Our southernmost states are around the northern beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. From Texas in the west to Florida on the Gulf’s east side, these states offer sun, sand, waves, cities, islands, picturesque towns and a collection of resorts that provide a balmy, idyllic setting for business and pleasure. Best of all, perhaps, many of them are drive-to destinations — no air or flight logistics required.
The Sunshine State’s Gulf coast cities and towns are a bit more casual than many of their Atlantic coast counterparts. They provide an excellent setting for groups wanting to conduct business with a splash of blue-green water, a swath of fine sand and plenty of dazzling sunshine to go around. One city to consider: Tampa.
“Tampa is a great meeting destination for our group due to a variety of factors,” says Kathleen Butcosk, vice president, corporate meetings and travel for Lumbermens Merchandising Corp.(LMC), which held its annual meeting last year at Tampa Marriott Water Street with 1,700 attendees. It was the fourth time LMC hosted a meeting there.
“The most important factor is a great convention center surrounded by many hotels within walking distance. The center and the Marriott sit right on the water, which gives the destination a very resort like feel. Tampa is an easy city to access with great airlift, and the airport is only 20 minutes from downtown. It is an affordable city with great restaurants and nightlife including historic Ybor City.”
“As airlift options continue to improve, it’s hard to find a reason to not select New Orleans when considering where to host a group.” Tammy Syock
Beyond the Tampa Convention Center and hotel, LMC hosted an event for 770 at Topgolf. “Topgolf provided an ideal venue with activity options, great food and an exceptional staff.”
The group used space at the hotel and the convention center. “LMC used the Tampa Convention Center for its trade show,” Butcosk notes. “The center is the perfect size for our exhibits (200,000 sf) and has enough meeting space to host our educational sessions and other meetings. It’s a wonderful facility with an experienced, professional staff. The building has a breathtaking location right on the water and its many windows provide natural lighting.”
Butcosk says the Tampa Marriott Water Street works well at every level. “It has great meeting space, a beautiful lobby and a wonderful outdoor terrace overlooking the water. The hotel’s rooms were recently renovated with soft colors, hardwood floors and beautiful new bathrooms. It has a terrific staff and takes very good care of the LMC group when we are in-house. It is truly one of LMC’s favorite hotels.”
In addition, she says, “The Marriott has a lovely outdoor pool and sundeck and is located right on Tampa Riverwalk.”
The hotel’s conference space accommodated LMC’s six small meetings, Butcosk says, “as well as a breakfast for 800 and another for 300. The food was excellent and the staff is very capable of handling large groups.”
Butcosk’s main advice for planners considering Tampa is, “Definitely work with Visit Tampa Bay, the city’s CVB. The staff is experienced and extremely knowledgeable about Tampa and everything it has to offer. They were a tremendous help to us during the planning process and helped make our job so much easier. They are a great group of professionals and a delight to work with.”
The recent $40 million renovation of the Tampa Marriott Water Street is not the only hotel news in the city. The Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel underwent a hotel-wide re-do of rooms, the pool area and lobby. In the Westshore District, there is a 175 room AC by Marriott, and in the Rocky Point area, Godfrey Hotel & Cabanas Tampa opened last year with 276 rooms and views of the bay as well as a waterfront deck and pier. The former InterContinental hotel is now the 325-room Westshore Grand, and the former Westin Harbour Island is now the completely reimagined Westin Tampa Waterside, thanks to a $20 million renovation. The Hilton Tampa Downtown created a cool new outdoor banquet space and redesigned the rooftop pool and outdoor bar.
Farther down the Gulf Coast, Sarasota announced that its meeting and group hotel inventory has increased by 1,200 guest rooms and additional meeting space. The 240 room Westin Sarasota, has 26,000 sf of meeting space and a new rooftop bar. Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection, which opened last year in the heart of downtown with 162 guest rooms and a 6,000-sf ballroom, is ideal for smaller groups. Embassy suites by Hilton Sarasota and Even Hotel, a wellness-fitness brand, also launched recently with 128 guest rooms and 2,566 sf of flexible meeting space.
Planners would be hard pressed to find a major meeting city or town along the Gulf that isn’t evolving. The Gulf Coast offers meeting planners distinctive new options, history, culture, beaches, creative chefs, casinos, panoramic waterfront views and a legendary level of hospitality.
It’s well known that New Orleans knows how to throw a party. But it knows how to throw a business meeting and conference, too. What it brings to the table in addition, perhaps more so than any other U.S. city, is a lively, engaging culture all its own. Last year New Orleans celebrated its 300th anniversary.
“New Orleans is an expert in hosting events from corporate board meetings to Super Bowl games and everything in between,” says Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the city’s CVB, New Orleans & Company. “The authentic culture, unique meeting venues and experienced hospitality industry make New Orleans an ideal destination for meetings and events of all sizes. New Orleans has topped every major publication’s list of must-visit destinations last year. From the historic French Quarter to the up-and-coming Bywater, the picturesque Garden District and the bustling Warehouse District, the city is filled with excitement and innovation.”
Tammy Syock, account executive with locally based MC&A Destination Management Company, agrees. “Our city offers a plethora of highlights that make it a ‘must meet’ destination. Quality restaurants, unique event venues, outstanding entertainment options and unmatched hospitality — the pros are endless,” she says. “As airlift options continue to improve, it’s hard to find a reason to not select New Orleans when considering where to host a group.”
New Orleans, she adds, “has incredible history, colorful people, unique architecture, superb food, incomparable music and a kaleidoscope of traditions. Opportunities are endless when sourcing unique and memorable touchpoints for attendees.”
Perhaps the city’s most well-known “touchpoint” is its Mardi Gras tradition, into which groups can tap.
“Whether it’s a custom mini-float parade, second line or an evening at Mardi Gras World, it’s an experience that embraces so many of our cultural nuances and always provides lasting impressions with attendees,” she says.
But that’s not the only one-of-kind option. There’s also the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “Recently when tasked with finding a venue that offered enough space to accommodate seating for a 1,600-person awards dinner as well as a custom stage with extensive lighting, video components and the ability to host a pyrotechnics finale,” Syock says, “We sourced the Superdome as our solution. Based on size and wow factor, it met all the criteria the client was looking for and then some.”
Team-building opportunities? Check. Syock points to voluntourism with ArcGNO.
“The Arc promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” she says. “While New Orleans and surrounding areas celebrate the carnival season each year for two weeks, Arc of Greater New Orleans is in Mardi Gras mode year-round. Arc receives donations of beads and throws from area residents, which are then sorted, packaged and sold to float riders in 30-pound crawfish sacks. The Mardi Gras Recycling Center makes for a fun and festive volunteer outing, especially for large groups. Mardi Gras music is always part of the setting as volunteers sort the beads.”
New Orleans is also notable for its definitive cuisine, and groups can get hands on with that, too. “Guests get a firsthand demonstration on what makes New Orleans cooking so unique and delicious,” Syock says. “During these courses, guests learn the basics of Louisiana cooking, focusing on traditional fare such as gumbo, jambalaya and pralines. The experience is full of trivia, history, delectable food and fun for all. The event also provides attendees with the knowledge and skills to recreate a bit of New Orleans when back home.”
Syock also points out that the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center accommodates groups of different sizes. “The convention center offers a variety of space options, making it ideal to produce custom themed events and experiences. The team at the convention center works with planners to make events flawless from set-up through event execution and tear-down.”
The city has a nonstop festive vibe and, Syock says, “Our culture is infectious. Boasting 300 years of diverse heritage provides attendees the opportunity to experience uncommon and authentic cultural thrills in every moment spent in New Orleans.”
That includes during business meetings and conventions. Of note to planners, the Hard Rock Hotel New Orleans will open later this year, and two restaurants of note are now open: Manolito, a Cuban bar and café in the French Quarter launched by two of the city’s top lead bartenders, and Bywater American Bistro, the newest eatery from Chef Nina Compton, located in the Bywater district. Also, the long-awaited new terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is slated to open later this year.
It doesn’t get any more “Gulf Coast” than Galveston, a barrier island 55 miles southeast of Houston. Approximately 200 square miles in size, Galveston has plenty to offer groups, from rich history and bird watching to a diverse collection of meeting facilities.
Mary Alice Kahanek, CMP, senior manager, events and trade shows, for Goodman Manufacturing, brought the company’s national sales meeting last year to The San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center with 575 in attendance.
The resort has completed a significant renovation, notably around and near the pool, which includes a new custom-built firepit area where groups can gather.
“The hotel and convention center were a perfect size for this group. The San Luis Resort is the largest on the island, which is what we needed. The cost was less than our last meeting. The convention center had a great exhibit floor size, so we could grow if we sold more sponsorships.”
The setting was also part of the draw. “The location on the beach is beautiful. The convention center is set up so you get plenty of natural light on breaks and while moving around the meeting. Attendees don’t feel like they are closed off from the world stuck in a meeting room. The group used only the meeting space provided by the resort and convention center.”
Kahanek calls the sales staff and the group’s CSM amazing. “They were on top of everything we needed and on call the entire time. The ease and flexibly of the banquet leaders and staff was refreshing,” she says.
While there were no real road blocks to the event’s success, Kahanek notes that the lighting at the Galveston Island Convention Center was an issue for her because the can lights in the ballroom don’t dim. Because of that, she suggests planners meet directly with the lighting person to assess specific needs.
In fact, she advises, “Have a few planning meetings and speak to each person responsible for each specific task. Our CSM was very accommodating and wanted to say yes to everything. But it’s best to double check directly with the people that know 100 percent what options you have. We used an outside A/V company that also made some assumptions. That’s our best takeaway.”
The group bought out the property, which Kahanek says was definitely a positive. “They were at our beck and call the entire time. We were their priority and it showed.”
Moody Gardens, another group-friendly Galveston resort, completed a $37 million renovation to its Aquarium Pyramid. New extended-stay luxury suites opened at The Tremont House last year following a $1.2 million renovation. The Tremont’s sister property, Hotel Galvez & Spa renovated its pool area.
Biloxi sits 90 miles northeast of New Orleans. The city of 45,000 offers casinos and golf in addition to miles of beaches. Two new hotels are opened last year and a new aquarium will open later this year or early next year. Among its attractions are Betsy Ann Riverboat Cruises and the $15 million, 30,000-sf Ocean Adventures Park & Center.
A project manager with an international beauty retailer brought a Loss Prevention Agent Conference to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi two years in a row, first time with 124 attendees and 153 at last year’s event.
“Biloxi is centrally located, which is great since we have people flying from all over the country. The cost to hold the conference in Biloxi was significantly lower than other cities across the country. It’s also extremely safe and only 20 minutes from the airport,” she adds.
Cost was also a factor in choosing the hotel. “The quality of lodging, and more importantly conference food costs, are why we originally chose Hard Rock Biloxi. Most conferences make the bulk of their money on F&B and Hard Rock catering prices were unbelievable. The catering is adjusted to accommodate any needs and dietary restrictions.”
The staff was also impressive. ”Lisa Bird, sales manager, was a phenomenal partner,” says the project manager. “She goes out of her way to assist on every aspect of the conference, not just the portions that are happening at the hotel. The banquet manager, was also amazing. He was deft in adapting to our last-minute needs and nuances with our group. The chef catered the menus to our specific needs and created a special dinner that took in local specialties but also flowed with the outdoor setting. He even created a specialty cocktail to go along with the theme of our conference.”
As for meeting space, she calls it a “wow.” “The Hard Rock conference space is the concert venue stage, complete with stage, giant screen, side monitors and concert-level audio. You feel like a rock star when presenting. The A/V staff is top-notch and makes the presentations larger than life.”
The hotel has two towers. “I put management in the newer tower and everyone else in the other tower,” she says. “This elevated the room experience for management and also separated groups so there was less chance of an embarrassing post-cocktails run-in with a boss … this is a casino after all.”
Of course, the fact that Biloxi is all about casinos is part of the draw. “They’re great for meetings because entertainment is built in, says the project manager. “But there are also those beautiful views right on the gulf coast.”
On the downside, she notes that smoke can be an issue, “You need to factor that in when booking at any casino. And it’s important to make sure that everyone attending is 21, otherwise they’ll need a chaperone.”
The group booked one leadership dinner for 35 at Patio 44 outside the resort with mixed results. “Food was great, portions were large and the menu offered fantastic variety,” she says. “And it was extremely well priced. The service, however, was horrible. But we’re having our leadership dinner there again this year because of the food, cost and proximity to Hard Rock, and because there’s new management and they assured us this time will be a different experience.”
While it’s possible to fly into Biloxi, the project manager says she used the New Orleans airport because she was flying people in from across the country and could get more direct flights. “I had groups fly into New Orleans, then provided transportation to Biloxi. This shaves a few hours off total travel time for many attendees and avoids layovers.”
In addition to considerations related to casinos, she has one more piece of advice for planners considering the Hard Rock. “Avoid Fridays for any extended meeting times as the concert venue takes over on weekends. The crowds start arriving in droves and it’s very hectic.”
In addition to the new hotels coming on line in Biloxi, MGM Resorts International last year completed a $10 million suite renovation at Beau Rivage, its AAA Four Diamond beachfront resort. The redesign of 95 suites was the final piece in a multiyear renovation.
Mobile is Alabama’s Gulf Coast city. It’s accessible from three major airports and two interstates. It has more than 1,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center, and its Southern charm, Mardi Gras history, deep-sea fishing and nature and outdoor activities make it a good bet for groups and planners.
One popular event sure to attract attendees is the ArtWalk, which offers the latest in local art, music, food and culture on second Fridays from 6 p.m. to 9 downtown.
Downtown also offers more than 50 restaurants featuring everything from Southern-style barbecue, seafood straight from the Gulf to local delicatessens.
It’s also home to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, where groups can book private events for up to 100 or more than 500. C&IT