There are two simple, overarching reasons why Florida ranks perennially as the undisputed king of statewide meeting destinations. One is the quality of the Sunshine State’s unparalleled hotel and resort product. The other is the Florida brand itself, which appeals to meeting attendees of all demographic profiles, especially during the winter.
And every year as a result, Florida attracts planners and attendees who come for the first time, hold a successful meeting, and then immediately decide to come back.
“The Emerald Coast of Florida…has soft, white sand beaches that are some of the best in the world. The water is clear. It’s just unlike any other place I’ve seen in Florida.”
— Kristin Tschirn
Amy Hanson, executive assistant at Minneapolis-based equipment manufacturer Graco, used a Florida destination for the first time in January, when she arranged a five-day, four-night meeting for 95 attendees at Streamsong Resort, a sprawling property located in rural Bowling Green, south of and about equidistant between Tampa and Orlando.
The selection of a Florida destination was an easy one. “Because the meeting is in January, we want a warm destination, because Minneapolis is cold in the winter,” Hanson says, noting that her timely discovery of Streamsong was a matter of fortuitous coincidence.
“As a meeting planner,” she says, “I get invited to numerous luncheons throughout the year where hotels and resorts send in their sales staffs so I can visit with them and learn about them. So, at just the right time, I went to one of those lunches, and Streamsong was one of the resorts that was represented. So I met with them and was very intrigued, because my attendees like to play golf. But we also like to offer other options that are fun. And Streamsong not only has great golf, but it has also clay sport shooting, fishing on an onsite lake and a nice spa. So it was a perfect choice for us. And it was also something new and different.”
Streamsong, which offers 24,600 sf of meeting space, also represented a perfect match demographically. “Ninety percent of our attendees are men,” Hanson says. “And with the four main amenities that Streamsong offers, I knew all of our attendees would be interested in at least one of them.”
Another positive factor was Streamsong’s location, in a fairly rural setting, away from major urban centers — and typical meeting destinations — such as Orlando and Tampa. “That was good for us for two reasons,” Hanson says. “One is that our event is very meeting- or business-focused, so we like a destination that does not offer a lot of distractions like big cities do. But at the same time, we want our attendees to be able to relax and have a good time. And Streamsong met both of those requirements. It’s just a very unique property.”
After experiencing Streamsong, Hanson has high praise for the property on all counts, starting with its room product.
“What’s amazing to me about the rooms at Streamsong is that they all have a great view, of either the lake or the beautiful grounds,” Hanson says. “And all of the rooms are very modern and clean. So in addition to having a nice view, the rooms are warm and inviting at the same time. The rooms are also built for the business traveler, with all the functionality and amenities that people in business want and need when they’re on the road, from a beautiful shower to a little refrigerator and a nice coffee maker. And every room has a couch, so at a meeting, they’re perfect for getting together and networking in your room if you want to. That also makes them very comfortable.” Rooms also have free Wi-Fi. “And for me as the planner, free Wi-Fi is a big deal.”
Hanson also singled out Streamsong’s food and beverage service as superb. “The food and beverage at Streamsong was excellent,” she says. “And one of the highlights of the meeting was an amazing awards reception we did the first night. We had an open bar and served heavy hors d’oeuvres and tons of great desserts. And all of the food was done exceptionally well. And the presentation and service were as good as the food.”
One item that really created enthusiasm among her attendees was fish tacos. “They actually bring out an entire, big fish and cut it up for the tacos right from the oven,” Hanson says. “Our attendees thought the fish tacos, done that way, were really something special. But all of the food was equally good. And everything is very fresh. You couldn’t ask for better food for a meeting group. In fact, the feedback we got from attendees was that the food at Streamsong was the best they’ve ever gotten at any of our meetings.”
As a planner, Hanson also cited Streamsong’s service standard as a key element in the success of her meeting. “I give them an A+ for service, across the board,” she says. “The service was consistently excellent, even when it came down to the smallest things. Everything was done right. They always went the extra mile for us. And that’s true from the catering staff to meeting services. They just pay attention to every detail. I can’t say enough about how amazing the service is. The resort is beautiful. The amenities are great. The food is great. But it’s the service that makes the experience so amazing for a meeting planner and attendees that you want to go back and have that experience again. You just know from the minute you get there that you’re going to be well taken care of.”
Hanson and her attendees were so well taken care of, she says, that Graco is already talking about going back for the same meeting in 2018.
Unlike Hanson, who experienced Florida as a planner for the first time this year, Kristin Tschirn, director of continuing medical education at New Orleans-based hospital operator Ochsner Health System, has been enthusiastically using a number of Sunshine State destinations for years.
Among the properties she uses in a regular rotation is The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, located on the Atlantic coast near Jacksonville. Tschirn uses the hotel every other year for a 45–50 attendee, three-day CME meeting of colon and rectal surgeons.
“My attendees and I cannot say enough good things about The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island,” Tschirn says. “It’s wonderful for that particular meeting, because a lot of the physicians like to bring their families. And there is just so much to do there, including shopping and also things for kids to do. Amelia Island itself is beautiful. But The Ritz-Carlton itself is fabulous. And they do a phenomenal job for meetings. They just make everyone feel welcome and at home. And the property itself is just gorgeous. And it’s beautifully maintained.”
The 446-room hotel, with more than 48,000 sf of meeting space, also is perfectly sized for Tschirn’s meetings. “It’s big enough to accommodate a range of group sizes or multiple meetings at the same time,” she says. “But it’s also small enough that you don’t get lost, like you do in a really big hotel. It’s just the perfect size for most meetings. And the amenities — the beach, the pool, the spa, the golf course — are fantastic. And the food is great, too.”
She and her attendees also love the nearby small town of Fernandina Beach, a timeless throwback to unspoiled old Florida. “It’s just so quaint and wonderful. All of our attendees love it because they can walk up and down those old cobblestone streets.”
Among Floridians in the know and well-informed meeting planners, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach rank high on “favorite place to go” lists. Last year, Visit Florida, the Official Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation, held its annual Florida Encounter, a hosted buyer show for meeting planners from across the country, at Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort. The hotel and the destination earned a chorus of accolades. Florida Encounter has built a reputation as one of the premier hosted buyer programs in the meeting industry. As a result, it selects each year’s destination and hotel with great care. And for 2015, Omni Amelia Island did an outstanding job for attendees, including a representative from Corporate & Incentive Travel as a media member. Florida Encounter will partner with Experience Kissimmee and Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate next year. The event is set for November 29–December 2, at the Omni property.
Located on 1,350 acres of unspoiled property on a barrier reef just off the northeast coast, Omni Amelia Island features 404 guest rooms and 80,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space. One of its most unique venues is the largest multitiered pool deck in northeast Florida.
Amenities include nine restaurants, including Bob’s Steak & Chop House, and Verandah, which serves fresh seafood and Southern-inspired cuisine. Other key amenities include a trio of 18-hole golf courses designed by legendary golf architects Pete Dye, Bobby Weed and Tom Fazio; and a world-class spa. Activities include kayaking and paddleboarding among pristine and well-protected marshlands that abound with wildlife.
Located just 18 miles south of Jacksonville is another of Tschirn’s go-to properties, the charming AAA Five Diamond Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Built in 1928, the resort is another time-honored symbol of the history of Florida tourism, but one with markedly modern amenities and service.
“Ponte Vedra Inn is just such a neat property,” says Tschirn, who is going back later this year. “It’s very unique. And like Fernandina Beach, it’s that ‘old Florida’ that you don’t see any more. But there’s also just so much to do. And you can be in Jacksonville in a matter of minutes if you want more options. I just love Ponte Vedra Beach. And like The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Ponte Vedra Inn has great amenities, like great beach, great tennis courts, the great TPC Sawgrass golf course. And a lot of my doctors love golf and tennis.” The resort offers 25,000 sf of meeting and banquet space.
Earlier this year, Tschirn discovered a new Florida property that quickly earned a spot on her favorite hotels list when she used it for the first time in her rotation for the meeting that goes to Amelia Island and Ponte Vedra Beach — the 602-room Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. Located in South Walton, near Destin on Florida’s Emerald Coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the Hilton Sandestin features what is arguably the best, unspoiled white sand beach in Florida — and one of the best in the world. The Hilton Sandestin also is Northwest Florida’s largest, full-service beachfront resort hotel.
Like other planners who experience it for the first time, Tschirn and her attendees were enthralled by the unique beauty of the Emerald Coast.
“The Emerald Coast of Florida is just somewhere that everybody wants to see and experience,” she says. “It has soft, white sand beaches that are some of the best in the world. The water is clear. It’s just unlike any other place I’ve seen in Florida, and I’ve been to a lot of the state’s resorts. And Hilton Sandestin, by far, has the best beach I’ve ever seen.”
The room product at Hilton Sandestin also is excellent, Tschirn says. The rooms are especially suited to her group, because many of the doctors bring their families. “The rooms are huge,” Tschirn says. “And you’re getting a very large room without paying a premium rate. I brought my family to the meeting and there was plenty of room for my two kids. The rooms are not just large —they’re fantastic.”
Tschirn also was surprised by how much there is to do.
The Hilton Sandestin, part of a sprawling resort complex, features six restaurants, three bars, a one-mile stretch of beach, three swimming pools, four championship golf courses and a world-class Serenity by the Sea spa. It also features 40,000 sf of newly redesigned indoor event space including the all-new 7,500-sf Coastal Ballroom and 20,000 sf of outdoor space.
Nearby offsite attractions include the charming Village of Baytowne Wharf, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park and the Silver Sands Premium Outlet shopping center.
Despite such onsite and offsite amenities, Tschirn — like virtually all planners — values service above all other factors. And based on her experience as a first-time client, she hails the service at Hilton Sandestin as some of the best she has ever received.
“I’ve done a lot of meetings,” Tschirn says. “And the thing that really struck me about Hilton Sandestin is the service. And one of the people responsible for the service we got was our onsite event concierge. I never had to ask for anything. He was always just right there, anticipating my needs. He was absolutely fantastic. He took care of every single thing I needed, sometimes before I even knew I needed it. And any time there just might have been any kind of problem, he knew about it before I did and took care of it. He never missed a beat. The service at the hotel is just outstanding.”
Kristie Daniel, meetings and events manager at The Valvoline Company in Lexington, Kentucky, is another longtime user of Florida as a destination. But over the years, she has remained loyal to a single, and relatively little-known destination located in the Gulf of Mexico off the southwestern coast — Marco Island.
Daniel has used the 727-room, Balinese-themed Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa multiple times over the past decade as the site for Valvoline’s annual 425-attendee, company-wide employee workshop held in October. The company will go back this year. “The hotel is in our normal rotation of destinations for the meeting,” Daniel says. “We love it.”
The resort features nearly 80,000 sf of event space, two private 18-hole championship golf courses and an acclaimed spa.
Why is the Marco Island Marriott so popular with Daniel and her attendees?
“The main reason we keep going back is the customer service,” she says. “This meeting is mostly attended by young people, between 18 and 25, who managed QuickLube service centers. And for them to feel as welcomed as they are and to feel as comfortable as they do is very important to us. And the staff at the hotel remembers people’s names from two or three years ago, or even further back. The customer service there is so good that it’s the standard I compare every other hotel to when I do site visits.”
Daniel also praises the hotel’s rooms. “The accommodations are wonderful,” she says. “And one reason I say that is because every room has a balcony with a nice view. And again, because the majority of our attendees are young and they haven’t traveled much yet on their own, Marco Island and the Marriott give them a special experience. It’s a real treat for them to stay in such a nice hotel in such a nice place.”
She and her attendees also appreciate what she calls truly exemplary food and beverage service. “I don’t think there’s another hotel out there, at least not one I know of, that has food and beverage that can compare to the Marco Island Marriott,” she says. “It is phenomenal. And it never runs out. Because we have a young group, they eat a lot. And not once in all these years have we ever run out of food before everybody had everything they wanted.”
Her attendees like the hotel as much as she does, she notes.
“The other thing that makes it such a great destination for this meeting is that the attendees don’t have much free time,” Daniel says. “It’s a very serious business meeting. But they do get a couple of afternoons free, and they just like to go to the beach. But we do also have a couple of small groups that will go fishing or to the spa. And then, of course, there is golf. And the golf there is great. But the main thing people want to do is just relax on the beach.”
Of course, the main thing Daniel wants is flawless service. And she always gets it at the Marco Island Marriott, she says.
“For me, the highlight of every meeting I do there is the service I get,” she says. “The team the hotel has in place is just impeccable. And they always go above and beyond to give us the best service we get anywhere. We have a genuine relationship that has been in place for a long time. And that relationship and their commitment to us shows in everything they do.”
Although Hanson, Tschirn and Daniel agree that the service they get at the Florida properties they use is a critical factor in the success of the meetings they do in the state, it is the obvious appeal of Florida itself, as a place, that also plays a key role.
“The great thing about Florida is that there’s always sunshine, Tschirn says. “And if it does happen to rain, there’s always something to do, whether that’s going shopping or to the spa. And when the weather is nice, which it is most of the time, you have the great beaches, the golf courses and the outdoors in general. It’s just a great destination, no matter where you are.”
Sanibel Island, near Marco Island is known as “The Shelling Capital of the Western World,” as it has more shell variety than any other single beach in Florida. Half of the island is a natural preserve and boasts miles of bicycle paths, abundant nature, watersports, sandy beaches and breathtaking sunsets.
With more then 400 species of shells, the beaches of Sanibel Island are considered the best shelling beaches in North America, according to www.sanibelcaptivaonline.com, which states that because Sanibel runs east to west rather than north to south, the torque of the island’s south end acts as a ladle scooping up the shells the Gulf brings from the Caribbean and other southern seas.
Planners and meeting-goers looking for a beachfront site find that Sundial Beach Resort and Spa on Sanibel Island is a popular site for laidback corporate events. Nine meeting rooms, each with comprehensive audio-visual capabilities, comprise the 12,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space, and the resort boasts that it is the only destination on the Florida Gulf Coast of Sanibel Island capable of accommodating up to 300 guests.
New dining options include a daily breakfast buffet overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and a new restaurant, Shima Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, that can be used for private group events.
Currently, the Sundial Beach Resort and Spa offers special value for groups that book by December 31, 2016, which includes the following:
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Palm Beach County is home to the only property in South Florida that is directly connected to a convention center. The new 21-story, 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach, which is connected to the Palm Beach County Convention Center with an enclosed walkway, opened earlier this year and boasts 24,000 sf of meeting space including the 13,350-sf Oceana Ballroom and the 5,800-sf Coral Ballroom as well as two 2,400-sf expansive lawn spaces for special events and fitness programming.
Located within the gateway to both Palm Beach and downtown West Palm Beach, the new 12-story convention hotel, featuring 400 guest rooms and 43 suites, sports a double-height grand lobby that features views of the hotel’s landscaped Palm Deck that features a zero-entry expansive pool, private cabanas, Restoration Hardware furnishings and a poolside bar and fire pit.
With an in-house panel of experts to provide programs for teambuilding, including glow-in-the-dark lawn games, scavenger hunts and outdoor bootcamp fitness classes, the hotel goes the extra mile to enrich the group experience. Guests also have access to a state-of-the-art fitness center and specialty classes, a flotation menu featuring inflatable toys and rafts for relaxing in-pool, oversized chessboard, outdoor fire pit and more.
Hilton West Palm Beach offers several culinary options such as Manor, the hotel’s signature farm-to-fork style restaurant serving contemporary American cuisine; Galley, the hotel’s lobby bar with prohibition-style handcrafted cocktails and shared tapas; and Provisions marketplace provides locally sourced goods such as Rabbit Coffee Roasting Company, freshly prepared bites, cold-pressed juices and gifts from Palm Beach shops and artists.
Directly across the street is CityPlace — a 72-acre mixed-use development with more than 60 specialty retail shops, a distinguished collection of restaurants and bars and an open-air plaza with a distinctive water feature with dancing fountains.
The Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, Norton Museum of Art, Clematis Street and Downtown’s Art & Entertainment District are within a short walk of the hotel, along with Worth Avenue and Palm Beach, which is three miles away.
When it comes to time-honored Florida destinations, none is more renowned — especially for upscale meetings — than Palm Beach. And now, it has a highly acclaimed luxury hotel that is ideal for small to medium-sized groups.
One of only six new hotels in the U.S. to be recently named one of Forbes Travel Guide’s 2016 Five Star Hotels, Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa is at the top of the list as one of the hottest meeting and event destinations. This is the first time Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa has received the Forbes Five Star designation as an independent brand. Its namesake, Eau Spa, received the Forbes Five Star title for the second year in a row, making the brand one of only 21 hotels in the U.S. that hold Forbes Five Star ratings for both the hotel and spa; and one of eight independently owned and operated brands.
Formerly The Ritz-Carlton, Palm Beach, the 309-room Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa is located on seven acres of prime beachfront property and features more than 30,000 sf of meeting and event space, including a trio of ballrooms. Its 9,860-sf main ballroom can be divided into three separate and equal venues. The meeting facilities also include a pair of state-of-the-art ballrooms. Unique meeting amenities include a 3,000-sf oceanfront terrace with a fire pit.
Resort amenities include a state-of-the-art fitness center, three Har-tru clay tennis courts, a 24-hour Business Lounge, two oceanfront swimming pools, four restaurants including the fine-dining Angle, which features fresh local seafood and locally sources seasonal ingredients, and Breeze Ocean Kitchen, which opened in March.
Michael King, the resort’s managing director, said in a news release, “Breeze Ocean Kitchen is an exciting example of the fresh updates that are making our Eau Palm Beach brand a hallmark of the new Palm Beach lifestyle. Both resort guests and locals will enjoy the access this provides to an unparalleled oceanside oasis, whether it’s for a sunny lunch, vibrant tapas at five, or a Sunday afternoon Paella experience with live music and sparkling cocktails.”
With seating for up to 120 guests, the restaurant features striking design details such as a runway fire feature that lights up evening lounge areas. A “look out” bar top floats above the resort’s beach to offer extraordinary views of the sea and sunsets. Innovative GPS-controlled slat roofing adjusts to allow both optimal sunshine and protection from afternoon showers. The relaxed yet energized space is softened by lush foliage and during the evening hours, suspended lanterns and twinkling lights set a magical stage.
Currently, Eau Palm Beach is offering meeting planners the “Meet Your Heart Out” program that requires a minimum of 10 guest rooms per night, starting at $159, and includes:
No matter which part of the Sunshine State corporate groups gather in, marvelous memories and unrivaled experiences inspire and vitalize attendees so that they can’t wait to return for another meeting in Florida. And, of course, the sunny, temperate climate can’t be beat, either. C&IT