There’s no question how important meetings, incentives and conventions are to the state of Florida, and visitation statistics back that up.
“The MICE market is extremely important to Florida’s economy, as these visitors on average spent 80% more per person, per day than leisure travelers in 2021,” says Dana Young, VISIT FLORIDA president and CEO. “The state’s wide array of accommodations, combined with the countless leisure activities make Florida the ideal destination to host trade shows, conventions and other business meetings.”
Add to that what’s coming down the pike: “With more than 275,000 sf of meeting space at 14 hotels in the pipeline as of October 2022, we offer even more options for the MICE market and more opportunities to generate revenue for our state,” Young says.
Florida’s cities and destinations are diverse, but there’s a commonality: Groups love to meet in Florida in the winter to get away from snow and cold, and in the summer when accommodations and flights are often less expensive.
If more proof is needed of Florida’s many attributes, MICHELIN recently launched its first ever MICHELIN Guide Miami, Orlando and Tampa, giving planners a multicity resource for locating each of the cities’ MICHELIN-starred dining options — four one-star restaurants in Orlando, 10 in Miami and one two-star restaurant in Miami, plus three MICHELIN Bib Gourmet recognitions in Tampa, along with a slew of MICHELIN recommendations.
Whatever planners may be looking for, Florida probably has it.
Smart City Expo USA held its annual conference and expo in Miami Beach in early fall with 1,500 in attendance. The Kimpton Hotel Palomar South Beach, Kimpton Surfcomber Hotel and The Palms Hotel & Spa met the group’s accommodation needs, while meetings were at the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC). “We basically bought out the Kimpton Palomar for one group and hosted others at the Palms and Kimpton Surfcomber,” says Aarti Tandon, CEO, Smart City Expo USA. “Each spoke to a different demographic and had a different vibe. They were all in close proximity to the venue and gave us great rates.”
About the city, Tandon says, “Miami Beach is an ideal location for us because we have an international audience and it’s easy to access, the convention center is state of the art, there are great bars and restaurants, and from a subject-matter perspective, Miami is focused on becoming a smart, equitable and sustainable 21st-century city.”
The Smart City Expo USA group met fully in person. “We wanted to be in person and chose a spacious venue and a location that had great weather so people could meet outside,” she says. “Registrations are certainly up; I think people are looking for quality over quantity.”
Tandon calls the Greater Miami Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (GMCVB) “the best,” adding, “They’re so committed to highlighting all that Miami can offer and are excited to share resources and ideas. One such example was sharing a hotel booking platform called On Peak, which gave our attendees flexibility in finding the type of hotel and location they most preferred.”
The MBCC also gets high praise. “From the CEO to the sales and event managers, the convention-center team is fabulous. They’re honest, genuinely interested in executing a great event and are all-around good people.” Tandon notes that the building is new, offers a lot of light and great spaces and is ideally located. “The staff,” she says, “genuinely cares and the F&B was great.”
To planners considering Miami, Tandon says, “Definitely book the convention center if your audience size permits, and certainly connect with the GMCVB. Both are very vested in bringing diverse voices and events to Miami Beach.”
There is a lot that’s new in Miami for planners to consider. CitizenM Miami Brickell opened in 2022, the Mayfair House Hotel & Garden in Coconut Grove reopened, while citizenM Miami World Center is set to open soon. Collaborators on the art deco-esque goodtime hotel include music great Pharrell Williams. It offers plenty of “calming spaces,” as well as eclectic experiences. Also newly opened is KAYAK Miami Beach, with its tech focus, innovation and guest use of the KAYAK app. An 800-room Grand Hyatt Miami Beach, which will be the headquarters hotel for the MBCC, is slated to open in 2025.
With more than 100,000 sf of completely reimagined meeting space, Trump National Doral Miami is one of Miami’s top venues for groups and events. The resort features five ballrooms, including the 24,000-sf Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom, 15 breakout rooms and five executive boardrooms. The resort’s more than 75,000 sf of outdoor space offers garden and golf course views and includes the Champion’s Patio, with 3,600 sf of space, an outdoor bar and grill and room for up to 300 attendees.
The resort’s Imperial Terrace looks out toward the world-renowned “Blue Monster” golf course, spans 2,300 sf and connects to the standalone ballroom sharing its name. Just a few feet away from the main clubhouse is the Royal Palm Pool, offering a 15,000-sf pool deck where outdoor events can be held for up to 1,000.
A two-hour drive south sits Duck Key in the Florida Keys. There, you will find Hawks Cay Resort, which offers a plethora of activities and amenities. The 60-acre resort is ideal for groups interested in the Florida Keys experience. After a day of meetings, attendees can enjoy activities centered on fun in the sun with virtually every water-related activity imaginable, including stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkeling excursions, sunset cruises, island tours and even a private boat charter with a captain.
The resort boasts 427 villas and hotel rooms, six restaurants, a saltwater lagoon, five swimming pools and a full-service spa, Most accommodations have balconies with ocean views or direct access to the adults-only pool in Oasis Cay or the main Resort Pool.
The resort is capable of delivering seamless meetings, conventions and conferences. Hawks Cay Resort has the largest waterfront meeting space of any resort in the Florida Keys, with 48,760 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and banquet space that can accommodate up to 480 guests in the Dolphin Ballroom and 450 guests in the Overseas Ballroom. The combination of indoor waterfront meeting space, a variety of outdoor venues and even a private-event catamaran ensures groups will never have to meet in the same space twice. State-of-the-art A/V and modern technology capabilities are available, and an on-site technology director and dedicated event team ensures flawless operation.
The city is in the midst of a major revitalization of its Water Street district. With the Tampa Convention Center (TCC) and major meetings hotels located there, it’s an area drawing more and more planners and groups.
To answer what about Tampa Bay appeals to her, Leticia Desiano, corporate events and trade show leader for home-automation-solutions company Resideo, points to location, airlift, ease of access, cost, quality of lodging and entertainment. Moreover, attendees like Tampa Bay, which is important as Desiano says the company is back to fully in person events and close to pre-pandemic travel levels.
“This area of Tampa has been built up over the past few years. We look to provide our guests the convenience of being able to walk out of the hotel and have activities to do, particularly those attending a [pre- or post-event activity].”
Desiano is familiar with Marriott’s two properties here: the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street, which opened in 2021, and Tampa Marriott Water Street. The two are connected via a skybridge. Resideo’s 2024 CONNECT conference with 700 attendees will be based at the JW Marriott, as will the company’s 2024 sales meeting with 400 expected to attend. Desiano says the hotel’s location by the Riverwalk “gives it the feeling of a resort hotel, yet it’s really an urban vibe. Meeting space is great, proximity to the airport is a plus and there are many activities right outside the hotel.”
She says the meeting space and modern design really drew her to the JW, as well as the “beautiful pre-function space with a ton of natural lighting and sites along the Riverwalk.”
It’s the staff, too. “[The] senior sales executive, has been amazing to partner with. He took the time to understand our program needs and worked with me on adjustments. He’s very patient and accommodating. I’m looking forward to working with the team, and I hope they live up to the service [the executive] has provided.”
Desiano urges planners to consider staying at a hotel on their own before or after an official site visit. She says, “When doing a site, I suggest you stay at the hotel pre or post to really get a feel for the day-to-day experience — outside of being a meeting planner and the hotel so graciously hosting you. As a regular guest, you can get a true sense of the operations.” Doing this, she adds, also affords you the time to walk the surrounding area on your own, which enables you to sell the location to your executives, if that’s required in your approval process.
“JW Marriott Tampa Water Street has its own uniqueness that stands out from other JW/Marriott properties and I’m happy to be bringing two programs to the hotel before the secret gets out. I’m always looking for something different with an amazing ‘wow’ factor, and this location checks all the boxes.”
Tampa Bay is well underway with its Water Street revitalization. Tampa Convention Center is in the process of expanding its waterfront meeting space and adding innovative touches, all expected to wrap this year. The Tampa EDITION, Tampa Bay’s first five-star hotel, opened in the fall with 172 guest rooms and six F&B outlets. Meanwhile downtown, the Floridan Palace Hotel is rebranding as a Hilton Tapestry Collection property and undergoing a $25 million renovation. While “unique” is vastly overused these days, Ybor City’s newly renovated J.C. Newman Cigar Co.’s Museum & Cigar Shop, the oldest family-owned cigar factory in America, is truly unique and well worth an off-site visit for groups.
Located on the west coast of Florida, just 30 minutes north of the Tampa International Airport, sits Florida’s Sports Coast, formerly Visit Pasco in Pasco County. The area offers guests easy access from key direct flights in markets from across the country. Home to 742 square miles of rolling green hills, scenic coastlines, countless amateur sports venues and complexes, picturesque trails and rich culture, there are game-changing experiences for attendees to enjoy — all situated on the picturesque Gulf of Mexico.
The area is home to 65 world-class locations offering first-rate amenities, fantastic team-building exercises and delectable dining options. Whether planning a seminar for a thousand people or a meeting for a dozen co-workers, the area offers everything a planner might need. Outside of the top-notch event spaces, attendees will be able to experience award-winning restaurants, newly constructed hotels, unique attractions and myriad ways to enjoy the year-round warm weather.
It’s no surprise that Palm Beach appeals to incentive planners and groups. It has long had considerable cache in the realm of upscale and exclusive. Kim Savransky, CITP, CIS, V.P. of operations for Georgia-based Fab at Incentives, worked on a program for a group of 200 recently, based at the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach. She says the group recently rebooked for 2024 “at another of the iconic Palm Beach resorts.”
Like many planners, Savransky finds that some discussions with clients have an added focus in the post-pandemic era. “For planning incentives, our discovery meeting with clients has become a focus for discussing destinations and what the landscape is like in these destinations post-COVID. It’s important for our clients to understand what it will be like to travel to these destinations as there may be changes and challenges that affect the incentive/meeting. Once we’ve determined the destination, we highly recommend a site visit so that our clients can experience what the program could be like for the attendees and to ensure that the destination is providing the backdrop the client is looking for.”
Because Savransky works primarily on incentive programs, she notes that these groups don’t lend themselves to virtual or hybrid events, so they’re definitely back in person. “Our registrations are close to pre-pandemic levels,” she says. “In the spring, there were a few people that were hesitant to register, but for the most part, those who weren’t able to attend didn’t indicate that it was due to the pandemic.”
As to why Palm Beach works so well for incentive programs, Savransky says, “It provides fun and sun, as well as four- and five-star rated resorts, which are important factors to the group’s leadership team. The airlift into the area is also a positive aspect with Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airports close by. This destination also provides a variety of restaurants, shopping and entertainment venues that work well for incentive groups. For activities, there’s something for everyone — beaches, fishing, golf, the Everglades, shopping, foodie tours, kayaking and so much more. Palm Beach is a planner’s dream as there are so many options to really curate a memorable experience for attendees.”
Savransky says as soon as they started considering Palm Beach as a potential destination for the incentive group, they reached out to Discover the Palm Beaches, the area’s convention and visitor’s bureau. “We were familiar with Miami, but not Palm Beach when we started our journey, and we felt they would be able to provide us with some valuable insights.”
They met with a CVB representative and then toured the destination. “During our meeting, we were able to communicate what we were looking for in a destination, and the CVB did a fabulous job of taking that information and curating our tour to highlight venues they thought would work for our group. There are a multitude of venues in the Palm Beach area that can cater to all types of incentives and meetings. Depending on what the objectives are, there are unique, historical spaces or, if the convention center is more appropriate, it provides state-of-the-art meeting space.”
In this case, the client chose the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach. “It has a retro Palm Beach vibe that our client was drawn to, and it’s a more of a boutique-size property, which our client prefers for this group,” Savransky says. “Other aspects of the property that were a draw for this client were close proximity to the airport, rooms facing the water, a beautiful white-sand beach that’s swimmable, and a pool area centrally located on the property. There’s also a good-sized ballroom space to accommodate the group, and there’s space for after-hours hospitality, which is also important to our client.”
Savransky says the Four Seasons staff also set it apart from many other properties the group has been to in the past. “They really embrace what ‘hospitality’ means and they perform their job functions so effortlessly. Hospitality starts at the front desk at check-in and continues throughout the property. Whether you’re relaxing on the beach or chilling by the pool, there’s always someone there to elevate your experience. Other special features of this property are the mixologist, who designs specialty drinks that are truly works of art and also quite tasty, and the ‘water sommelier’ who will educate you on the differences in bottles of water from around the world — who knew? The spa is also an experience not to be missed.”
For planners looking for “that special hidden gem,” Savransky suggests Palm Beach and the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach. “Palm Beach is often overshadowed by Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which are great Florida destinations, but very different than what you’ll find in Palm Beach,” she says. “But beware, Palm Beach is known by many groups; planners are just not as vocal about it as they like to keep this area on the down-low. Repeat business is prevalent at many of the resorts in Palm Beach, so don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re looking for beachfront and luxury for your next incentive trip.”
Additionally, Savransky encourages planners to reach out to the CVB. “They’re experts in this area, have developed relationships with the vendors and can provide you with details and contacts to get started. Don’t forget to ask about any incentives available for your group, as they may have a special incentive that could entice your clients to consider Palm Beach as the destination for them.”
In addition to the tried-and-true historic properties in the area, the Palm Beaches have much in the pipeline or recently opened, most notably the health-centric Amrit Ocean Resort & Residences on Singer Island, Mandarin Oriental in Boca Raton and the Banyan Cay Resort & Golf West Palm Beach. The 158-room Mandarin is the brand’s second property in Florida, and Banyan Cay Resort, a new build, will be the first full-service Hyatt-branded property in Palm Beach County. As for renovations, The Colony and Boca Raton Tower wrapped up renovations this year, and The Breakers and Jupiter Beach Resort will complete renovations soon. Check with Discover the Palm Beaches on the many restaurants, museums and other venues that have recently opened or are coming soon.
In Broward County to the south sits Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, home of the iconic Guitar Hotel. The resort underwent a $1.5 billion resort-wide expansion a couple of years ago, and now offers 1,275 guest rooms and 120,000 sf of event space. The space includes a 38,000-sf exhibition hall large enough to host trade shows, conventions and large corporate groups. There are also 46 unique spaces, which can be reconfigured to accommodate groups as large as 5,000 or smaller, more intimate groups. Additional event space is available at DAER South Florida, the resort’s nightclub/dayclub complex, which is a 44,000-sf, customizable space that includes an indoor nightclub; a day club with resort-style pool oasis and bungalows and a rooftop bar.
There is also a 13.5-acre pool lagoon with activities such as kayaking and paddleboarding and is perfect for team-building activities or for attendees looking to relax after a day of meetings or to cool off. Hard Rock Live, the resort’s concert venue, offers unobstructed sightlines from every seat in the house, and with Hard Rock Live and a comedy club with weekly programming, attendees will find plenty to do. Not to be overlooked, live music can be found at the resort’s signature bars, ranging from jazz to upbeat rock cover bands and everything in between.
Although the area on Florida’s southwestern Gulf Coast suffered from the impacts of devastating Hurricane Ian, it may surprise planners to learn that the Paradise Coast is open and ready for business. The Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB wants planners to know it’s definitely time to visit. Lisa Chamberlain, CMP, group sales manager at the CVB, says, “Our destination rebounded at a staggering pace. Just two weeks post-storm, two of our largest resorts, the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort and the Naples Grande Beach Resort, hosted full conference buyouts. Currently across the destination, over 88% of our hotels and resorts are open and maintaining high occupancies. Our famed 5th Avenue South restaurants are welcoming guests with white-linen tablecloths, and our retailers and art galleries are filled with shoppers.” She continues: “There are multiple opportunities to enjoy arts and cultural performances in our theaters, museums and performance centers. The feedback we’ve received from meeting planners is extremely positive, and many have expressed the desire to support our destination as we put our ‘best foot forward’ to host their events.”
“We’re eager,” Chamberlain adds, “to relay the message that our destination is open for business and welcoming back groups that have a long history with us, as well as those that may have just discovered us. Meeting professionals seeking ways to support the region are encouraged to submit RFP’s and have a discussion about upcoming meetings. Your support is invaluable, as our dedicated teams of professionals across the destination prepare to welcome you with legendary hospitality and first-class service.”
The Emerald Coast, on Florida’s northwestern stretch of the Gulf of Mexico, is also evolving. A former Best Western in Fort Walton Beach will undergo extensive renovation and rebrand as Beal House Destin-Fort Walton Beachfront, a Tapestry Collection by Hilton. A new Tru by Hilton soon will also open in Destin. Upcoming renovations include Four Points, which will rebrand as a Marriott property; the Holiday Inn Resort; Best Western Sugar Sands and Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, an off-site option, which will unveil its new multimillion-dollar dolphin habitat next spring.
The South Walton area offers 16 beach neighborhoods, each with its own, distinct personality, and also offers more than 15,000 guest rooms and 155,000 sf of meeting space — ideal for everything from a 20-person executive retreat to a 1,500-person convention. There are also four state parks, the 15,000-acre Point Washington State Forest, 15 rare coastal dune lakes and easy access to the Gulf of Mexico along the area’s stunning beaches — which means there are plenty of outdoor activities for attendees to enjoy after a day inside.
Convention hotels include Hotel Effie Sandestin, located at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, which opened its doors early last year. It offers more than 20,000 sf of meeting and event space, and features the only rooftop pool with lounge and event space on the Emerald Coast. In addition, this luxury hotel features 250 guest rooms with hand-selected furnishings and sophisticated décor. Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa offers 590 spacious guest rooms and suites divided among two towers, Emerald and Spa, as well as 40,000 sf of flexible indoor meeting space. It also has an expansive, 22,500-sf beachfront deck, the AAA Four-Diamond Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood and six other eateries, and the 14,500-sf Serenity by the Sea Spa.
As usual, there are a slew of new dining, attraction and entertainment options already open or on the horizon. But of particular interest to planners may be the partnership between Visit Orlando and not-for-profit Orlando Health. The new alliance designates Orlando Health as the official health and wellness partner of Visit Orlando and offers health-related benefits for millions of visitors, including meeting and convention attendees. It provides customizable health solutions specifically for conferences and attendees via an Orlando Health Virtual Care Center, which will open at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). Medical providers will be available virtually 24/7, and during major conventions the clinic will be staffed by clinicians.
The South Terminal Complex is now open at Orlando International Airport, adding 15 gates and a state-of-the-art baggage system. The new train system is soon also scheduled to start carrying passengers.
Walt Disney World Resort will complete its multiyear transformation of EPCOT by late this year, and Journey of Water, inspired by the movie “Moana,” will also open late this year. In the Magic Kingdom, groups can look forward to a new nighttime spectacular over Cinderella Castle next year, and Disney’s sixth ship, Disney Treasure, will set sail next year. It will feature a Grand Hall inspired by the grandeur and mystery of a gilded palace, with Asian and African influences and paying homage to the distant land of Agrabah — yes, magic carpet included. Finally, the largest celebration in Disney’s history, Disney 100 Years of Wonder, recently kicked off.
Orlando’s other resort that boasts theme parks is Universal Orlando Resort, which offers eight hotels, each with a unique theme and amenities. They include Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites and a sister hotel, Surfside Inn and Suites; Universal’s Aventura Hotel; Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort; Loews Sapphire Falls Resort; Loews Royal Pacific Resort; Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
Set aside specifically with meeting planners in mind, the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando connects the meeting space of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Loews Royal Pacific Resort to offer 2,000 rooms and 247,000 sf of meeting space. Together, the Meeting Complex and the rest of the campus offer 295,000 sf of meeting space and 9,000 guest rooms. Also, attendees at Universal’s resorts get special park passes, early admission and other benefits to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Volcano Bay and Universal CityWalk.
The Sunshine State is geographically and culturally diverse, with cities and towns for planners to consider from the Atlantic to the Gulf Coast, from the Keys to the Georgia border. Florida draws attendees with its sun and beaches, but it draws them back with all of the many other attributes that make it so ideal for incentives and meetings. C&IT