From east to west, north to south, America is blessed with white-sand beaches fronting its oceans, bays, gulfs and lakes. While typical vacationers see beaches as hotspots for play, planners know beaches as a powerful incentive for meeting-goers, able to drive attendance and boost the bottom line.
Beaches can be a stunning backdrop for unforgettable functions and provide a bucket-list locale for incentive programs. Fortunately for planners, whether the meeting is primarily fly-in or drive-in, there’s likely a beach that meets the need.
Florida’s panhandle sets itself apart from other areas of the state thanks to its distinct weather. It can be an excellent summer and early fall beach destination, while its winters are typically cooler than Florida’s more famous oceanside communities to the south. It’s an easy drive from much of the Southern United States, and it typically has an edge budget-wise. But when it comes to sweeping white beaches and inviting blue-green water, the panhandle stands strong against any other beach destination.
In late September, Paige Schloss, executive assistant at Huntsville, Alabama-based Yulista Holding, and a company group met at Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. “Our CEO loves the Sandestin area,” she says. “Hilton Sandestin is also an easy drive from Huntsville, so it was an ideal choice with its restaurant options, beach access and ample meeting space. When I contacted the hotel with our meeting needs, I was blown away by how accommodating the staff is. We received an awesome group rate, and I appreciated that everything was at one location. The resort had everything we needed.”
This meeting was the first travel for most of the group since the beginning of the pandemic. “It was important to have this event in person; we needed a place that took COVID-19 restrictions and the health of guests seriously,” Schloss says. “This resort absolutely did that. Hilton Sandestin wanted us to feel welcomed and safe.” Among the protocols: “Everyone in attendance was required to wear a face covering and follow all CDC guidelines.”
The “wow” for Schloss personally was the gorgeous location right on the water. But she says, “From a business perspective, the wow was the staff. Honestly, from the front desk to the IT department, and food and beverage staff, every single person was proactive and executed our requests with eagerness. In my field, it’s important to resolve matters before they’re brought to anyone’s attention so the executive team has a smooth meeting. The Hilton Sandestin staff helped make that possible.”
Schloss calls the meeting space “perfect” for her group, noting that it easily allowed for social distancing. “Additionally, the food and menu options were crowd favorites, and the level of service was remarkable. We had everything we needed all week. We received 100% from each person we encountered — and they had several large groups they were trying to host as well. I never felt like they weren’t giving us their all.”
With everything necessary on property, Schloss says, “I didn’t have to [nor did I want to] leave the hotel the entire week.” She compares this experience to a previous event. “Last year, we booked a place in another destination and the group decided on an impromptu team dinner. I tried to reach out to the property team and never received a response. This year, at Hilton Sandestin, six additional people showed up to our team dinner at the restaurant. The staff jumped into action to make it work. It was phenomenal.”
Hilton Sandestin offers an abundance of indoor, and outdoor, meeting and event spaces, from the 9,504-sf Emerald Ballroom, which can accommodate 1,200 attendees, to the 5,500-sf Sunset Deck overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Schloss says she has no hesitation recommending the resort to other planners, adding, “Don’t worry. You’ll be well taken care of. Let them know your needs and vision and you’ll be in great hands.”
For many, it’s Florida’s Gulf coast that proves most captivating. Naples is the quintessential example of why, and La Playa Beach & Golf Resort is one of its gems. In October, Western CPE, a privately held LLC, put on the Naples Continuing Education Conference at the resort, but the company has met at La Playa multiple years. “Naples has the beauty of the ocean with a quaint Old-World feel,” says Caitlin Allen, event planner with the company. “Our group ranges from singles and couples to families with children and grandchildren of all ages. Naples always has something for everyone in our group.”
She especially likes that there are so many opportunities to present different activities and functions. “You have the option of beachfront, bayfront, poolside; even private dining in the hotel’s restaurant. Typical activities for our group include sunset catamaran sailings, trolley tours of the city and airboat tours of the Everglades. Members of our group usually break off and arrange activities with each other and their families, including golfing, biking and water sports. I’ve always wanted to arrange a welcome gathering at the local botanical garden.”
Through the years, Allen says, “We’ve always received top-notch service. The staff is excellent and so attentive. The renovations done in recent years are absolutely beautiful, and the resort is always so clean. La Playa has some of my favorite meeting spaces of any venue we’ve been to, and I can’t say enough about the gorgeous view from the ballroom.” While she emphasizes that the meeting space and food service stations have always been clean, it’s been a bonus during the pandemic that meeting space can be easily opened up to allow for fresh air to flow through the rooms. “We used La Playa’s beautiful meeting space overlooking Vanderbilt Bay,” she adds. “Our sessions began at 7:30 a.m. each morning, so we were fortunate enough to experience the gorgeous sunrise.”
The staff, Allen says, is impressive. “They’re always so accommodating and willing to step up to help with whatever we need. F&B is always great quality, and the sales, catering and A/V teams are well-oiled machines. The hotel has done an excellent job of implementing social distancing policies and providing sanitizing stations at every entrance to the room.”
One challenge has been power availability. “In the electronics era, everyone has at least one device on them at all times,” Allen notes. “Power is a must. With social distancing and additional space between tables, the expense of running additional power is high.” The resort came up with a solution. “La Playa offered us a fantastic alternative by placing charging stations around the room so not only could people get up and stretch their legs, they could also charge their devices while they did it.”
Allen offers a few tips to groups looking at La Playa. “Take advantage of grab-and-go snack options and boxed meal options as much as possible. If you’re able to seat one delegate per table, do so. They’ll feel safe and spoiled rotten with all the extra elbow room. If you host your event in the Vanderbilt or Bayview ballrooms, dining on the terrace is a must — not only for the fresh-air opportunities, which make you feel safe, but also for the view.”
No matter what’s happening in the world, Allen is confident that La Playa Beach & Golf Resort will deliver. The aforementioned Vanderbilt Ballroom offers 5,000 sf of space, while the Bayfront Ballroom offers 3,000 sf of space. Each has a terrace that provides breathtaking views, also of the Gulf of Mexico. “La Playa has been fantastic in making sure we feel confident with not only the terms of our contract, but also in knowing that they’ll work with us no matter where we find ourselves when it comes time to host the event. This confidence in such an uncertain time really means a lot to our business. After working with La Playa for the past six years, I can’t say enough about how fantastic the property is as well as the staff. This resort is so relaxing and beautiful. You won’t regret bringing your group here, I promise,” Allen says.
Santa Monica offers an enviable stretch of beach that stars in movies and TV shows as regularly as it hosts corporate and incentive meetings. Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel sits in the center of it all. Debbie Babbush, senior marketing manager and senior conference coordinator with Lido Consulting Inc., has held an annual symposium at the hotel for five years and says she’s excited to be back this year. The company’s 2022 event is also scheduled there. The meeting typically draws 430 attendees. “The Loews is a beautiful hotel by the ocean and very convenient to get to from wherever you are in Los Angeles. The rooms are within everyone’s budget and who would say ‘No’ to a conference in the spring in Los Angeles? We host our evening cocktail receptions watching the sunset overlooking the ocean.”
She points to the convenience of excellent restaurants and great shopping within walking distance of the hotel as added benefits. Within the property, Babbush calls the hotel’s meeting space “perfect” for the three-day conference. The hotel offers 30,000 sf of indoor function space, as well as creative outdoor spaces that include a beautiful oceanview pool deck. “There’s plenty of space for our exhibit hall and room for networking, as well as a location for all of our breakout and live sessions. What’s so great about this venue is that you can’t get lost or lose any of your attendees as they walk from the main sessions to the breakout rooms. There are enough rooms for our national conference, and our attendees enjoy the view they have from almost any room.”
As always, staff makes the big difference. “The catering staff is very accommodating to our gluten-free and vegan attendees. They make sure everyone is happy with the food. I also enjoy all of our meals at the Loews — from the breakfast sandwiches to our themed lunches and the amazing passed appetizers,” Babbush says. “Every year when we return, I feel as if I’m coming home. The staff welcomes me with open arms, and even remembers the way I like my latte and cocktails. All employees are helpful and seem as if they’re happy working at the Loews. All always have a smile on their faces.”
Like other planners, Babbush notes that going forward, her meeting will likely include a virtual component to accommodate attendees not yet willing to travel or meet in groups. But she says the rest of the meeting will remain just as it always has. To those considering Santa Monica and the Loews, Babbush says, “Don’t consider it, just book it. The rooms are so comfortable and updated, you’ll be happy after a long day to go relax in your room.”
Coronado, a beach-lined peninsula jutting into San Diego Bay, has been a resort destination at least since the late 1800s when the grand Victorian Hotel del Coronado opened. Today, Coronado has multiple beachfront properties meeting planners might consider, including Loews Coronado Bay Resort. That’s where Lou Cirelli, founder and chief meeting scout with Meeting Scouts, a site-selection and planning-services company, has booked FixAuto’s annual meeting for 2021, to take place in September with 700 attendees. “What isn’t there to love about Coronado and San Diego?” Cirelli asks. “There are endless possibilities for meeting planners. The city seems like it was built for conventions — it’s beautiful, easy to get to, offers endless options for events, and the people who live and work there are something special.”
Cirelli calls the Loews Coronado itself a wow. “From the minute you arrive, and at each turn, you see one pleasant surprise after another. The views of San Diego, beautiful pool and beach event spaces and the amazing lobby and public spaces are unmatched. The grand staircase in the lobby is picture perfect. The hotel is renovated and maintained to perfection. The natural and gorgeous views from every angle are things you won’t forget.” Moreover, Cirelli adds, “The staff at the Loews is superb and the service they provide is impeccable. The food and beverage here is so creative and really beautiful. Everyone is professional, personable and easy to work with. Working with the convention team at the Loews made it so easy to help my group really experience the best of San Diego, and Coronado, life and culture.”
The resort offers 70,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, outstanding views of the Pacific Ocean, and, indoors and out, the resort meets any group’s needs. “The meeting space is really easy to navigate, and groups should definitely take advantage of the outdoor spaces,” Cirelli says. “This is also a great hotel for team-building events; the property pretty much has everything, and it’s nice to keep it all under one roof. With all the different options for events, you can create a totally different experience each night.”
Perhaps most importantly, considering today’s challenges, Cirelli says, “The Loews Coronado Bay has been an amazing partner through the entire COVID situation.” His best advice to planners: “Take full advantage of everything the hotel has to offer, including team building and unique event space, and rely on their team to guide you.”
Some of the most desired — and normally accessible — beach communities lie east of the continental United States in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the pandemic has resulted in travel restrictions to some islands, and even as restrictions are loosening, many companies remain reluctant to have employees or clients travel far, if at all, or have to fly to meetings.
But things are looking more positive. Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas reopened in December with solid health and safety measures in place, and it requires just a short flight from much of the U.S. East Coast. Staff is already seeing an uptick in meeting bookings. One of the earliest was a small corporate group that booked for mid-February at The Cove. The 600-suite Cove shares meeting space with the rest of Atlantis, but its own nearby Cove Beach is ideal for events of up to 150 people. The expansive resort offers more than 500,000 sf of event space, and can accommodate any size group or attendee needs. Activities encompass everything from boat tours and shopping, to an aquarium and excursions.
“Atlantis is working to set a standard in meeting safety with extensive health protocols in place, from innovative disinfection technology, and contactless and alternating check-ins for high-volume groups, to reimagining our spaces for social distancing — all while maintaining the integrity of service and high-quality guest experiences the resort is known for,” says Bryan Gay, senior vice president, group sales at Atlantis. “Authenticity and a sense of place continue to lead us, especially as folks have gotten used to being at home and traveling less, and we aim to deliver that through our authentic Bahamian hospitality and new local, bespoke experiences that are intimate and unique.”
The final word on beach meetings is this: Options for open-air facilities, moderate or warm winter weather and the chance to travel again and meet in person in some of the most desirable destinations in the world all put beach communities high on planners’ lists of where to meet. The possibilities these communities offer are almost as endless at the sweeping sunrise or sunset views that inherently elevate beachside meetings to something special. Trying to decide where to meet? A beach may be a planner’s best answer. C&IT