FloridaDecember 12, 2022

Planners and Attendees Keep This Destination Atop Their Lists By
December 12, 2022


Planners and Attendees Keep This Destination Atop Their Lists
Florida offers access to exclusive accommodations such as Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys. Courtesy Photo

Florida offers access to exclusive accommodations such as Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys. Courtesy Photo

It’s no surprise that Florida continues to be a top destination for meeting planners in the financial and insurance industries, as the state offers ideal weather, plenty of activities and some of the most advanced places to host events. Although the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on the industry for almost two years, things are back in full swing, and planners are bringing their big meetings and trade shows back to the state in numbers that are matching and, in some cases, even exceeding 2019 levels.

Tons of Attractions

Greater Fort Lauderdale is packed with tons of attractions from the shore to the suburbs. Whether one wants to embrace the great outdoors at the many parks and natural wonders — the grand dame of them all being the Florida Everglades — snorkel or sunbathe along 24 miles of beautiful beaches, or eat and drink one’s way around world-class bars and restaurants, Greater Fort Lauderdale has plenty to offer in every neighborhood.

The city is currently offering an incentive for citywide conventions at its newly expanded Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center. “Visit Lauderdale is giving away $10 million in meeting space for events booked at the Convention Center during eligible 2022-2025 dates,” says Camila Clark, senior vice president, marketing and communications for Visit Lauderdale. “Also, eligible group meetings will receive a cash incentive of up to $3 per consumed room night.”

Greater Fort Lauderdale has a welcoming hotel for every variety of vacation or traveler, as well as a searchable database of all hotels. “Find superb places to stay that offer spa-tacular services, luxury amenities, and easy access to airports, cruise lines and the beach,” Clark says. “Greater Fort Lauderdale’s hotels are not just a place to stay, they’re a place for visitors — no matter your interests — to play. Much of Greater Fort Lauderdale is within a seashell’s throw of the ocean or waterways, but the region’s many beach hotels put you right near the shoreline.”

In Fort Lauderdale, attendees looking for a relaxing diversion in nature can visit Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, which is known for paddleboarding — particularly through coastal dunes. Rent a board at Park & Ocean, the concession area, where seating is available for lunch and craft brews once attendees have worked up an appetite. If the event is occurring around the full moon, there’s even a kayak tour complete with glow sticks helping light the way.

Just a stone’s throw north in Pompano Beach, Hillsboro Inlet Park offers views of the historic Hillsboro Lighthouse, followed by dinner at the historic Cap’s Place. Originally a speakeasy from the 1920s, and visited by everyone from the Rockefellers to George Harrison — the restaurant is only reachable by boat shuttle, and the menu varies depending on the catch of the day.

Greater Fort Lauderdale is considered by some to be Florida’s LGBTQ+ capital, and one of the most progressive destinations in the United States. It was also recently named one of the Top Four places for LGBTQ+ travelers post-COVID. “We celebrate diversity and inclusion in every way, each day, where pride is the daily way of life,” Clark says. “We are especially proud that Fort Lauderdale earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. We embrace every segment of the LGBTQ+ community to make everyone feel welcome, comfortable and safe.”

Additionally, Broward County is emerging as the most diverse area in the country, as it’s the gathering place of choice for large professional organizations, including some of the country’s most influential African American groups. The Urban League, the Newspaper Publishers Association and 100 Black Men of America have all made recent visits to plan their national social justice agendas.

“Even if you’re on a budget, there are plenty of free events and attractions around Greater Fort Lauderdale, including beachside yoga, local live music and NHL practice sessions for the Florida Panthers hockey team,” Clark says. “From museums and galleries to shopping, sports and resort spas, Greater Fort Lauderdale offers tons of ways to zen out, indulge, or make the most of a rainy day.”

Convention hotels and venues abound, and include Bahia Mar Fort Lauderdale Beach – a DoubleTree by Hilton, which offers 296 guest rooms and 25,000 sf of flexible meeting space; Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach, which offers 30,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space; The Diplomat Beach Resort, offering 1,000 guest rooms and 209,000 sf of flexible function space; Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, offering 650 guest rooms and 50,000 sf of meeting space; and Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, which offers 369 guest rooms and 30,000 sf of combined indoor and outdoor event space. Just a few minutes south sits the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, which offers 1,275 guest rooms and 120,000 sf of event space.

Drive a couple of hours south to Duck Key in the Florida Keys, and you will find Hawk’s Cay Resort, which offers a plethora of activities and amenities. The 60-acre resort is ideal for groups interested in the Florida Keys experience. After a day of meetings, attendees can enjoy activities centered on fun in the sun with virtually every water-related activity imaginable, including stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, snorkeling excursions, sunset cruises, island tours and even a private boat charter with a captain.

The resort boasts 427 villas and hotel rooms, six restaurants, a saltwater lagoon, five swimming pools and a full-service spa, Most accommodations have balconies with ocean views or direct access to the adults-only pool in Oasis Cay or the main Resort Pool.

The resort is capable of delivering seamless meetings, conventions and conferences. Hawks Cay Resort has the largest waterfront meeting space of any resort in the Florida Keys, with 48,760 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and banquet space that can accommodate up to 480 guests in the Dolphin Ballroom and 450 guests in the Overseas Ballroom. The combination of indoor waterfront meeting space, a variety of outdoor venues and even a private-event catamaran, ensures groups will never have to meet in the same space twice. State-of-the-art A/V and modern technology capabilities are available, and an on-site technology director and dedicated event team ensures flawless operation.

Universal Orlando Resort offers a variety of activities at its three theme parks, and entertainment and shopping at Universal CityWalk. Courtesy Photo

Universal Orlando Resort offers a variety of activities at its three theme parks, and entertainment and shopping at Universal CityWalk. Courtesy Photo

No. 1 Meeting Destination

Continuously ranked as Cvent’s No. 1 meeting destination in the country, Orlando offers world-class event spaces, approximately 480 hotels, MICHELIN Guide-recognized dining, a state-of-the-art convention center and larger-than-life entertainment.

Plus, there’s increased ease of accessibility in and out of Orlando as Orlando International Airport recently opened its new South Terminal Complex — adding 15 gates — and can accommodate 10 million to 12 million passengers annually. In addition, connected to the new Terminal C, Brightline trains are expected to soon begin to carry passengers from Miami to Orlando International Airport.

“The award-winning Orange County Convention Center, located in the heart of the Convention Center District and only 15 minutes from the Orlando International Airport, provides a multitude of meeting options within 7 million square feet of combined meeting and exhibit space,” says Mike Waterman, chief sales officer for Visit Orlando. “Orlando offers immersive experiences and unique venues for groups of all sizes. And as the entertainment options continue to expand every year, there are always new opportunities for attendees to experience.”

Orlando boasts a multitude of convention space and venues, such as Universal Orlando Resort. The resort offers eight hotels, each with a unique theme and amenities. They include Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites and a sister hotel, Surfside Inn and Suites; Universal’s Aventura Hotel; Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort; Loews Sapphire Falls Resort; Loews Royal Pacific Resort; Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.

Set aside specifically with meeting planners in mind, the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando connects the meeting space of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Loews Royal Pacific Resort to offer 2,000 rooms and 247,000 sf of meeting space. Together, the Meeting Complex and the rest of the campus offer 295,000 sf of meeting space and 9,000 guest rooms. Also, attendees at Universal’s resorts get special park passes, early admission and other benefits to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Volcano Bay and Universal CityWalk.

With so much to see and experience in Orlando, attendees are encouraged to factor in a few days before and/or after to enjoy the destination. “Attendees will want to spend some time experiencing the world-class theme parks, dining options, shopping and even outdoor adventures,” Waterman says. “Adding a few extra days for leisure pursuits can turn a business trip into a ‘bleisure’ experience that can gear up attendees for the meeting, or help them relax after the event is finished.”

Orlando is the most-visited destination in the U.S., and the “Theme Park Capital of the World.” Home to seven of the world’s top theme parks — as well as water parks, outdoor thrill rides and dynamic dining and entertainment — Orlando is a diverse, welcoming and inclusive community for travelers of all ages.

One new addition to the mix this year is Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The 50,000-sf, multilevel attraction features a showcase of NASA and commercial spacecraft hardware with immersive displays, as well as a “journey” through space, unique launch viewing opportunities and more.

Plus, Orlando’s dining scene is on the rise and growing stronger every year with nationally recognized chefs, new restaurants from celebrity chefs and diverse cuisines for every budget and taste. There are more than 6,000 restaurants representing 40 different international cuisines. This year, the MICHELIN Guide released a guide to Florida, highlighting 33 Orlando restaurants, including four restaurants earning a coveted MICHELIN star: Knife & Spoon, Capa, Kadence and Soseki Modern Omakase.

Hawks Cay Resort has the most waterfront meeting space of any resort in the Florida Keys, with 48,760 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting space. Courtesy Photo

Hawks Cay Resort has the most waterfront meeting space of any resort in the Florida Keys, with 48,760 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting space. Courtesy Photo

 Sun-Kissed Sand

The Palm Beaches offer a beautiful, vibrant and inspiring destination for groups and conventions thanks to more than 18,000 guest rooms and proximity to three major airports set along 47 miles of Atlantic coastline.

“Our 39 cities and towns each have their own unique charm and are made up of a dynamic blend of people and cultures that welcome all,” says Kelly Cavers, chief sales officer for Discover The Palm Beaches. “Our downtown West Palm Beach Convention, Arts and Entertainment District provides a 350,000-sf Convention Center within walking distance to hotels, arts and cultural institutions, outdoor waterfront recreation, and robust culinary and entertainment options.”

Visitors come to The Palm Beaches to experience a gentler side of South Florida, as its sun-kissed sand, warm Gulfstream waters, world-class resorts and easy access makes us the ideal warm-weather destination. The Palm Beaches provide an impressive array of elevated, “between-the-sessions” experiences that will make an impact with attendees. Groups can discover one of the most vital sea turtle nesting beaches in the world at Loggerhead Marinelife Center, learn about ocean conservation activities with local company 4Ocean, or experience a fun and social team-building event at the National Croquet Center, the world’s largest dedicated croquet facility.

“We also weave our community partners into each meeting or event by sourcing local keynote speakers, vendors, artists, musicians, charities and even industries to showcase our destination and impart a true sense of The Palm Beaches into visitors,” Cavers says. “We are known as ‘America’s First Resort Destination,’ where business leaders, celebrities and even presidents have basked in our luxurious resorts and legendary playground since the 1890s.”

This past year, cryptocurrency and technology events have proven to be very successful for conference organizations in the area. “One of our most recent successes was hosting the recent Crypto Connect and NFT Expo at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, which created an interactive environment to learn and network and provided unforgettable experiences in our signature Palm Beaches style,” Cavers says. “This client relocated its crypto conference from Miami to The Palm Beaches due to the upsurge of financial and technology relocations to The Palm Beaches, and because they appreciated the sense of ownership and attention they received from our city and county partners.”

The region has recovered most of it meetings, conventions and events business throughout 2022 due to a forward-thinking approach and adaptive sales strategies, along with the high-demand offerings. “We saw an almost 85% return of room nights generated by groups and meetings, and a 99% return of events back to 2019 levels,” Cavers says. “We also saw a tremendous rise in corporations relocating or opening satellite locations in the Palm Beaches during and post pandemic, and as a result, we are now seeing an increased demand for meetings and events in our destination.”

Convention resorts in the area include The Breakers Palm Beach, which offers 80,000 sf of meeting space; The Boca Raton, which also offers 80,000 sf of meeting space at its Mizner Center; Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa, which offers 12,000 sf of meeting space; and Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, which offers 21,000 sf of meeting space.

The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. Courtesy Photo

The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. Courtesy Photo

Plenty of Space and Options

Tampa Bay’s recent success hosting high-profile gatherings, including Super Bowl LV and Wrestlemania 37, has propelled the destination and garnered attention from numerous organizations that may have never considered Tampa Bay for their meeting or event in the past.

After a refresh completed in 2020, the Tampa Convention Center (TCC) is undergoing its largest expansion ever. In spring 2023, the completion of a $38 million renovation and expansion will add 18 new waterfront meeting rooms spanning two stories, and an additional 18,000 sf to the center. Existing meeting space will also receive updates such as new carpet, paint, new air-wall fabric and upgraded lighting. Perfectly located on the downtown waterfront, just steps from the Tampa Riverwalk, the TCC offers natural light and a stacked center design, providing easy navigation for attendees.

As the new home of the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, downtown Tampa is attracting more medical groups — such as the American Academy of Dermatology, which recently brought more than 2,000 members to Tampa.

A marketing executive familiar with Tampa notes one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of Tampa is likely its sun and beaches. While this is often the atmosphere almost any Florida city is known for, there is more to why Tampa is one of the top 30 markets for request-for-proposal (RFP) volume through the Cvent Supplier Network.

“The city has over 19,000 rooms and 926,000 sf of convention center space, giving planners plenty of space and options for any event they may want to host,” the executive says. “What’s more, the Tampa Convention Center offers 200,000 sf of exhibit space, a 36,000-sf ballroom and 36 meeting rooms to suit any planner’s needs.”

When they’re not in meetings, attendees can enjoy the Tampa Riverwalk, which offers waterfront shopping, dining and leisure activities. It also connects five major hotels, four museums and other attractions.

“Tampa has a great selection of venues and accommodations with amenities that help attendees [and planners] get the most out of their events,” the executive says. “A large draw is the ambiance of the city, which has plenty of waterside activities and great culinary options. Tampa’s great weather also means that beaches can be a year-round attraction for visitors, while its compact, walkable downtown area also helps to facilitate that ever important ‘[return on equity].’”

What’s more, the location is especially attractive to sports fans who can enjoy ample opportunities to both enjoy recreational sports such as golf and tennis, and watch professional sports from Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays to the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Early this year, the Florida Huddle — Florida’s official travel trade show — took place in Tampa. The event brought hundreds of destination marketing agents together to participate in educational sessions and networking opportunities. This year’s convention taking place at the TCC signals how Florida is opening its doors to more in-person events as pandemic restrictions subside.

“Tampa continues to focus on elevating their offerings and amenities, as shown by their upcoming expansion of the Tampa Convention Center, recent opening of a new 5-star hotel in the area, and investment in the $3.5 billion downtown mixed-use neighborhood, Water Street Tampa, which will bring even more unique experiences to the city,” the executive says.

Beyond success with medical events, Tampa Bay continues to experience growth in large programs from the financial services and insurance sectors, including the National Association of Plan Advisors, American Bankers Association, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and the Claims and Litigation Management Alliance.

“Another reason planners look to Tampa Bay for their meetings is the walkability of downtown Tampa,” says Adam DePiro, vice president of convention sales for Visit Tampa Bay. “The compact convention district has thousands of rooms within five blocks of the Tampa Convention Center, all connected by the 2.6-mile Tampa Riverwalk that also links together some of the city’s hotels, restaurants, attractions, parks and venues.”

Another key factor that makes Tampa Bay a great meeting destination is the city’s award-winning airport. Regularly included among the best airports in the country, and recently ranked the No. 1 large airport in North America by J.D. Power for passenger satisfaction, Tampa International Airport (TPA) is conveniently located just 7-miles from Tampa’s downtown core and convention district.

Plus, as one of the fastest-growing destinations in the country, Tampa Bay offers a diverse array of dining, nightlife, history, culture and award-winning attractions. For instance, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts is the largest performing arts center in the Southeastern U.S., and venues such as Amalie Arena, Raymond James Stadium and the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre regularly bring in world-renowned performing artists.

Just east of downtown Tampa is the fourth-largest casino in the U.S. — the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino — which recently underwent a massive $700 million renovation that added a new hotel tower, events center, multiple pools, eateries, a spa and an expanded casino floor.

“Tampa Bay is also home to a booming culinary scene, with innovative chefs bringing fresh, bold flavors to the destination,” DePiro says. “The variety and availability of the incredible dining options in the destination garnered the attention of the MICHELIN Guide, the world’s most recognized restaurant ranking system, and in 2022, was included in the inaugural MICHELIN Guide to Florida.”

Tampa Bay’s historic Ybor City is home to the oldest restaurant in the state of Florida, The Columbia Restaurant, which opened its doors in 1905. And in nearby Hyde Park, visitors will find exceptional restaurants, such as the world-famous Bern’s Steakhouse, to go along with six city blocks of high-end shopping in the Hyde Park Village open-air shopping area.

From Busch Gardens Tampa Bay theme park’s recent opening of Iron Gwazi, its tallest, steepest and fastest hybrid rollercoaster in North America, to incredible dining and nightlife, there truly is something for everyone in Tampa Bay.

“Tampa Bay has a great combination of accessibility, affordability, amenities and attractions to unlock your next meeting in our destination,” DePiro says. “For years, the destination has attracted a diverse mix of organizations and events thanks to its unique dining experiences, leisure and recreational choices, as well as venues like no other.”

Meeting attendees will flock to explore the Tampa Riverwalk and enjoy a host of water activities on the Hillsborough River, or venture into one of the downtown attractions or museums.  I&FMM

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