As a meeting destination, Florida avails an impressive variety of backdrops. From awesome to intimate, with locations ranging from sleepy to downright buzzy, there is truly something for almost every style of gathering and budgetary consideration. And when it’s time for a breather, meeting planners will find Florida replete with water sports options and theme parks, beach combing and wildlife viewing, and a climate that invites al fresco events year-round.
Of course, summer 2021 presented unusual new challenges, as the meetings and convention industry got back onto its feet for the first time in more than a year. While one organization after another found reasons to pivot, many also found ways to navigate the uncertain territory created by the pandemic, often to great success. They also encountered an audience excited by the prospect of gathering again, and Florida rolled out the welcome mat for them.
For Andy Smith, president and CEO of Halldale Group, a training and simulation company operating in the B2B media and events space, “enthusiasm levels were high” for the World Airline Training Summit (WATS), which took place for the 15th year in Orlando, in June. The annual conference and trade show provides the latest on best practices in training and simulation technologies to all safety-critical enterprises. “We have an obligation to serve our community with the latest information,” Smith says. “Coming out of COVID-19, airlines are in very new territory with training operations right in the center of the ‘return to service’ of all airlines. Without the training, retraining and certifying of pilots, cabin crew, maintainers, etc., airlines would be limited in the number of aircraft they can fly.”
Prior to the pandemic, WATS took place over three days, with a pre-event day used for workshops and culminating in an event icebreaker. The expo hall would host 130 booths for about 80 exhibitors, including North American, European, Middle Eastern and Asia-Pacific based businesses. In past years the event — often held at the Rosen Shingle Creek — would typically attract upwards of 1,500 attendees from 50 countries. Smith notes that Orlando is the largest center of the aviation high-tech training and simulation industry, and houses several world leading universities in this space. Last year, WATS was run as an online event only, and Smith was challenged to return to an in-person format this year. “After being forced to run virtual conferences and exhibitions in 2020, our sponsors, exhibitors and attendees were not supportive of doing the same in 2021,” says Smith, adding that a hybrid event would be cost-prohibitive. “With travel restrictions still in force, we knew this year’s WATS was going to be very different, and we had to work closely with exhibitors to allow them the maximum time before committing. In our case, that ran down to the wire. When it became obvious that European exhibitors would be barred entry to the U.S., even if vaccinated, we lost about 20% of our floor plan two weeks out.”
In the end, WATS 2021 drew 500 total attendees and 30 exhibitors; about 97% of the attendees were U.S.-based. “For well over 90% of the audience, it was their first conference outing since March of 2020, and it was very obvious that everyone was reminded of the value of their favorite live event,” Smith says. “Almost half of this year’s delegates were first-time attendees, which was a huge surprise for us.”
Sprawling across a 255-acre property, the 1,501-room Rosen Shingle Creek is one of Orlando’s largest conference facilities, with four column-free ballrooms measuring up to 95,000 sf. Other features include four pools, a full-service spa and an 18-hole, par-72 championship golf course by the Arnold Palmer Design Company. The hotel is just 10 minutes from the Orlando International Airport — closer to the terminals than most Orlando conference hotels. “The facilities, standards, service, and food and beverage at Rosen Shingle Creek are all of the highest quality,” Smith says. “The fact that, time after time, we return to see so many of the same faces is the clincher. It makes the event not only easy to manage, but the friendships built up with the convention staff, F&B teams, package and bell staff make the event so much more enjoyable. We have been to other venues, and the only thing that is the same each year is the building.” Smith adds, “It was great to be back at Rosen Shingle Creek at our own live event. Anyone in the events industry will understand that feeling. And for our community, which works collaboratively to improve training and safety, there is so much value in the face-to-face networking on-site and around the event. That cannot be replicated in any other format.”
Big Frog, a custom T-shirt printing company based near Tampa, typically uses a nearby resort for its annual meeting. But in May 2021, the company opted to gather in Orlando. And they enjoyed fortuitous timing, according to Tiffany Costello, compliance manager and executive assistant to the CEO at Big Frog. “Orlando had lifted the mask mandate the week before our event, so we were very lucky,” says Costello, who added that the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek was chosen for a 75-attendee employee convention for location, affordability and the attention of the staff. “We were so pleasantly surprised by everything the hotel provided.”
The 400-room Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek is located within the Walt Disney World Resort, and offers more than 50,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor function space, including the Ponce de Leon Ballroom, which can be divided into seven sections. The resort, which opened in 2011, is one of the few properties both managed and owned by Wyndham. A Wyndham-managed time-share is adjacent, and guests of both properties can use the facilities — pools, restaurants and bars — of the other. “The location was near the airport, making travel a breeze for our guests,” adds Costello, who notes that a major asset Orlando has over many other destinations is attractions that encourage a meeting attendee to bring family along. “Theme parks nearby and shuttles to those areas were an added benefit. Many of our guests were able to turn it into a true vacation this year, bringing the kids, staying through the weekend, and enjoying time at the pools and parks.” Another attribute not common among meeting hotels: The Wyndham has 84 family rooms with separate bunk bedrooms for kids.
To ensure a successful event during the pandemic summer, Costello noted that the number of attendees was cut in half — the meeting size is usually 150 guests. The date was postponed from February to late May, in hope that more people would feel comfortable attending, and Costello says Big Frog provided guests bracelets to indicate social distancing comfort levels. “Green bracelets meant hugs were accepted, yellow was high-fives OK, and red was stay back,” Costello explains. “We did away with early breakfasts and cut our daily meetings shorter, wrapping up around 5 p.m., with mixers to follow. We made sure the mixers were outdoors and everyone had the ability to distance to their comfort level. Indoor meetings were also spaced out, and we used round tables this year instead of a classroom setup. We incorporated the awards ceremony into our first day’s general session, and we cut our team-building event completely, and replaced it with an amazing musician and a magician.” Costello continues, “I am still being told by our corporate staff, as well as the attendees, how wonderful the staff was to everyone during our event. We were treated like true VIPs, and every moment of the event was presented in an exceptional way. It made planning from a distance so easy; we had no doubt that everything would be taken care of in an efficient and professional manner.”
Just prior to the pandemic, the Caribe Royale Orlando, Central Florida’s largest all-suite convention hotel, embarked on a $125 million renovation, which includes a complete refresh of its 1,215 one-bedroom suites, the addition of a grand ballroom, and a new lobby featuring extensive lighting upgrades and a dramatic new arrival experience. The recently opened, 50,000-sf Palms Ballroom brings the hotel’s total meeting space to 220,000 sf, which includes three other flexible ballrooms, 54 breakout rooms, three executive boardrooms, 120 fully renovated lakeside villas suitable for small breakout sessions and poolside venues. All meeting rooms offer an in-house A/V provider, and both hard-wired and wireless internet connections.
Other Florida hotels that have completed major renovations include The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, which honors its 30th anniversary this year with 446 refurbished guest rooms and suites. The design, by Wimberly Interiors, is inspired by the barrier-island setting, reflected in the color palette and textures, and with artisan crafts, such as Low Country sweetgrass baskets. The Ritz-Carlton offers 48,000 sf of conference space, and its AAA five-diamond Salt has been joined by Okan Kizilbayir, previously the sous chef at Eric Ripert’s three-Michelin Star Le Bernardin. Last year, the resort opened Spanish-influenced Coquina, North Florida’s largest al fresco restaurant and oceanview bar, while Tidewater Grill debuted this year, offering a coastal bounty.
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, The Ritz-Carlton, Naples is undergoing a significant expansion and a redesign of interiors that commenced in May. Next year, the resort will reveal 92 new luxury suite accommodations, including 57 additional suites and a sprawling Ritz-Carlton Club Lounge, as well as enhancements to the lobby, meeting and event spaces, pools and all existing guest rooms and suites. When completed, the hotel will encompass 474 guest rooms and suites, and more than 42,000 sf of versatile event space, including a 10,140-sf ballroom, along with picturesque outdoor venues.
In seeking a destination for the 35th anniversary of United Franchise Group’s World Expo, the company looked no further than its own backyard: West Palm Beach. “It’s our hometown, where our global headquarters is based,” says Cory Hibbard, chairman, United Franchise Group World Expo 2021. “It has a top-notch and easily accessible convention center, and an arts & entertainment district offering a diverse collection of hotels and meeting spaces along with distinct experiences. There was no better place to celebrate with all of our staff and franchise family than in our own backyard.”
United Franchise Group is a group of business-to-business franchise systems, including signs, embroidery and business brokerage, and more than 1,400 franchisees throughout the world. But organizing an event that was three years in the planning, which wound up drawing more than 1,000 attendees in June during a pandemic, was no small endeavor. “There was a constant need to stay in tune with local and CDC guidelines,” Hibbard says. “The environment around public safety seemed to have changed almost daily in the months leading up to the event. The Palm Beaches is committed to the highest safety standards, with a destination-wide GBAC STAR accreditation that starts at the airport and carries throughout its hotels and attractions. Fortunately, with the combination of Florida’s push for the reopening of small businesses and the timing of the nation emerging from the pandemic, we were able to pull off our event as it was originally envisioned, with little to no disruption.”
The bulk of the World Expo took place at the 350,000-sf Palm Beach County Convention Center (PBCCC) in downtown West Palm Beach. The center features a 100,000-sf exhibit hall, a 22,000-sf ballroom and 21,000 sf of flexible meeting space. Several hotels are within a half-mile walk, and United Franchise Group contracted room blocks at three hotels: the Hilton West Palm Beach, which is connected to the convention center by covered walkway; the West Palm Beach Marriott and Canopy by Hilton West Palm Beach Downtown. “The Hilton’s proximity is a huge perk when looking at hosting events at the Palm Beach County Convention Center,” Hibbard says. “The staff at the Hilton and the convention center work very closely, and collaborate well to allow the event to flow back and forth between properties smoothly. The three hotels worked with us to allow custom branding, concierge services and made-to-order events that seamlessly transitioned from the hotel to the convention center, and vice-versa.”
Hibbard adds that the group held after-hours events and mixers at the hotels, Venture X West Palm Beach, Roxy’s Rooftop Bar, The Ben Hotel, Rosemary Square, The Regional and other locations. And although United Franchise Group originally considered a hybrid model for the Expo, the company reevaluated as small businesses started reopening around the country. “We didn’t think it was necessary,” Hibbard says. “We did livestream some of our general sessions so our master license partners around the world could tune in. The Hilton and the Palm Beach County Convention Center were very accommodating, and rolled with the changes and updates as the world was returning to the new normal at a rapid pace. By the time World Expo came around, everyone was well rested and was on their ‘A Game’ to deliver a fantastic event for all.”
For Critical Issues America, a cardiovascular surgeon retreat drawing an elite, high-end group of international participants, a major reason for choosing Florida for its April event was air access from Europe and South America into Miami International Airport, according to Julie Vissers, president of Well-Assembled Meetings, which was hired to oversee the retreat. “The Biltmore Hotel is only a short 6 miles from the airport,” Vissers says. “For my surgeons, time is their biggest commodity, and there is really no price for their time. We also like the retreat-like setting as opposed to South Beach and downtown Miami. We have hosted in New Orleans, but there were too many distractions. The purpose of this meeting is to have a ‘think-tank’ with the best aortic surgeons in the world. They need a quiet spot where they can meet quietly both in the session room and outside of the room to exchange ideas and stories.”
The 271-room Biltmore Hotel, a National Historic Landmark built in 1926, trades Florida’s buzzy beachfront settings for a legendary golf course, tropical gardens and the largest resort pool in the Eastern United States. Although The Biltmore lacks a ballroom large enough for big events — the largest space is 6,528 sf with a 46-foot ceiling — the hotel features more than 75,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting and function space housed in a variety of sizes, configurations and settings within two locations: in the hotel and at the adjacent Conference Center of the Americas.
During a tricky year, being able to collaborate with the Biltmore was ideal for Vissers. “We worked as partners in this very difficult situation,” says Vissers, who has used The Biltmore on previous occasions. “They provided data on how many of their staff were vaccinated, and we met biweekly on updates for their county and how many people we could accommodate in the room. We had a wait list, and as the county opened up, we were able to let more physicians in. The hotel was completely flexible with attrition and so happy that we were charging forward. We pushed our meeting from February to April, as we knew that most would be vaccinated by then. It was really a collaborative effort to create an amazingly successful event in difficult times.”
With the pandemic limiting air access for international surgeons, Vissers had to prepare for a hybrid event, and calls it the most complex hybrid situation possible. “We had every iteration of speakers: live on podium, live virtual, pre-recorded, pre-recorded but participating in panels, attendees participating live, participants participating remotely or via chat. I could talk for several hours on this, but my amazing A/V team pulled it off flawlessly. It was nothing short of a miracle.”
In the end, 150 attended in person, while another 150 attended virtually. “My loyalty to this hotel has increased,” Vissers says. “They value long-term, committed relationships.” Vissers shares, as a resident of Portland, Oregon, how it was hard for her to understand the mindset of Floridians during the pandemic. “I think it is important for planners to understand the ‘culture’ of where they are hosting their events, and to inform participants as much as possible in order to set expectations.” But, she adds: “This will become less important as we move past the COVID era.” C&IT