Visit Orlando has a new CEO and president, Casandra Matej, longtime head of the San Antonio CVB, who formally took over in Orlando early this year. Currently also serving on the board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association, and formerly on the board of Destinations International, Matej brings a wealth of experience to the job and a solid vision of where one of the top bureaus in the meetings industry will go following the seemingly interminable pandemic year that was 2020.
“Orlando is the epicenter for all things travel and tourism, and I look forward to representing this incredible destination where imagination comes to life,” Matej said when she was hired. “I am honored to have been part of the seismic changes that united and grew the unique San Antonio tourism industry, and to now serve the Orlando destination, which is recognized around the world for its spirit of innovation and collaboration. It’s crucial that Orlando thrives not only locally, but in healing the nation, and I am excited about working with the Visit Orlando professionals to make a difference for the industry and community.”
By all accounts, Orlando is indeed moving forward into the latter half of 2021. AccuTrain has held an annual education conference in Orlando at the Caribe Royale Orlando for multiple years. This year, the conference will run in November and is scheduled for next March as well. “Orlando is an obvious attraction with beautiful weather and terrific entertainment venues,” says Phil Price, president, adding that it’s also easy to get to via dozens of direct flights from cities all over North America, as well as by car. “We do four multi-day conferences in a typical non-COVID year: Orlando, Atlanta, Las Vegas and San Antonio. A few years ago, we tested conferences in Toronto and Niagara Falls, Ontario, without much success. We now attract so many Canadians to Orlando, we’ve decided to make that our Canadian Innovative Schools Summit.”
Price calls Orlando’s theme parks “an obvious opportunity” that attendees take advantage of on their own. “We haven’t found the formula to do a group activity, partly due to lack of availability in the evening,” he says. “Our most popular group experience has actually been attending Orlando Magic NBA games.”
The Caribe Royale’s location close to Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando is definitely a plus, but it’s not just about location. “It’s a beautiful resort with three residential towers centered around a great pool complex,” Price says. “The conference facility is an easy walk from any of the hotel rooms and the conference center has recently been expanded and updated. By the time we get there in November, all of the sleeping rooms and lobby areas will have been refurbished — although our attendees already loved everything.”
The resort’s pool area, with its water slide, outdoor table tennis and pool tables, provides a central gathering area for attendees. “There’s a lot more after-conference interaction between attendees because of the central pool area, as well as the lobby bar and restaurants,” Price says. “It’s a great place for our attendees to take a break from an intense semester.” Price gives high marks to the hotel staff and on-site PSAV A/V team, and says during the pandemic the resort has stepped up. “The Caribe has provided assurances about cleansing and the availability of hand sanitizers. They require masks in the hotel. They’ve also been great about allowing for proper distancing between seats” and, he adds, the hotel has been flexible. “We’ve had to reschedule several times as the pandemic has continued on and on.”
Other standouts, according to Price, include great food and beverage options at reasonable prices. In the past, attendees were on their own for lunch, but in November, Price says that will change. “We plan to work with the Caribe to provide a sandwich option in the convention center, a convenient alternative for our attendees, in addition to the hotel restaurants and 24-hour café.” Perhaps most importantly, Price continues, “The hotel has lots of terrific meeting space and has just increased it. It’s one of the reasons we love the Caribe.”
The hotel is a great partner, Price says, for example, providing free Wi-Fi to attendees and allowing AccuTrain to load in its own materials — mostly books, signs and printed material — which saves money. “A couple of times we’ve had a room set aside for exhibitors and sponsors, but couldn’t figure out a good way to build traffic for them,” Price adds. “The Caribe worked with us to move our tables to the lobby area in the convention center, which has worked great. And in November, the event will be livestreamed from Orlando for the first time.”
Whatever comes up, Price has confidence in the resort. “The Caribe staff,” he says, “is very easy to work with and very service oriented.” The resort recently announced that it has achieved a major milestone in its $125 million phased renovation. A stunning 50,000-sf all-new grand ballroom and the first tower of fully renovated one-bedroom suites are now open and receiving meeting and leisure guests. Renovation work continues on the resort’s two additional towers of suites, and a new lobby featuring extensive lighting upgrades and a dramatic new arrival experience, all scheduled for completion by the end of this year.
Last fall, 180 attendees gathered at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando for the annual leadership meeting of Buddy’s Home Furnishings. Between the location and the Loews brand itself, Teresa Hill, CFE, V.P., operational support, finds a lot to love. “This location is in the heart of Orlando’s entertainment hub. Loews is a short and inexpensive ride to and from the Orlando airport, and the hotel has done an amazing job of making sure the hotel décor, guest rooms and landscaping remain fresh inside and out. The amazing thing about the Loews properties here is that there are eight different hotels in four different categories, all in close proximity to each other and the parks. Depending on the hotel, there are different levels of amenities and price points, making it easy to find something for everyone. But no matter which you choose, each provides the same top-notch service and complimentary transportation to/from the parks via bus or boat.”
Hill says her company has hosted four events at the Loews properties in Orlando, and each event has been special because of the level of service provided by staff. “One year, we hosted our annual awards night at the Wantilan Pavilion, located in the middle of the lush gardens on the Royal property. The Polynesian themed décor, beautifully lit gardens with fire features, fire dancers, native Polynesian musicians, and traditional luau buffet, immersed the group in the full Polynesian experience and culture around which the hotel is centered. This event was described by our attendees as ‘our best one ever.’”
As things changed over the course of the pandemic, Hill says the Loews team worked with her to make last year’s meeting a success. “The staff were amazing in making us feel comfortable moving forward with this in-person event, and were very flexible in adjusting our dates and our guest numbers as needed. The communication from our sales manager and our conference manager was great. This team over communicated all of the changes and safety protocols that the hotel had adopted to ensure a safe meeting. The hotel didn’t just adhere to the minimum suggested standard for safety and cleanliness, it went above and beyond. Any questions or concerns we had were addressed immediately.” Those safety measures, Hill continues, “were evident immediately upon arrival at the property, including temperature checks, sanitizer stations, cleaning personnel addressing high-touch areas, safety checkpoints at entrances and exits, individually wrapped food items, adjusted server-manned/shielded buffets and more.”
Loews Royal Pacific wrapped a major renovation of the lobby last year, and there were guest room renovations at Portofino Bay Hotel and the lobby bar at Hard Rock Hotel as well. Hill likes that updates are ongoing. “The Loews properties continue to update their décor, amenities, menus and technology to stay current with the latest trends and needs of their guests,” she says. “The rooms at the Royal Pacific are absolutely stunning.”
Then there’s location. “Universal Studios and CityWalk are just minutes away via bus or boat, or even a short stroll along the beautifully landscaped walking paths,” Hill says. “We’ve enjoyed group dinners at CityWalk. Our conference manager assisted in securing reservations at the restaurant, and we were able to charge the cost of the dinner to our master account, making our expense management an easy and efficient process.”
Hill is particularly clear about one thing: “The Loews properties conference manager is the go-to person for everything. This person will work with you on your F&B needs, scheduling, décor, internet and technology needs, guest rooms, etc. Although many of these tasks may be the responsibility of a third-party vendor or another internal department, the conference managers have their hands in everything to ensure that your event comes together and is executed flawlessly. For example, the conference group chat app that the hotel provides is a lifesaver. If there’s anything you need, such as more refreshments, the temperature adjusted, etc., you simply type your request into the app and the appropriate person or department responds quickly. The property also has meeting rooms in every size to accommodate small, medium or large groups while ensuring appropriate social distancing.”
Bottom line, Hill adds, “The Loews team members deliver the highest levels of customer satisfaction. My group had an amazing experience this past fall and we’re happy to report that there were no COVID issues post-meeting.”
One planner, Deana P., says her company decided to meet in Orlando the first week of February, choosing Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort for its annual Kickoff and Exhibit Event with 600 in attendance. “This hotel was a good fit for our group due primarily to its location and ease of access for attendees,” says the planner. “We have a large number of local attendees, and Orlando is a centralized location. The entertainment element is another highlight for selecting Orlando. When we select a property, the location and nearby entertainment options are key factors in the decision-making process. We host this program annually and look for an upgraded resort experience for our guests.”
The group made use of outdoor spaces to keep attendees safe. “Our welcome reception allowed us to greet guests and have all attendees in a safe and social environment at the resort’s outdoor space,” she says. “It was a great event to kick off our meeting. And due to staying at the Swan and Dolphin, we were also able to host an exclusive experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom for an off-site event for our attendees.”
The resort delivered a high level of service and attention to detail, as well as to attendees, she says. “The meeting and event management, and catering teams, were extremely helpful and knowledgeable throughout the planning process. They were well versed on different processes that we could put into place to ensure safety, and we complied with recommendations to provide additional comfort for attendees.”
Steps taken included expanding the meeting-space footprint. She adds, “My meeting and event manager provided multiple diagrams during planning. On-site, there were hand sanitizer stations everywhere. Staff made sure entrances and exits had a seamless flow to make everyone feel safe and to provide social distancing. Contactless check-in with the app was also a great feature to provide an option for guests.”
The planner says meal functions were similar, with staff focused on directing attendees and flowing lines properly, allowing attendees to move quickly through buffets, and meal service, without congestion or backups. “There was signage throughout meeting space and meal functions to clearly communicate safety instructions and protocols. All of these little details on-site made our attendees feel very safe. We received numerous compliments about the resort staff and level of service attendees experienced. Some attendees were apprehensive prior to arrival, but once on-site, they felt extremely comfortable attending the event because of the practices we put in place to ensure safety,” she says. “Another layer of the experience that made the event really great was the ability to quickly communicate directly with my banquet captain and catering contact. They were extremely available and continued to communicate all updates daily.”
All in all, she says the resort’s ability to provide numerous safety processes was key. “I wanted to have as many measures in place as possible. Everyone has a different level of comfort when attending an event. I wanted to make sure that whatever comfort level each guest had, we had the measures in place to meet that comfort level.” What she really appreciated, the planner adds, was the high level of service prior to and during the meeting, as well as the high quality of F&B and décor, and the ease of load-in/out for meeting and exhibit space, among other things. “Although the property is a large convention resort, we didn’t receive any negative feedback regarding attendees navigating the property. Additionally, the meeting and event manager was extremely accommodating, and as any challenges arose, we were able to work together to adjust on the fly.”
She encourages groups to view the planning process as a partnership with the hotel. “I recommend communicating with hotel staff on all details. This requires additional time, but for us the results were worth it. The partnership and extra steps were appreciated by all attendees and did not go unnoticed,” she says. “It was a superb experience. Everything was above and beyond leading up to and during the event. This destination is all about exceptional service. It didn’t disappoint.” Later this year, the resort will open its new 14-story hotel, The Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, a deluxe lodging and meeting option ideal for small to mid-size groups. Among the highlights, an upscale top-floor event space with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Orlando’s DMCs are front and center in what’s happening in the city. Orlando-based Angie Nelson, regional V.P., southeast with PRA Business Events, says there’s a lot to look forward to. “Q3 and Q4 are going to be busy. Florida is open for business.” Her office is already working with multiple groups — ranging from 250 to 6,000 attendees — planning to meet in Orlando in 2021. One difference from previous years, she says, is that attendees are generally coming from domestic destinations as the international travel piece is still so uncertain.
Nelson says the city has gone above and beyond in terms of implementing health and safety protocols, but emphasizes that the changes are “guest friendly” so as not to interfere with the quality of the meeting experience. She lists mask protocols and enforcement, temperature checks, signage, social distancing and extraordinary attention to detail as among the city’s programs and processes to keep groups safe.
The Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) has also proved its ability to safely host groups. “Several large groups have met at the OCCC with tremendous success,” Nelson says. “The facility is so large that groups have found it easy to meet social-distancing requirements.” The same is true at Orlando hotels. “We had a group of 400 last August that met at one of the local hotels. We adjusted the norms — four to six guests at 72-inch rounds, larger ballrooms than usual, changes to F&B protocols — and everything went smoothly and seamlessly. It can be done with a little patience and planning. And flexibility; flexibility is key.”
Although everyone is anxious to return to in-person events, Nelson thinks hybrid and virtual events are here to stay, and other COVID-era processes will remain as well. “With many companies focused on how to work day-to-day from home, on some level, meetings will remain in the digital space. In-person events will return, but with new health and safety policies. Those policies will be consistent with how we design the attendee experience. The well-being of an attendee will take center stage,” Nelson says.
As attendees’ comfort level with meeting in person increases, Nelson sees regional events coming back strong. “Hub-and-spoke experiences — small groups gathering in person in various locations, connected to one another digitally and with remote individuals — will also help us gather together soon. However,” she adds, “I think 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. scheduled event days are behind us. We’ll see more time in the day for flexibility and more time utilized in outdoor areas.”
In spite of 2020’s challenges, Nelson is hopeful. “The events industry was hit hard this last year and we’ve seen many colleagues lose their jobs and businesses close. I think we’re all going to band together in a way we’ve never seen before,” she says. “Clients and suppliers will work together in more of a partnership to accomplish all we need to make events great. We’ve shaken off the old — the old way we did events; the old way we looked at events. We’re now seeing all the possibilities to revive what we’ve done with a new light on it. Wellness is key. Sustainability will play a key role. How our events have a positive social impact will be front and center. All of these elements will evolve from a two-hour programmed portion of an event to a holistic approach in how the event should be planned. Events will become far more inclusive of all participants. It’s a new world for our industry as a whole.”
To meeting planners everywhere, Nelson says, “Orlando is ready for you. We’ve done everything we can to be proactive about health and safety in order to restore confidence in the destination. Leadership at the theme parks, city officials and tourism agencies are all committed to ensuring that clients feel good about their decision to meet this year in Orlando.”
By all indications, Nelson is right. Orlando is ready for meetings — and prepared for whatever creativity and innovation is necessary to make them happen. C&IT