Each year, thousands of meeting planners are drawn to everything Florida has to offer in the meetings and events space. From intimate soirees in Miami Beach to large festive gatherings at one of the many Disney resorts in Orlando, to beachfront experiences on Amelia Island, Florida simply can’t be beat for its menu of offerings for today’s meetings and events.
When Rochelle Frederick, meeting planner & executive assistant at a company based in Winter Springs, Florida, sought a “go-to” destination for a meeting for her company, she was drawn to Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach near Jacksonville, thanks to its full-service convention location — meaning they had everything the company’s team needed in one place. “They had the meeting space — we needed a large area — and they had additional spaces for breakout rooms and for catering,” Frederick says. “We also liked the fact that they had on-site A/V, and they had shipping and receiving through FedEx, so FedEx was also able to provide and install our signage. Most importantly, the event-planning team was on point and provided us with all the information we needed. They answered all of our questions and addressed any concerns we had during the planning stages, and it was all done professionally.”
Frederick also chose Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa because of the ease of access and one particular available activity: “We specifically liked that Ponte Vedra Beach is right in the middle of several major golf courses,” Frederick says.
Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa is an ideal hotel for meetings and events, offering groups more than 90,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor event space, ample options for room configuration, special access to championship golf courses and an excellent location. The ballroom space is condensed on one level, conveniently located just steps from the main lobby, and the two largest ballrooms come with a built-in registration desk and lockable storage offices. “Meeting planners are only seconds away from the action while coordinating events featuring expert event-manager and event-concierge teams,” says Aaron Weegar, director of sales & marketing at Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa.
This winter, the property will see a series of exciting upgrades. The resort’s meeting spaces will receive a full refresh, bringing a new modern and neutral ambiance to the ballrooms, breakout rooms and pre-function areas. The Villas at Sawgrass, which offer resort-style accommodations and home-like amenities with room to relax, will be upgraded with a new design inspired by the region’s mineral-rich history, to match that of the ballroom spaces. A new upscale rooftop beachside restaurant at the resort’s private Cabana Beach Club will open, offering fresh seafood, small plates, elevated cocktails and fine wines to go with breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. Plus, the entire Cabana Beach Club dining experience will be reimagined with a new building, new menus and the reopening of Sea Porch restaurant.
“At the Sawgrass Marriott, we have an unbeatable location for golfers looking to get out on a renowned TPC course, a variety of accommodation types to suit various needs, flexible meeting space, a private beach club, plus a beautiful, tranquil property covered with mature oak trees,” Weegar says. “Our unique, open-air, event venues offer a curated experience unlike any other, and we truly have something for everyone.”
Casandra Matej, president & CEO of Visit Orlando, says Orlando is a destination that continues to offer a wealth of options for meeting planners. In fact, the area has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. “We have more than 480 hotels and resorts, including more than 150 convention hotel properties, across every taste and budget, offering more than 5.8 million sf of event space, in addition to our award-winning Orange County Convention Center,” Matej says.
And as far as dining, for the first time, 34 Orlando restaurants will be recognized by the upcoming Florida MICHELIN guide. In addition to those dining gems, Orlando boasts more than 6,000 restaurants. “When it comes to entertainment, Orlando is second to none. Our destination continues to unveil theme-park expansions, thrilling new attractions beyond the parks, and a world-class performing arts center welcoming national live acts,” Matej says, also touting Orlando’s growing, walkable Convention District.
Orlando has welcomed several new properties, including The Swan Reserve at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, Lake Nona Wave Hotel, AC Hotel Orlando Downtown and Tru by Hilton Orlando Convention Center Area. Renovated and reimagined properties with meeting enhancements include the Caribe Royale Orlando, Orlando World Center Marriott and Hyatt Regency Orlando.
In addition, new venues offer a combination of entertainment and unique meeting space or options for buyouts. Some favorites among meeting planners include “Drawn to Life” presented by Cirque du Soleil and Disney at Disney Springs. The show combines Disney animation and awe-inspiring performances and is available for group buyouts. Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts opened early this year in the heart of downtown Orlando. The hall is available for groups and can accommodate 850 for a reception, 600 for a banquet and 1,700 theater-style.
The meeting venues within Orlando pride themselves on meeting the needs of planners and attendees alike. For example, at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, the team takes great pride in the mentality of “If you want it, they’ll find a way to make it happen.” As Jim Curtis, director of sales & marketing at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, explains, the resort has more than 348,000 sf of meeting space on the property, which gives the venue a large canvas to work with, and the creativity their teams put into designing experiences is really astounding. “Beyond our indoor meeting rooms, we offer extensive outdoor space featuring a variety of different ambiances, including our private beach, lakeside terrace and causeway connecting the Swan and Dolphin,” Curtis says. “We can do a range of unique and memorable events, including a private Food & Wine festival, re-creating the one we host annually at the hotel.”
And, of course, the Swan and Dolphin resort is in the heart of the Walt Disney World Resort, where attendees are just minutes away from EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom. By hosting a meeting with them through Disney Meetings & Events, groups have access to the “Disney Difference” to be able to host private events inside the theme parks, such as EPCOT’s World Showcase or Hollywood Studio’s Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. It’s also important to note that, at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, they offer three unique properties, featuring three different Marriott brands: Autograph Collection, Westin and Sheraton.“We offer the best of all worlds,” Curtis says.“From small meetings to massive trade shows, we can create customized programs to create a truly memorable and productive experience for virtually any group.”
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin recently added a third property to its complex, the aforementioned Walt Disney World Swan Reserve. The Swan Reserve offers 349 rooms, all featuring a captivating design and incredible floor-to-ceiling views of the resort. Of those rooms, 149 are suites complete with a large table, two 65-inch HDTVs and extensive A/V, perfect for small breakouts or executive meetings. In total, the property has more than 15,000 sf of meeting space, including two modern ballrooms, 12 meeting rooms and more than 13,000 sf of outdoor event space. To top it all off, the entire top floor of the Swan Reserve is dedicated event space featuring floor-to-ceiling panoramic views of Walt Disney World Resort, including all four parks and multiple fireworks shows. “It truly is like nothing else, located in a place like nowhere else,” Curtis says.
Another favorite Disney resort meetings and events destination is Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista – Disney Springs Area. Attendees can gather in style in the resort’s many indoor and outdoor meetings and events spaces that encompass 78,000 sf. From 22 breakout rooms to grand ballrooms to private patios, there is ample space for groups of all sizes. In addition, meeting attendees can access special Disney benefits, and an expert meetings and events team can work with outside meeting planners to bring it all together.
As part of its $125 million reimagination, nearby Caribe Royale Orlando recently debuted a significant expansion to its event space with the addition of the Palms Ballroom, which provides 50,000 sf of additional event space designed to host large conventions and corporate gatherings. All 220,000 sf of Caribe Royale’s versatile meetings and events space is located on a single level — something most planners and attendees appreciate. New highlights of Caribe Royale’s enhanced meetings and events program include exciting and elevated catering offerings, all designed with a focus on creating engaging and interactive culinary experiences for attendees.
“As a privately owned resort, Caribe Royale Orlando offers planners faster approval cycles and more flexibility to create standout events. At our resort, there is no event idea that is ‘too big’ or out of the question,” says Amaury Piedra, managing director, Caribe Royale Orlando. “We’ve made it our mission to thoughtfully and completely customize each of our offerings to meet the diverse range of groups we work with. From the moment your attendees step on-site, they receive ‘the Royale Treatment,’ which extends to every aspect of their stay. Our reimagined resort and events experience couldn’t be possible without our team of brilliant and creative hospitality professionals, who make planning effortless and help to develop events that exceed all expectations.”
LeAnn Koenig Olson, vice president of operations at VerticalXchange, frequently hosts programs in Fort Myers — Islands, Beaches and Neighborhoods, on Florida’s west coast on the Gulf of Mexico. “Really, what isn’t to love about Florida for approximately seven months out of the year?” Koenig Olson asks. “But that’s coming from a Minnesota girl who can’t handle Florida’s summer heat and humidity.”
The events Koenig Olson and her team have planned in Florida have all occurred at the The Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village. “Our most recent program was the last week of March. Our program was Sunday to Wednesday, and was for the multifamily housing industry,” Koenig Olson says. We had approximately 75 executives participate who either work for large multifamily housing builders or for solution providers within that industry.” The attendees participated in one-on-one private meetings, on-site group networking and meal functions, and an afternoon of outings and dinner around the local area. The VerticalXchange team utilized many service providers in the area, including three local temp staffing agencies for the program.
“We originally selected Florida as our destination for two reasons: It provided us a warm, sunny location to take our attendees during the winter months when no one wants to be in the Northern states — unless you are skiing or doing other winter activities — and the Westin had the ideal set up of suites for our meeting program’s flow,” Koenig Olson says. “In general, I think Florida is a good option for meetings and events because there is ample airline service, great hotel options throughout the state and plenty of opportunity for group or individual outings. With the variable seasons, groups have an opportunity to capitalize on some great deals in the shoulder season after the peak of leisure travel.”
Koenig Olson advises meeting planners interested in Florida to book early. “It has been awhile since I have felt the need to get so far ahead of our bookings and contract the desired dates before someone else locks them in,” Koenig Olson says. “With the pandemic, Florida was one of the first destinations to really bounce back and have ‘normal’ events again, which attracted many groups, but also leisure guests.”
Miami truly offers something for everyone in the area of meetings and events. Just ask Nancy Lycan, CMO at DEX Imaging, which hosted a recent sales incentive trip at Trump National Doral Miami. Approximately 350 sales executives and their guests attended. “This annual event is our top sales honor every year, and we spare no expense in making it an extraordinary ‘DEXperience’ for our elite sales executives,” Lycan says. “This was the third year in a row that we activated at a Trump Hotels property. We have been loyal to the Trump Hotels organization over the years because they are the absolute best in terms of understanding how to [operate] a five-star group experience.”
Florida has always been a great destination for event planners to consider because of the plethora of outdoor activities that can be enjoyed year-round, as well as the vast hotel options. “But now you can add to that list the fact that Florida remained open for business during the pandemic, while states like California and New York did not,” Lycan says. “We were able to produce an unbelievable event without restrictions last October. That would not have been possible in any other sunbelt state.”
Lycan has been planning and producing events for DEX Imaging’s founders/owners for more than 30 years, and she can without hesitation say that their activations at the Trump Hotels properties have far exceeded those that DEX Imaging has held at other five-star hotel properties. “This is in large part due to their unparalleled event staff and how hands-on their top-tier executives are in overseeing every detail,” Lycan says. “Most hotels use turnkey, cookie-cutter programs, where they repurpose generic ‘themed’ events that have no real purpose or tie-in to what the host company does as a business. The Trump events teams roll up their sleeves and get creative with us to produce truly unique, one-of-a-kind, meaningful experiences.”
Maria Daniel, director of sales at another Trump property, Trump International Beach Resort Miami, points out that the venue is a Forbes Four-Star resort offering 360 luxuriously appointed rooms and suites and 22,000 sf of meeting space. “Our location is one of our greatest assets — just 20 minutes from Miami International and Fort Lauderdale International airports,” Daniel says. “Our property overlooks the beautiful waters of Sunny Isles Beach, providing inviting and relaxing meeting spaces with plenty of natural light. We have multiple venues for meetings and events, including outdoor venues that go from lawn to pool decks”
Trump International Beach Resort’s dedicated team, from their meetings and events specialists to their catering department, works hand-in-hand with planners to ensure meetings and events are executed flawlessly and on-budget. The resort offers a dedicated catering and conference services team to assist with planning and executing events. Amenities include A/V equipment, high-speed internet and catering services. “We also offer groups with a sports court and a wide-variety of water activities, from kayaking to jet skiing and paddleboarding,” Daniel says. “And while concessions have changed with regards to food and beverage discounts due to higher costs and logistics, the good news is that hotel rates in the destination are finally softening.”
JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa is another one of Miami’s many gems. Boasting a 120,000 sf Conference Center, as well as 40 flexible meeting rooms, two grand ballrooms and an array of outdoor meeting spaces, JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa has proven to be a favorite among meeting planners.
Julie Daniels, meeting planner and senior director, global accounts at HelmsBriscoe, has worked for the last few years on a client event in Daytona Beach called RPM Daytona. The event has taken place for the past few years at The Plaza Resort & Spa, and will be returning there again next year. “This event runs in conjunction with the DAYTONA 500, and the attendees are those who organize, officiate, promote or sponsor racing events,” Daniels says. The RPM@Daytona Workshop coincides with Daytona Beach’s DAYTONA Speedweeks, with more than 10 days of racing at Daytona Beach-area short tracks and Daytona International Speedway, culminating in the DAYTONA 500. For more than 50 years, Daytona Beach has been the February gathering place for racers of all kinds. “Our guests attend workshops by day, then take some time to enjoy the sun and sand of Daytona Beach-area beaches,” Daniels says. “Each night, they take in some of the hottest, most anticipated racing at the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway, the Dirt Car Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park, the Winternationals at East Bay Raceway Park and special events at Bubba Raceway Park.”
Daniels is quick to point out that Daytona Beach has something for everyone, regardless of age or interests. Whether you crave the thrill of the speedway, or a quiet sunrise walk on the beach, there is room for anything you can imagine in Daytona Beach. “As a planner, I love how convenient it is to get there — just a 15-minute ride from I-95 and a 10-minute ride from the airport to the ocean. Most of the hotels with larger meeting spaces are oceanfront, so having access to outdoor scenic spaces is an important aesthetic element when pulling off successful beach-themed events,” Daniels says. “Finally, I can’t talk about Daytona Beach if I don’t mention the fabulous team at the Daytona Beach Area CVB. They always go above and beyond to assist and welcome groups to Daytona Beach. They connect us with local gift companies for amenities, [freight transfer] companies that can help at the last minute, and even help with ideas for the registration bags. It is always one of my favorite places to recommend.”
Linda McMahon, director of group sales, Daytona Beach Area CVB, points out that Daytona Beach continues to evolve by investing more than $2 billion in renovations and construction — which include new beachfront hotel developments and major upgrades to attractions and restaurants. Among many projects on the horizon, planners and attendees can look forward to a new four-star oceanfront hotel — the Renaissance by Marriott Daytona Beach Oceanfront — which is slated to open next year. The Max Beach Resort, which just opened in late spring, offers spacious one-, two- and three-bedroom residence-style suites, with an array of lifestyle features and amenities. Other new hotels include the Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach, which has 200 rooms, and The DAYTONA Marriott Autograph Collection at One DAYTONA — the dining, shopping and entertainment destination.
“Accessibility to the destination is another significant benefit to meeting planners,” McMahon says. Located only a few minutes’ drive to most oceanfront hotels, Daytona Beach International Airport offers multiple, daily non-stop flights. In addition, attendees in the Daytona Beach area are always within minutes of exciting adventures, such as walking along 23 miles of white-sand beaches, experiencing high-speed thrills at Daytona International Speedway, or climbing 203 steps to the top of Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, Florida’s tallest, for spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Authentic touches and attention to details at a wealth of luxurious accommodations on Amelia Island are sure to impress attendees. From the moment of check-in, extraordinary décor, serene Atlantic Ocean views and coastal lobby scenes set the standard for a memorable arrival. Infinity pools and sand dunes create the most picturesque backdrop for exploring island life.
In addition, there are plenty of outdoor and flexible meeting spaces that grace Amelia Island. Picture rolling green vistas with colorful sunsets, magical lighting and entertainment to get even the quietest introverts up and networking. Nontraditional meeting space options, such as a local brewery or mini-golf venue overlooking a peaceful marina, will be the highlight of any meeting or event on Amelia Island.
Since 2018, the Omni Amelia Island Resort has been home for HCA Healthcare’s annual Leadership Meeting. With 2018 being the company’s first annual event, they hosted approximately 285 physician leaders from across the organization, growing by 100+ attendees year after year. “Our three-day agenda consists of a blend of general sessions and various breakout lectures and educational workshops, using approximately 85% of the resort’s meeting space,” says Jon Snider, manager, curriculum and meeting planner at HCA Healthcare.
The Omni Amelia Island Resort is a premier destination for any organization. It offers breathtaking views, a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of major cities, and a generous amount of quality event space. “Your attendees and their families will fall in love with what the property has to offer — from its putt-putt course, numerous walking trails and outdoor activities, and the exceptional customer service as they are waited on next to two relaxing pools and splash pad — just as my attendees have,” Snider says. “For the last four years, I look forward to my time at the property and I never want it to end.”
Their property speaks for itself, but their team becomes part of your team, Snider adds. “Lean on them. They are there to support you and make your role as a meeting planner easier with less stress and worry. I can always count on the sales, banquets and A/V staff to immerse themselves as members of my planning team for me to host an exceptional meeting, raising the bar from the previous year,” Snider says. “I highly recommend utilizing their beautiful outdoor event space for evening events as weather permits. The string lighting accents the gorgeous sunset and a light breeze from the ocean, and the sound of live music just sets the stage for a wonderful evening on the lawn.” C&IT