OrlandoMarch 20, 2024

A Whole New World. Beyond Tomorrowland. By
March 20, 2024


A Whole New World. Beyond Tomorrowland.
One of the big draws for meeting planners coming to Orlando is easy access to theme parks like Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World. Photo by Matt Stroshane

One of the big draws for meeting planners coming to Orlando is easy access to theme parks like Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World. Photo by Matt Stroshane

“Orlando it has it all,” says Christopher Rohan, managing partner at BenchMark Incentives. “There’s easy nonstop air service, entertainment, hospitality, and meeting and hotel space to fit varying budget and logistical needs.”

Rohan is not alone. The destination is so much more than its most famous resident, the cartoon mouse that spawned a theme park empire. And that’s why, for six years running, Orlando has topped Cvent’s list of the top meeting destinations in the U.S. In 2024, meeting planners will find new or expanded accommodations, venues and experiences, a destination brimming with new possibilities for creative meetings and events that drive attendance.

“Year after year, Orlando sets itself apart as a meetings destination with new luxury accommodations, and unforgettable venues and attractions to help inspire ingenuity,” says Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. “Whether planners are seeking new venues, immersive entertainment or fine dining options to fill out their agendas, a whole new Orlando is ready to welcome groups in 2024 and beyond.”

On the surface, amusement parks might not seem like the most natural backdrop for serious meeting business. But here’s Orlando’s secret: Whether for a day or an hour, what conference attendee doesn’t want to sneak off and see in person Harry Potter’s Wizarding World or careen along the tracks of Disney’s latest coaster, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind?

The theme parks aren’t all fantasy and coasters: Head to SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove and you’ll swim with bottlenose dolphins by day and finish off the evening with a beach luau, and at Walt Disney World, four 18-hole championship golf courses welcome golfers.

“Orlando is almost always on our short list of meeting destinations,” says Rohan, who cites CVB support, location, airlift, ease of access and entertainment among the assets. “Cost and quality of lodging for our price point is key. Other Florida locations don’t have the quantity of options in Orlando.”

For a pair of back-to-back conferences in January, the 1,334-room Rosen Centre Hotel had the needed function space for Rohan’s group, a conference for two different home spa brands operating under the Watkins Wellness umbrella. The manufacturer drew 300 retailers, marketers and sales leaders to Thrive, the first event, and then 750 to the second, the Hot Spring Experience. The planner says the overarching reason Watkins Wellness chose the Rosen Centre is for its smaller, independent feel.

“People are proud to work at Rosen Centre,” explains Rohan. “While we were there, a houseman came into our office to change our water and we were idly chatting. I said he looked familiar and I asked how long he’d been here — it was something like 30 years. You don’t keep people around that long if you aren’t good to them, and I think the Rosen properties do that in large part.”

The Rosen Centre Hotel features over 150,000 sf of meeting space — enough to accommodate banquets up to 2,760 attendees. There are three ballrooms, with the Grand Ballroom totaling 35,000 sf and capable of offering theater-style seating up to 4,000. The Rosen Centre also has a direct connection to the Orange County Convention Center just a few hundred feet away, making it a natural mid-priced option for citywide events. The hotel features a full-service spa, nine dining venues, and no resort fee is added to the checkout bill.

The client had dozens of unusual requirements the hotel needed to meet. “We’re unique in that we had to have water — and lots of it — in the ballroom space,” explains Rohan. “Access to faucets and drainage was accommodated. We also had several difficult shipping situations where products inadvertently arrived at the hotel way before they were supposed to. The hotel went out of their way to accommodate storage for trucks and product when it was no fault of theirs. In general, for every request we threw at them from left field, they listened and worked on a solution for us.”

The size of the property was also a factor. “Your attendees aren’t packing up for a 20-minute trek across the property to make it to the next session. Everything is right there,” suggests Rohan. “Come down from the guest rooms, head left and the function space is right there, with tons of breakout space stacked immediately above it.”

The planner notes that Watkins Wellness has conducted this particular event in various locations in the U.S. since 2005. “We’ve been hopping around the country trying to find a more permanent home. In 2019, we found it at the Rosen Centre.”

The Rosen Centre Hotel is located on International Drive, meaning dozens of dining and entertaining options are located within a few minutes by car. “I-drive has really grown over the years and has become increasingly friendly to use,” says Rohan. “The trolley, for instance, is easy, and the fact that the restaurants and entertainment are so close by make it an easy decision to not need to stray too far.”

Orlando-based Rosen Hotels & Resorts is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Harris Rosen’s independently owned chain of five hotels started with the purchase of a 256-room Quality Inn in 1974, at the corner of International Drive and Sand Lake Road. Now known as Rosen Inn International, the leisure hotel was located just one mile from what would become, in 1990, the entrance to Universal Studios Florida. From that inauspicious beginning, Harris Rosen expanded, culminating in the opening of Rosen Shingle Creek in 2006.

As a full-service convention hotel, the 1,501-room Rosen Shingle Creek contains 524,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space, including the 95,000-sf, column-free Gatlin Ballroom. The property features four swimming pools, a full-service spa, and an 18-hole, par-72 championship Shingle Creek Golf Club by the Arnold Palmer Design Company.

Dining is a particular point of pride at Rosen Shingle Creek, with a dedicated garden, Emma’s Creekside Farm, providing much of the seasonal produce used in the resort’s restaurants. The produce, usually served the same day it is harvested, can be incorporated into catered events. By anticipating the farm’s bounty months in advance, planners can develop their menu with the chefs to personalize events for seasonal availability. As a locally-based owner, Rosen empowers his staff to make decisions leading to world-class dining at the resort’s two AAA Four-Diamond venues, A Land Remembered and Cala Bella.

Opening in 2025, immediately north of Rosen Shingle Creek, is the dramatic expansion of the Universal Orlando Resort with its fourth theme park. Universal Epic Universe will feature more than 50 attractions, entertainment, and dining and shopping experiences — designed to transform the Universal resort into a weeklong vacation destination. Epic Universe will feature four themed lands, including Super Nintendo World; How to Train Your Dragon – Isle of Berk; Dark Universe; and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Ministry of Magic, where guests will discover a different era of the wizarding world blending 1920s wizarding Paris from the Fantastic Beasts films with the Harry Potter series.

Mark Woodbury, CEO of Universal Destinations & Experiences, says the expansion represents the most technologically advanced park Universal has ever done. “And that speaks to both the attractions themselves, the next generation of robotics drone technology, all the way through to the guest experience,” suggests Woodbury. “The full guest journey is really being taken to a whole new level.”

Universal has announced the addition of three new hotel properties to its Orlando portfolio, including two that will be co-owned and operated by Loews Hotels & Co: Universal Stella Nova Resort and Universal Terra Luna Resort. Each will feature 750 guest rooms in Universal’s Prime Value category. The two Loews hotels are scheduled to open in early 2025.

Major Orlando projects that are finished or nearing completion for 2024 are extensive:

In December, a property-wide transformation was revealed at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, including a head-to-toe renovation of all guest rooms, the lobby, new design and culinary innovations at its restaurants, refreshment of the Waldorf Astoria Spa and a complete restoration of the hotel’s 18-hole Waldorf Astoria Golf Club. The renewal marks the biggest enhancement to the property since its opening in 2009.

The renovations complete a project that launched in 2022, with the comprehensive enhancement of the Waldorf Astoria meeting and event spaces. This includes the brand-new Central Park Ballroom, which offers an 8,000-plus sf ballroom and nearly 2,600 sf of pre-function space. The design of the new ballroom pays homage to both the Florida destination through ornate carpeting and drawing a connection to Waldorf Astoria New York’s Art Deco roots. This addition brings Waldorf Astoria Orlando’s meetings and events offerings to nearly 60,000 sf of multi-functional meeting space, inclusive of two ballrooms.

Immediately next door, the Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is elevating the meetings experience with the new Waterside expansion. Now nearing completion, this two-story addition of over 90,000 sf of meeting space is located directly adjacent to the existing meeting space, overlooking the Bonnet Creek waterways. The Waterside expansion includes one ballroom, a screened lanai offering views of the Walt Disney World Resort fireworks, an outdoor patio, event lawn and seven additional meeting rooms. To complement the hotel’s meetings facilities, attendees can enjoy such amenities as a three-acre lazy river, zero-entry pool, private cabanas and six dining options, along with access to the adjacent Waldorf Astoria Spa.

Opened earlier this year, the Conrad Orlando sits inside the Evermore Orlando Resort, a sprawling 1,100-acre property immediately north of Walt Disney World. The 433-room Conrad Orlando draws inspiration from Florida’s natural springs and an adjacent 500-acre nature preserve, allowing the design to synchronize with the area’s natural landscape to create an indoor-outdoor environment. Luxurious guest rooms feature such sophisticated comforts as oak flooring, plush beds outfitted with Frette linens, bathrooms with marbled double vanities and Byredo bath products, and Nespresso machines.

Conrad Orlando is home to 65,000 sf of indoor and outdoor technology-focused meeting and event spaces. Offering a wide variety of possible configurations, the hotel’s group space consists of two dedicated ballrooms, seven divisible meeting rooms with natural light, two expansive terraces, the Lotus Boardroom and the multipurpose, turfed 9,000 sf Lyonia Lawn. Five distinct dining venues, a serene spa, and Evermore Bay, an 8-acre crystalline lagoon and expansive pool complex round out the Conrad Orlando facilities.

Opened in January, Aloft Orlando Lake Nona has 205 loft-style guest rooms, 15 suites, wellness facilities, a sports-themed restaurant and a 10,000 sf event center. The vibrant hotel welcomes visitors with eclectic décor and design nods to its music and technology roots that give each guest room its own character.

Located immediately southeast of the Orlando International Airport, Lake Nona is a planned neo-urban community and “Living Lab” with businesses such as SIMCOM, Johnson & Johnson, KPMG and Verizon. Last November, and after 11 years of calling Silicon Valley home, the annual three-day Techonomy conference moved across country to this new tech hotspot.

The multi-day retreat, dedicated to exploring the intersection of technology, business and social progress, was based at the 234-room Lake Nona Wave Hotel. Self-titled the “world’s most technologically advanced hotel” following its 2021 opening, the hotel features 12,000 sf of meeting space in a variety of settings, offering the latest in ultramodern technology.

Throughout Orlando, expansions and property upgrades have continued apace. The JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes completed several multimillion-dollar renovations in 2023, including a new and expansive waterpark, refreshed guest rooms and suites, the introduction of inspired executive family suites, and a redesigned and upgraded lobby lounge. The JW Marriott offers more than 144,000 sf of functional space for planners to incorporate into their events.

The Caribe Royale Orlando debuted Stadium Club in January, a 500-seat, immersive experiential sports and dining destination. The all-ages venue blends the exhilaration of sports with the allure of high-energy entertainment, alongside an elevated, chef-driven menu of upscale takes on classic dishes and cocktails. Offering the most sports simulators in the Southeast, there are 13 distinct play types to choose from, accommodating up to six players for lifelike simulations of football, soccer, golf and even zombie dodgeball. The high-energy, two-floor venue spans over 9,000 sf.

The Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando, in downtown Orlando, completed a comprehensive renovation with new additions. This includes the upscale Altira Rooftop Pool Lounge, where attendees can savor seasonally influenced dishes and specialty cocktails; the reimagined spaces like the property’s signature restaurant, The Boheme as well as the Bösendorfer Lounge and guest rooms. The hotel includes over 10,000 sf of meeting space.

Orlando has become Florida’s Tomorrowland, and planners’ favorite global resort destination. It continues to change and expand — marveling and drawing attendees looking to explore new worlds and ways of mixing business with pleasure. In Walt Disney’s words: “Tomorrow can be a wonderful age.” C&IT

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