Corporate planners have long used the “themed event” as the centerpiece to their meetings. Typically, it’s an awards ceremony or final-night banquet that is inspired by anything from cultural or historical periods such as ’50s America, to concepts such as “breaking barriers” or “embracing the future,” to color schemes such as the elegant black-and-white motif. But the entire meeting, not just a night or two, is made memorable when staged at one of the country’s great theme parks.
There are the familiar bastions of amusement created by Disney and Universal, and parks with more specific themes, such as SeaWorld and Colonial Williamsburg. And the industry is still growing, with developers recently announcing plans to open a Grand Texas theme park in the spring of 2015 on 600 acres of land 30 miles northeast of downtown Houston. Grand Texas is expected to include a ballpark for an independent minor league team and a water park.
Whether the theme is the Lone Star State or the Magic Kingdom, some planners feel less pressure when staging a meeting at a theme park, as the opportunities for group events and diversions are all at their fingertips.
“It does make my job a little easier,” remarks Jackie Lang, Event Planning Manager at Lakeville-Middleboro, MA-based Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. Just this March, the company held its North American National Sales Meeting at Walt Disney World Resort for the fourth time, bringing just over 100 attendees to the 867-room Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
“There are so many entertainment options offered by Disney,” she continues. “Even if attendees didn’t go on theme park adventures, they had plenty of beautiful pools to lounge by. I didn’t have to go out and source any convention bureaus; it was a one-stop shop.” The Disney events team was very “hands-on,” she adds. “I would give them a budget for an event, and they would come back to me with what they felt would best fit for my group, along with other suggestions. They really do a deep dive into who their attendees will be for that function, their ages and preferences.”
The wealth of venues and entertainment surrounding the group may lighten the planning load, but at the same time, there is often the concern that it will distract from business. Lang, however, feels that once attendees are in a well-appointed meeting room that is removed from the commotion of leisure guests, it will be business as usual.
“The Grand Floridian has a separate conference area. We had no distractions, so it worked out extremely well,” she says. All of the hotel’s 40,000 sf of meeting space, including its 18,219-sf Grand Floridian Ballroom, 5,885-sf St. Augustine Hall and 16 meeting rooms, is on one contiguous level. What’s more, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recently renewed the Green Lodging designation for the Grand Floridian, along with all other Disney-owned and operated resorts in the state.
Attendees who have been to Universal Orlando Resort many times have new attractions to explore with this summer’s opening of Transformers: The Ride-3D based on the popular Transformers films; and Springfield, an environment themed after The Simpsons animated series. And next year, they’ll be able to board The Hogwarts Express and commute between the two Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, the latter also opening next year.
Universal Orlando is not short on meeting space, with a total of 250,000 sf. Loews Portofino Bay Hotel contributes 42,000 sf to that figure, and its 750 guest rooms and suites were completely renovated with a new Mediterranean-inspired design last April. Next summer, Universal Orlando will debut Cabana Bay Beach Resort, offering value rates and a theme reflecting nostalgic Americana. The property will house 900 guest rooms and 900 family suites. While no traditional meeting space will be onsite, Cabana Bay will feature several informal gathering spots designed for groups, according to Universal Orlando.
Last year, SeaWorld Orlando officially became part of SeaWorld Parks & Resorts, which also includes Discovery Cove, an all-inclusive swim-with-dolphins resort, and Aquatica, SeaWorld’s water park. Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is SeaWorld’s newest addition, which debuted last spring. The tuxedoed inhabitants fit right in when attendees enjoy reception-style events in the “coldest theme park attraction in the world” (accommodating up to 750 people), including entertainment from the Iceberg Stage.
Planners also can arrange tours for 40–100 attendees at a time, and secure front-line access to rides such as Kraken, Journey to Atlantis, Wild Arctic and Manta. A two-hour teambuilding activity is also available, where groups of 15–250 participants set out on various “missions” throughout the park, whether searching for flamingoes or taking pictures with dolphins.
SeaWorld is complemented by the 1,094-room DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld, with 60,000 sf of meeting space, but the park has its own specialized venue for groups: Ports of Call. Here, groups of 100–750 can enjoy a covered patio, tropical gardens, and convene in a 12,000-sf ballroom, divisible into three sections.
Chantilly, VA-based TriSept Corporation, a systems engineering services provider, has held one of its corporate getaways at Walt Disney World Resort, but more recently took 65 attendees, including employees and spouses, to a very different kind of theme park in the company’s home state: Colonial Williamsburg. While the focus was “strategic planning,” says TriSept President Robert Spicer, the meeting was also “my way of saying thank you to our folks for all their hard work and extra hours. So we have the all-day company meeting, but we also give them free time to go enjoy the theme park.” Moreover, Colonial Williamsburg fit the group demographically. “They are very patriotic people to begin with, and we visited over the July 4th weekend. We figured, what a great place to learn about where our country began.” Of course, pride in being American doesn’t necessarily go along with a deep interest in American history. “Some of our people weren’t big history buffs,” noted Cathy Spicer, TriSept’s vice president of contracts, “but they absolutely had a great time, and it actually inspired them to get more interested in the history.”
In the same way that the Disney events team gave Lang very personalized planning assistance, Colonial Williamsburg’s team was instrumental in designing TriSept’s corporate getaway. “They had a lot of great ideas, and they really helped out by explaining all the different events they had going on there,” says Robert Spicer. “They actually encouraged us to go to Yorktown and Jamestown and places nearby, including Busch Gardens (free bus service is available to these destinations). So they helped us plan out what we were going to do that entire weekend.” For example, “we didn’t know the fife and drum was available as an escort from the Williamsburg Lodge to the taverns. They helped us with that and set up the tavern night,” adds Cathy Spicer. “If you do it yourself, there are many things you wouldn’t even know are available.”
While planners can be surprised by what Colonial Williamsburg offers, so can attendees. As the TriSept group was enjoying dessert one evening, “Patrick Henry” popped in to tell a story from revolutionary history. The Founding Father and post-colonial governor of Virginia even encouraged questions from the attendees, Robert Spicer relates, adding that other Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, also are available to add even more colonial authenticity to a meeting, and their speeches can be customized to relate to corporate objectives.
Speaking of corporate objectives, Colonial Williamsburg offers a variety of meeting spaces to complement its various hotels, including the Williamsburg Inn, Colonial Houses, Williamsburg Lodge, and Woodlands Hotel & Suites, which comprise 1,060 guest rooms. The Lodge features a 70,000-sf conference center, part of a total 105,000 sf of function space at the theme park, and the 12,000-sf Virginia Lawn.
Farther up the East Coast is a theme park that celebrates the sweet side of American history. Milton S. Hershey built the world’s first modern chocolate factory 110 years ago in Hershey, PA, and today’s Hersheypark is a tribute to the success of that endeavor. The park has long been a reliable mid-Atlantic site choice for planners, particularly with the consolidated services of Hershey Meetings. The team helps clients find the best lodging and meeting spaces across Hersheypark’s properties: the 665-room Hershey Lodge (100,000 sf), the 276-room Hotel Hershey (25,000 sf), and Hershey Country Club (10,672 sf). Teambuilding activities, from kayaking to paintball, are coordinated through Hershey Outfitters and the Hershey Leadership and Development Center.
For attendees who just want to unwind, there is The Spa At The Hotel Hershey, designed as an homage to High Point Mansion, the home of Milton and Catherine Hershey.
Theme parks such as Colonial Williamsburg and Hersheypark are integrated with hotels, which does tend to make the planning process more streamlined. But nearby hoteliers see their share of theme park-bound groups, and are typically quite well versed in what the park offers. Such is the case with the 489-room, AAA Four Diamond Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City, located just a block away from the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood. Trissa Weiser, director of corporate communications for North Hollywood, CA-based IPC: The Hospitalist Company, also serves as meeting planner for the national physicians group practice. She regularly works with the Hilton, which is a “very value added” property that easily accommodates her meetings’ various breakouts with 60,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space, including the 16,000-sf Sierra Ballroom.
“I do a lot of events without an assistant or a staff. When I go to negotiate with a property, I look for partnership above everything else, and the Hilton is outstanding (in that regard),” Weiser comments. “They feel comfortable providing input to me, from the space to the setup to the meal selection. For example, someone will call me back and say, ‘You’ve made great lunch selections, but we noticed that the dessert served at lunch on day one is the same as day three, so we’re going to go ahead and change that for you.’ They put a lot of thought into my program and take ownership of it. Also, our company is very culturally diverse, so I always need to have kosher, vegan and other meal options, and they’re able to accommodate all of our needs in a very delicious manner.”
On the last night of their leadership retreat, the IPC group takes the 5-10 minute stroll to Universal Studios Hollywood, where Weiser rents the bowling alley at Jillian’s in CityWalk for three to four hours. The venue accommodates up to 1,200 attendees and offers 10 lanes of bowling, pool tables and arcade games, catering, two full-service bars and a private suite for groups. Overall, the proximity to Universal Studios serves to make the program more attractive, especially for attendees flying in from towns that lack major theme parks. “For somebody that has never been here before, say from Kansas City or St. Louis, Universal Studios is a huge deal for them and has strong brand recognition,” says Weiser, adding that “10-15 percent of the time they’ll bring their families out and stay the weekend, since we have a Wednesday through Friday program.”
Adults have plenty of diversions on hand with The Blues Brothers ride, the Studio Tour, The NBCUniversal Experience and CityWalk with more than 60 restaurants, shops and nightclubs, while children can look forward to Water World, Shrek 4-D, Transformers: The Ride 3-D and much more.
For some events, such as Ocean Spray’s growers meeting, the “family factor” does tip the scales in favor of theme parks. “Ocean Spray is a cooperative owned by our growers, and so many of the owners are family-run cranberry farms,” Lang explains. “So they will come to the meeting with spouses and kids.” The March 2012 growers meeting went so well, says Lang, that she rebooked Disney World for 2016 and will be expecting more than 600 attendees.
Just as Disney World properties are busy maintaining their Green Lodging designations, Disneyland Resort, in Anaheim, CA, is also making strides on the eco front. This April, the venerable theme park was honored by the Clean the World Foundation Inc. for donating nearly 20,000 pounds of partially used soap and bottled bath amenities last year. And in June, the four-year transformation of the Disneyland Hotel was capped off with the opening of the Blue Sky Suite in the Fantasy Tower. Designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, the 3,000-sf space is intended to encourage “blue sky” thinking for groups of up to 15 attendees. Situated on the 11th floor, the suite offers panoramic views and an open-air lanai; bright, modern furnishings and classic Disney artwork; and built-in audio-visual equipment including three televisions, two of which feature 55-inch screens that can be programmed to show presentations simultaneously. Complimentary Wi-Fi is also available. The AAA Four Diamond Disneyland Hotel offers 969 newly refurbished guest rooms and a 136,000-sf convention center, along with two new private event lawns totaling 20,000 sf.
The Blue Sky Suite is born from Disney’s culture of creativity, another factor that motivates Lang and her company to bring meetings to Disney. “One of our values as a company is respect for innovation. And I think Disney shares that value,” she notes. In a similar vein, Colonial Williamsburg is an embodiment of TriSept’s patriotic spirit, and so the site choice is a natural fit. In general, planners do well to consider whether the concept and inspiration behind a theme park in some way reflects their corporate values or culture. Granted, attendees can likely have both fun and a productive meeting at any of the major parks. But why not make the site choice that much more meaningful? C&IT