Optimal airlift, plentiful entertainment and opportunities for team building abound in Orlando, Florida, says Leona Labruyere, CMP, director of events with EMPG, LLC.
“Orlando simply checks all the boxes for our conferences,” Labruyere says. “As an event executive, Orlando provides me with fresh and exciting opportunities.”
Labruyere’s company chose Orlando for a late winter 2022 annual conference due to its easy accessibility for East Coast members, and the driving distance for those living in the Southeast. “By making it as easy as possible for our attendees to travel to a destination, we find they are happier once they arrive.”
Adding to the appeal of Orlando as a convention destination is a long list of hotels with large ballroom spaces that provide meetings planners a variety of choices for conference venues. “A convention center layout is simply too large for our needs and budget,” Labruyere says. “Our conferences are best fit within a specific hotel that can accommodate our ballroom space requirements, as well as our room block needs. Due to our targeted member group, quality catering and hospitality is essential, which is something that I scrutinize during the initial site visit and conversations.”
Labruyere chose the 781-room Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld for the 300-attendee conference, and she effused over the hotel team with which she worked. “It is clear when you walk onto a property for the first time and witness cheerful team members working harmoniously together that they are cared for and enjoy a balanced work culture. Longevity and tenure speak volumes, and many have been at the property for more than 20 years. When you talk with just about any team member, the joy in their voices and energy they have is contagious. Their positive energy shines through during an event, resulting in happy attendees.”
Following a major meeting space expansion in 2019, the Renaissance now has more than 200,000 sf of flexible meetings and events space, including three ballrooms ranging up to 36,288 sf, and a plethora of breakout spaces. “Each of the ballrooms are easily conformed to create appropriate spaces for any event and are easily accessible with the atrium-style floor plan of the hotel,” Labruyere says. “Each of these spaces are near one another, so if multiple ballrooms are needed, the walking distance is short in comparison to other properties.” She adds: “The Peninsula Ballroom, which is the newest, offers what I would call ‘smart meeting space’ that can be configured into different sizes to meet any needs due to the airwall placement and capability. The reception desk offered an extra lockable storage office behind the desk, along with a small meeting room with floor-to-ceiling glass walls for private conversations. Due to the atrium layout, all the ballrooms have easy access to the outdoors and open floor plan lobby. Restaurants are all near one another — Tradewinds, Boardwalk, Mist Wine Bar and Starbucks — and the hotel also has two beautiful outdoor event locations adjacent to the pool area. Depending on your specific event needs, these are perfect locations for a welcome cocktail reception or a mid-size dinner to allow attendees the opportunity to enjoy a bit of fresh air and Florida sunshine.”
An on-site FedEx Office for shipping and last-minute printing requests, the Privai Spa and oversized, well-appointed guest rooms — which will undergo a complete renovation in 2023 — are among the other things Labruyere cited as assets for her event. But one other detail was essential for her group: quality catering.
“Our attendees are discerning of food and beverage, so it was important that the hotel provided unique experiences during our conference,” Labruyere says. “They did not disappoint, creating two custom menus that included items that are not on their standard banquet menus. The care that they took for developing these menus was unparalleled and, trust me, our members noticed. In our post-conference surveys, many said, ‘Best conference food ever.’ That says a lot.”
Labruyere applauded members of the Renaissance team that helped ensure the success of her event. “We could not have completed our event without these true professionals,” Labruyere says. “We compiled 60-plus hand-written notes, along with gratuities, and submitted them to all the team members at the hotel that touched our event. It takes a village to pull off an event, and we wanted people to know how much we appreciated them for making our event such a success.”
For more than a year now, the message from the state of Florida to meetings planners and vacationers alike has been loud and clear: We’re open for business. Any pandemic-related rules that were in place to mandate social distancing, limit capacity or restrict non-essential travel were ended in early fall 2020, when Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Phase Three of the Plan for Florida’s Recovery was put into effect. Perhaps no U.S. city has benefitted from the aggressive reopening plan as much as Orlando. Plus, during the pandemic, projects continued, producing a roster of new facilities, upgrades and expansions. Among the most notable:
The Caribe Royale Orlando completed a $127 million renovation that not only gives the property a contemporary new look, but adds the 50,000-sf Palms Ballroom. All 1,215 one-bedroom suites have been reimagined, and new amenities and services have been added, plus the reception building has been redesigned with new check-in desks and technology, plus a large Starbucks and new lounge, the Rum Bar by Bacardi. The property now has 220,000 sf of total meeting space, including four ballrooms and a bevy of breakout rooms.
In 2021, the Hyatt Regency Orlando completed a $20 million renovation of its meetings space that touched five ballrooms, more than 100 breakout rooms and all foyer space. The 315,000 sf of versatile meetings and events space now has a contemporary design that highlights the natural colors of Florida and includes new carpet, wall coverings, artwork, lighting fixtures and seating with communal tables. A new Regency Lounge is perfect for reception or dinners for up to 70 people, with doors that open onto an outdoor patio. Two large LED walls were added at the registration desk that groups can use to customize messaging for attendees.
As part of an ongoing renovation to be completed this year, Orlando World Center Marriott is fully renovating its 2,010 guest rooms and Grand Ballroom, and will add 24 additional breakout rooms, providing a total of 450,000 sf of flexible events space, including indoor and outdoor options. A new waterpark opening this year, River Falls, features three waterslides and a 575-foot lazy river, and the resort’s new nightly poolside Laser Light Show can be customized for group events.
The Walt Disney World Swan Reserve is the newest addition to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. It’s a standalone, 14-story building featuring 349 guest rooms — including 149 suites — that adds almost 16,000 sf of indoor meeting space, featuring two ballrooms and almost 14,000 sf of outdoor space. Including the existing Swan and Dolphin wings, the resort’s total meeting space has ballooned to more than 350,000 sf.
And, JW Marriott recently debuted a second flag for the brand in the area, the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa. The location, at the edge of the Walt Disney World Resort property, calls for a different approach from the elite JW name, to capture some of the family market headed to the Disney parks. This means Family Suites, custom-designed for multigenerational groups, and family activities such as a rooftop 9-hole mini-golf course, a rock-climbing wall and a conservatory with daily children’s activities.
Although the new JW Marriott has a smaller meetings footprint than might be expected for a 516-room, business-oriented hotel — 50,000 sf of event space — the overall package was “very impressive” for James Walsh, marketing events manager for the North American Partners in Anesthesia. For the company’s first annual Clinical Leadership Summit since the start of the pandemic, held early this year, Walsh needed a warm-weather destination with nonstop flight options, a hotel partner that could roll with attrition, and a setting that would appeal to a special demographic. “I work with a lot of physicians, and they have a very particular kind of taste in what they want to experience at a hotel,” Walsh says. “They want an elevated feel, nothing dated; they want to feel they’re being catered to and, being who they are, they don’t want to stay at a Disney resort. At the JW Marriott, there are no pastel greens, so it doesn’t look like a Florida retirement home. It gave me neutral tones, so the space felt very modern, and although it’s technically on the Disney property, there’s not a trace of Disney.”
Walsh continues: “It’s a resort that will impress everyone. Yes, a big portion of that is that it’s a brand new space — you can tell hundreds of people haven’t stayed in your room yet. It’s a great space, and not a huge property with a disconnect between sleeping areas and where you have your conference.” But a lot of the service Walsh received was simple reassurance that all was going to go smoothly, and then delivering on that promise. “It wasn’t until I got there that I realized how much support I was going to receive from everyone, that we were all in this together. It never felt like things were my problem, and when I needed someone to talk things through with, my event manager … was right there to support me. She was my right-hand, my go-to for everything.”
Walsh notes that, until the start of the event, he didn’t know for sure how many of the scheduled attendees would show up. “Flights were getting canceled, so I didn’t know how to get the order right on food,” Walsh says. “I was anticipating 10% to not show up, but we actually had more arrive than we expected and needed more food. Every person on the hotel staff and in catering talked to me, said ‘Hello,’ and we had a lot of comments about good the food was.”
The measure of a successful conference? “I came out of the event and every single one of my executive leaders came back to me and said, ‘We’re doing this event here next year, right?’”
Nearby, the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek was the setting for a conference that also took place early this year. Anne Campbell, CMP, team lead, events and awards at Ohio National Financial Services, was deep into final preparations for an 80-person Agency Builders Conference set for late winter. “The hotel [was] absolutely wonderful in providing solutions to any concerns we raised as we return to meeting in person,” Campbell says. “The Wyndham is a great match for us with the meeting space we need, where even with a smaller group, we can still be the big fish in the house. Almost all of the meeting space is on one level, separate from the hotel and leisure space. There is a wonderful, nice-sized foyer outside of the ballroom that we love for breaks, and [we had] our group breakfasts and lunches in a sunny inside area that walks out to the pool deck, so our guests experienced the beautiful Florida sunshine even when they were indoors.”
The 400-room Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek is located on an inholding within Walt Disney World, 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 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.
Naturally, Orlando’s weather is a prime drawing card for the Midwest-based attendees. “Florida is very inviting in February,” Campbell says. “We have found Orlando to be a great city for this annual conference due to its unique offerings. Our attendees like the fact that airport transfers aren’t very long. Additionally, while this conference is mostly business, we try to go off-site for dinner one night, as well as host group activities one afternoon to build in some leisure networking time for our attendees. Disney Springs offers a variety of options for an off-site dinner venue, and Orlando provides so many recreational opportunities that it’s actually hard to narrow down to just two to three choices.”
Extracurricular activities included a golf scramble at Disney’s Lake Buena Vista Course, and a group went to EPCOT one afternoon. “We made the decision to not invite spouses this year to allow more social distancing in room sets for both business sessions and meal functions,” Campbell says. “The hotel gave us the choice to have attendant-served buffets and break stations, which we happily took them up on. Our [convention services manager was] extremely helpful in coordinating with all in-house departments so we only [had] to worry about getting her the information and know she [got] it in the right hands.”
This year’s gathering was the company’s first in two years, and the hotel went “above and beyond” to work with the group when they weren’t ready to meet in person in 2021. “This experience was so positive, not only did we contract for 2022, but we also contracted for 2023,” Campbell says.
Of course, with its wealth of large meeting properties and entertainment options, Orlando is also a prime target for city-wide events, a major reason Tanya Feldman, senior account executive with ITA Group, chose the city for a manufacturing company’s 9,100-attendee Franchisee Conference last August. “Several factors make Orlando very attractive — the size of hotels and meeting space, the family draw, good airlift and partners who do a good job with large groups,” says Feldman, who adds, “One of the biggest is the options for entertainment for a large group. We have used Universal and SeaWorld in the past, and this time we used Magic Kingdom. It was definitely a team effort between all parties, including Disney Event Group and ACCESS DMC, but the event was a huge hit.”
The client’s conference was originally set for 2020, but in June of that year, it was moved to 2021. “The biggest impact that the pandemic had was that we needed to have multiple back up plans in place — it was a constant moving target. We joked that we had plan A, plan B and plan C — and probably a few more — and we didn’t know which one we were going to use until the day of.”
ITA Group used the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center as the base hotel, with overflow going to Orlando World Center Marriott and four Disney resorts. Guests staying at Gaylord Palms enjoyed the fruits of a just-completed, $158 million resort expansion. The project added more than 100,000 sf of new meetings space, more than 300 new guest rooms and new outdoor meetings spaces, including a terrace venue and an event lawn. The resort’s water park was expanded with an “action river” attraction that guests can enjoy when taking a break or finished with meetings. In total, Gaylord Palms now has 1,718 guest rooms and more than 500,000 sf of meetings and events space. “The new guest rooms and meeting space have only increased the value of this property for group business,” Feldman says. “I would also highlight their F&B capabilities. We were a complete buy-out of the hotel, but had several other properties as well, so our F&B numbers were closer to 9,000 and they delivered. They were flexible throughout the planning process and willing to work together to make sure that it was a positive experience for everyone.”
Feldman adds, “We have a strong partnership with Gaylord Palms, and they continually deliver an amazing experience for us and our attendees. They have buy-in from their general manager and senior leadership on down. One thing that really stands out is their willingness to listen. Very rarely, if at all, do you hear ‘We can’t do that,’ or ‘No.’ I know that not all of our requests are easy or even realistic, but I appreciate that they are willing to have a discussion around the topic and come to an agreement that is acceptable for everyone.
Feldman concludes: “They are completely invested in the success of your event. During a very challenging time in our industry, it was great to know that it truly was a partnership.” C&IT