Disney World Swan Resort, should be ready next year. It will have more than 22,000 sf of meeting space, 349 guest rooms, a 16,800-sf elevated deck with pool, a 90-seat restaurant and a rooftop reception space with views of the nightly Walt Disney World fireworks.
Rosen Shingle Creek, a 255-acre Orlando resort, recently spruced up its rooms and 524,000 sf of meeting space to add more lively colors and patterns to the decor and carpeting. Event space includes three presidential suites and 30 hospitality suites. The resort property also puts at attendees’ disposal a 13,000-sf spa, an 18-hole golf course with three new holes and a few redesigned ones, along with a 2,000-sf golf pavilion offering lunch space for groups, four outdoor swimming pools, two lighted tennis courts, a basketball court, a sand volleyball court, a nature trail, a video arcade and charging stations for electric vehicles.
In an illustration of the many possibilities of the Rosen Shingle Creek resort, a year ago, some 5,000 people attended the Dentsply Sirona World convention, held over the course of three days. Continuing education seminars, the latest news in innovative dental supplies, more than 100 breakout sessions and a keynote address by author Doris Kearns Goodwin were on the docket, and many non-dentists were among the attendees treated to a private concert from Katy Perry and a comedy show from Jim Gaffigan. Activities included a Fun Run along the golf course, with attendees dressing in medieval costumes and then — running in those costumes. Later, perhaps these same costume-loving attendees donned lederhosen for an Oktoberfest hoedown complete with a Bavarian band. Free transportation was available daily to and from Universal Orlando Resort and to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica, had attendees chosen to use it.
Lyana Blokhina, CEO of event planning company LBright Events, knew she wanted to bring her group of 20 top executives from a Florida-based corporate technology company to Miami. The group planned to do product testing for two days — and to test out beach chairs. What she didn’t know was where exactly to bring them. “Miami is a great meetings destination, with great weather year-round and many options to choose from for hotels, restaurants and team-building activities. The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is always very helpful in assisting meeting planners with their sourcing,” she says. At their suggestion, she tried the Palms Hotel & Spa resort for the first time and says she was “very pleased with the result. They offered a very competitive rate, and the sales manager was very easy to communicate with.” The site inspection was the deal clincher for her.
“Most attendees flew in from the East Coast and truly appreciated warm weather,” Blokhina says. “Friendly staff at the hotel made a great first impression, followed by a delicious dinner served in the outdoor tiki hut.” Apart from The Tiki Bar, another place to eat on the property is Essensia Restaurant, which offers a seasonal three-course prix-fixe menu and prides itself on serving sustainably sourced and locally grown food: Line Caught Swordfish, Sustainable Caribbean Snapper and Foraged Mushroom Risotto, for example, are three menu offerings. “I would strongly recommend the property for a meeting or an incentive group,” Blokhina says. “The hotel has a lot of different options for various programs. It has a great location right on the beach, yet it’s easily accessible to shopping, the airport and activities available in Miami.”
The attendees particularly enjoyed the beach and the pool, as well as “great meeting space, light and comfortable rooms and great F&B,” she says. “All the food and beverage functions were held at the hotel, including reception and welcome dinner. It was very easy to plan and offered a variety of outlets.”
A Miami mainstay since its opening in 1926, The Miami Biltmore Hotel and Resort is an elegant venue that also happens to be designated a National Historic Landmark. The 271-room resort, which sits on more than 150 acres, includes 174 suites and features iconic, Mediterranean architecture.
It offers a restored Donald Ross 18-hole, par-71 championship golf course, tennis courts, a European Spa, modern fitness center, and claims to have the largest hotel pool on the U.S. East Coast.
The Miami Biltmore also boasts 75,000 sf of function space, which includes the crown jewel of the property’s event space, the Conference Center of the Americas (CCA). The CCA, which is in a separate building on the grounds, offers 40,000 sf of function space, eight main meeting rooms, six breakout rooms, a 6,200-sf ballroom with a 46-foot ceiling, two high-tech, tiered amphitheaters that seat groups of 60-90 and 90-130, and a private executive boardroom. The resort proudly proclaims that in 1994, Pres. Bill Clinton hosted 34 heads of state at the Summit of the Americas held at the CCA.
The property also offers:
Finally, it’s just minutes from downtown Coral Gables’ renowned restaurants, boutiques, businesses, and the famed Miracle Mile.
The local CVB was equally helpful for a planner who wanted to book during the annual South Beach Food & Wine Festival. “Since we hold our program in high season and typically during one of the city’s major events, we find that we need to book the hotel at least two to three years in advance to ensure we get a few properties to choose from,” says Sandra Edstrom, CMP, FLMI, client relations and events manager, corporate marketing for an Orlando-based company. She finds the services of the local CVB to be invaluable. Specifically, “Miami has so many options to hold meetings and events that the best way for me to narrow down my options is to call the AVP, convention sales to assist with the RFP process. I have been working with her for roughly eight years, and she understands my program and what types of properties work best for us. Partnering with the local CVB is a huge time saver for me.”
Every February, Edstrom plans a symposium, a client appreciation event with an educational component, for about 75 attendees from the Midwest, Northeast and Canada. “Miami is such an attractive destination for our clients, offering a welcome change from the cold and snowy weather they have experienced for months,” she says. For February, after consulting with the local CVB, she settled on Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort up-beach from the high season hubbub of Miami. “This boutique hotel is quintessential South Florida, with a tropical vibe that I am excited to have our clients experience,“ she says. “It checked all of the boxes for us: It’s an easy destination to get to, it’s located on the beach, offers meeting space that can accommodate a U-shape configuration for our sessions, and has several outdoor meal function space options to choose from.”
Located a mere 15-minute drive from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, the 349-room, 17-story Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort offers 30,000 sf of event space right on the beach. JWB Prime Steak and Seafood is the most upscale of the resort’s multiple Jimmy Buffett-inspired eateries, with a raw bar that offers items including a Seafood Tower of oysters, clams, red king crab, shrimp, ceviche and lobster, and a dinner menu that boasts a 32-ounce Tomahawk steak, and a catch of the day that has literally been speared by fishermen trained in that technique. The 5 o’clock Somewhere Bar & Grill not only offers attendees a fire pit and nightly sunset rituals, but it’s also doubles as a water taxi stop along the Intracoastal Waterway. Attendees can make their way to various spots along the beach to Fort Lauderdale if they have a mind to.
On-site activities include a FlowRider surfing simulator, paddle boarding and snorkeling. Edstrom plans to offer her group a two-hour catamaran tour arranged by the hotel DMC as well as a round of golf. Two nearby courses are The Club at Emerald Hills and the Hollywood Beach Golf Club.
About 20 minutes inland from Hollywood Beach is a spectacular resort, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Hollywood, one of Florida’s two Seminole Hard Rock hotels. Only months ago, the resort finished a $1.5 billion expansion that adds to the existing 465 room, 12-story Hard Rock Hotel. One of the most photographed elements of this new version of the resort is the 450-foot tall, 638-room, shaped-exactly-like-a-guitar hotel, complete with LED strings that light up at night. A daily sunset light show synchronizes with the beats of any selected music. Inside the musical marvel are the traditional Italian restaurant Cipresso, with a copious wine list where Italian grapes are the star, and the 24-hour eatery Rise Kitchen & Deli, which offers sandwiches, salads, burgers and a juice bar. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, attendees get a clear view of the adjacent and quite new 13.5-acre pool lagoon. Some of the suites in the seven-story, 168-room Oasis Tower offer swim-up rooms from and to this lagoon.
The lagoon brings the total number of on-site pools to six, with 18 acres of water property-wide, separated into three waterfront areas that mimic the natural world. Two white sand beaches, waterfalls, palm trees, a rock mountain, a 182-foot water slide, poolside cabanas equipped with TVs, refrigerators, phones and ceiling fans, and what the resort describes as a “water expanse, nearly as long as three football fields,” where attendees can canoe and paddle board, are just a few of the many sensational locations planners can choose from when imagining a reception or dining event.
The 44,000-sf DAER South Florida complex, consisting of DAER Nightclub, DAER Dayclub and rooftop bar, is also new. DAER Nightclub has more than 18,000 sf of indoor space that can transform into an indoor-outdoor venue, with views of the pool lagoon and a giant LED centerpiece; the Dayclub offers a dipping pool, daybeds, 13 private cabanas and DJ entertainment.
Even more that’s new: 120,000 sf of designated meeting space, including a carpeted exhibition hall, ballrooms and atriums, that can accommodate as many as 5,000 attendees. Of course, these are only the spaces specifically tagged for meetings. Pretty much the entire resort cries out to be the backdrop for some sort of gathering or event, including areas in the 42,000-sf Rock Spa and Salon and the new Hard Rock Live entertainment arena which holds 7,000 people.
Perhaps the most dazzling element of the reimagined space is the lobby, although ‘lobby’ is a decidedly a low-achieving word to describe the space. It is called The Oculus — a shock-and-awe show of dancing water and lights in a kind of holographic projection as ongoing event. It was designed with the potential to produce numerous types of projections, offering planners many possibilities for discussions about how to ‘wow’ attendees with branding. A lobby bar of the same name offers the possibility to add to the general disorientation with top-shelf beverages.
The Hard Rock Cafe Hollywood, also reimagined, now has an open kitchen and more seating. It’s the model for all future Hard Rock Cafes. Among the resort’s many dining offerings are Abiaka, an open-kitchen restaurant where the chefs grill seafood and meat over live orangewood and white oak charcoal fire grills and in coal ovens; Fresh Harvest, where the buffet includes every style of food, much of it cooked to order; and Council Oak Steaks & Seafood, yet another open kitchen with an on-site butcher shop, a dry-aging room with pink Himalayan salt walls and a 400-label wine room. If indeed there remain any edibles in South Florida that cannot be had on this property, that unlikely eventuality promises to be short-lived.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Tampa, the second of the state’s Seminole Hard Rock hotels, has also seen an expansion to the tune of $700 million. As in Hollywood, so too does this expansion include a new tower. The East Tower Rooms & Suites added more than 500 guest rooms to bring the resort total room capacity to about 800. Three new pools have been added, including an expanded pool and deck area for special events, and a 26,000-sf Rock Spa & Salon, sister to Hollywood’s and complete with its own hammam ritual room, is also new. The resort now also has a 200 seat Cipresso, where attendees can enjoy a menu that includes handmade pasta and pizza with the dough of one of the signature pizzas fermented for two days, fresh limoncello and craft cocktails. The restaurant also has a 16-seat private dining room for intimate group outings. Also of recent vintage is artisanal coffee and pastries outpost Constant Grind; the Pool Bar & Grill, where gelato is made on-site and some specialty drinks are served in a pouch, the better to enjoy poolside, and a new wine-tasting room and shop, The Cellar. The finishing touches have just been added to a new, 1,500-seat Hard Rock Event Center, complete with a 17,000-sf ballroom as part of a total of 30,000 sf of space, which still awaits the first planner’s review. Still awaiting updates are the Hard Rock Cafe, which will be remodeled in line with Hollywood’s, and the Rise Kitchen & Bakery, which will be redesigned and relocated on the resort.
Also on Florida’s Gulf Coast, sits Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa. The 287-room hotel offers 20,000 sf of flexible indoor function space, including the 4,000-sf Aqualea Ballroom, 6,500 sf of private, outdoor function space overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, and the 4,000-sf Sky Terrace on the roof with adjoining suites, and the pool deck terrace high on the eighth floor.
As for dining, the resort offers five options: SHOR American Seafood Grill, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; Swim Bar & Grill, for sandwiches and appetizers; Off SHOR; SHOR To Go and Market. There is also Sandava Spa, a Hyatt StayFit Gym open 24 hours and poolside cabanas.
Drive a few hours north along the Gulf Coast and discover the South Walton area consisting of 16 beach neighborhoods. Each offers sun-splashed venues — from little-known boutique hotels to big-name resorts — and small-town amenities to satisfy any taste. Some of the brand names include: Courtyard by Marriott Sandestin at Grand Boulevard, Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, Embassy Suites Destin-Miramar Beach and Hyatt Place Sandestin at Grand Boulevard.
Last fall, Mandie Adler, executive assistant of medical device company Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Medtronic, brought a group of 91 attendees at the senior director level and above, including vice presidents, to the Marriott Jacksonville. “The majority of the company leadership was in attendance,” she says. The occasion? A five-day strategy meeting for 2020. A local subsidiary of Medtronic holds small quarterly meetings at the hotel, but this was Adler’s foray, she says, noting that it was on the recommendation of other Medtronic teams that she chose the venue. The location was also a big selling point. The group “used restaurants for casual meals or get-togethers, and had catered team dinners. Any changes were made fast and efficiently,” she says, citing Marriott Jacksonville’s “excellent hospitality. Everyone was super accommodating. Planning was flawless and efficient; I would use this hotel every time and would change nothing. Our ops team goes quarterly and will continue to.”
Co-existing in and near Jacksonville are the hippest of microbreweries and fish shacks, each offering attendees a sense of the unique flavor of the area. Given that, attendees will be forgiven for wanting to go off property for experiential visits. The executives did in fact engage in a favored local pastime, the brewery tour. Visit Jacksonville’s Jax Ale Trail Brewery Passport gives attendees the option to hit up 19 local breweries and collect swag based on how often the passport is stamped. Elsewhere in town, attendees can scout out the signature food venues of Jacksonville, called ‘fish camps.’ These seafood shacks, some only reachable by boat, showcase the local day’s catch such as Mayport shrimp, crawfish and, for the more enterprising attendees, alligator sausage.
Adler’s group was there in time to see some of the fruits of the first part of the hotel’s multimillion-dollar renovation plans. All guest rooms were upgraded with a new palate and more comfortable bedding and linens. A Concierge Lounge was added serving complimentary food including an American breakfast, and late-night snacks, bar service and a general quiet space for working or one-on-ones. The lounge is reserved for attendees in Concierge-Level rooms. Next to be renovated will be, essentially, every other part of the hotel. The lobby lounge, bar and restaurant, together with the Lobby Bar and Bistro 202 will compose the new branded ‘Greatroom’ and will be redesigned and the menu refocused on Florida-sourced ingredients and should be unveiled shortly. Marriott is also upgrading the nearly 20,000 sf of meeting space with new furniture and updated technology — up to 750 attendees can fit into the largest of these spaces. The pool deck and fitness center will also get a more modern redesign.
All that and more means planners can never go wrong with Florida. C&IT