Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout across the U.S., the meetings industry is embracing the challenge of moving forward. And for a destination with easy airport access, sunny, balmy weather year-round, stellar beaches, plenty of outdoor spaces, and a culturally rich environment, Florida, the “Sunshine State,” ranks high.
Today’s event organizers cite attendee health and safety as paramount in choosing their next meeting destination. Event partners, too, from ground transportation operators to hotels, restaurants, and local tour leaders view attendee health safety as their top priority.“We want people to come and feel safe,” says Sonia Fong, vice president of convention sales & services for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “And we’re optimistic. The travel and tourism community has come together with one mindset: To apply new safety features, including a destination pledge, that requires all vendors to follow strict guidelines. We’re all responsible.”
“There’s an energy here,” says Fong when describing the Miami scene. Fong, a 30-year resident, has witnessed the community’s transformation to a world-class meeting destination. Despite the pandemic, in the past year, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Frontier Airlines have each added flights into Miami International Airport (MIA), solidifying its status as “Gateway to the World,” Fong says. MIA is also the first airport in Florida and the second in the U.S. to receive the Airports Council International (ACI) Airport Health Accreditation. The accreditation certifies the airport’s alignment with ACI Aviation Business Restart and Recovery guidelines and the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Aviation Restart Task Force recommendations for COVID safety, together with industry best practices. All passenger areas and processes are considered around the topics of “cleaning and disinfection, physical distancing where feasible and practical, staff protection, physical layout, passenger communications and passenger facilities,” according to ACI.
Also regarding health safety, in 2020, the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC) received two significant accreditations: The LEED Silver certification, highlighting a commitment to environmentally friendly practices in its recent $620 million renovation, and the Global Biorisk Advisory Council’s (GBAC) STAR Facility Accreditation in recognition of its stringent cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention through staff training protocols. In addition, providing safety kits with masks and hand sanitizer to hotel guests is rapidly becoming the norm at many local properties.
Marquette L. Gooch-Nelson, director for Crittenden Research Inc., selected the luxury 5-star Mandarin Oriental, Miami as the site for a meeting held just prior to the pandemic, a repeat visit based on the client’s previous exceptional experience. “The property was originally chosen for its location, high-end luxury and the meeting space,” Gooch-Nelson says. Set on a private beach in the prestigious Brickell Key area, the hotel offers 15,000 sf of meeting space, covering a variety of venues ranging from a 7,920-sf natural light-filled ballroom with an expansive outdoor terrace presenting panoramic views of the city skyline, to 10 individual meeting rooms on the same floor, to three function rooms on the mezzanine level that can be reconfigured into seven different room sizes for maximum flexibility. A skybridge connects the hotel to a self-contained Conference Center, while two additional venues offer unique settings: The Wine Room with stunning views of Biscayne Bay, and an open kitchen for small events and cocktail functions, and Brickell Beach, 20,000 sf of private, white-sand beach for special events such as extended networking after conference meetings, as was the case with Gooch-Nelson’s group.
“From the moment you step inside the Mandarin Oriental, Miami, you feel a sense of peace and comfort,” Gooch-Nelson says. “You are immediately greeted by the most enticing scent and by hotel employees that reach out to assist you. The check-in process is enhanced by the beautifully fragrant tea you are served and the outstanding service you receive. You are then directed to what I would say are some of the best hotel rooms anywhere . . . comfort meets sophistication,“ she says. All 326 guest rooms, including 31 suites, provide water views, 10-foot ceilings, outdoor balconies, separate marble shower and bath with bamboo hardwood floors, and luxurious bath products.
For ultimate luxury, the tri-level Spa & Wellness sanctuary features 17 private treatment rooms, plus six luxurious spa suites with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Biscayne Bay, and a state-of-the-art fitness center. When asked about the group’s dining experience, Gooch-Nelson says, “Food and beverage is at the highest level at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami. Whether that is dining at La Mar for the Peruvian cuisine or networking at the bar with sushi. I will also say the in-room dining is just as amazing, and well worth it if you need to work from your room for a few hours.”
Tampa is poised to welcome the return of major events and citywide meetings. The lineup of events will provide a much-needed boost to Hillsborough County’s economy. “Business travel has historically been the bedrock of our hotel occupancy in Hillsborough County, helping us achieve record-breaking numbers prior to the pandemic,” says Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, in a news release. Meanwhile, Tampa International Airport recently ranked as one of the most hygienic airports, one of five airports in North America to receive the recognition. Additionally, Tampa Convention Center recently achieved Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR accreditation, the gold standard from the worldwide cleaning industry association, for its cleaning and disinfection protocols.
While event planning in 2020 proved challenging for organizers, host properties and clients alike, Iron Peacock Events owner, “Event Yoda” Sally Mainprize, SMMC, CRP, DES, found success hosting her client’s Leadership Summit at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, a luxury downtown coastal retreat. “Given that our event happened while we were still under COVID-19 restrictions, yes, this was a unique experience,” Mainprize says. Nevertheless, “The hotel was completely welcoming and made any necessary changes to be sure our group was safe. They worked with us on catering services, provided bottled water, etc., making sure to adapt our needs to the safety requirements.” Enhanced public space cleaning, social distancing practices, and temperature screenings at entry points are among the hotel’s elevated health and safety practices.
At The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, meeting planners have access to 266 pet-friendly guest rooms and suites with private balconies, and approximately 60,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space. Indoor spaces include 15 meeting rooms, Sarasota’s largest ballroom at 12,000 sf, and a 26,000-sf conference center, while four outdoor venues provide superlative settings for special functions, such as a sunset cocktail reception on The Lawn or the Sunset Terrace at the private Ritz-Carlton Beach Club. In addition, the 2,300-sf Healing Garden and The Hotel Lawn next to the Rose Garden on the marina serves up to 200 people for a more intimate space adjacent to the outdoor pool. On-site meeting specialists offer services for creating themed events, team-building activities, and volunteer opportunities through Impact Experiences that contribute to the social and environmental needs of the local community. The resort’s professional destination services team can design fitness breaks and spa workshops as well as schedule rounds at the 18-hole, Tom Fazio-designed championship course at The Golf Club. The team can also arrange guided tours and off-site catering at The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and the historic Crosley Mansion.
Camaraderie, community and casual ambience with waterfront views define the dining experiences at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Whether enjoying freshly caught and prepared seafood and craft cocktails at Jack Dusty on the marina, beachside food fare at Ridley’s Porch, bar bites and mixed drinks at the open-air Lido Key Tiki Bar, or sandwiches and drinks on-the-go at The Golf Club Grille, guests can expect “excellent food and beverage,” Mainprize says, adding, “The Ritz handled it very well.”
Mainprize cites several special touches that enhanced her group’s meeting experience while there. For starters, “The GM spoke briefly to the group and answered questions as well, which was really appreciated.” She adds, “But that was not the only time we saw him. He was great about checking on us. When you have a GM like that, you know the rest of the team will follow . . . as goes the GM, so goes the venue team.” In summing up her group’s overall positive experience, Mainprize says, “The ladies and gentlemen of The Ritz-Carlton went above and beyond to take great care of our participants. For instance, a very unexpected wind and rain storm caused flash flooding of the streets surrounding the resort at the same time our participants were returning from an off-site event. While The Ritz-Carlton could do nothing about mother nature, they did meet our attendees at the front door with towels immediately — it’s like they came out of nowhere.” In addition to the stellar service, “The location is beautiful, on the water, and has easy access to dinearounds and other retail nearby. Sarasota is a great city to meet and I’d go there again in a heartbeat.”
Mickey and friends and the timeless magic of Walt Disney World Resort await visitors in Orlando. For Kathy Roche, director of meeting planning, travel & events for Western & Southern Financial Group, Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort offered the best of both worlds: proximity to the theme park, a mere 10-minutes from the hotel property, and a luxurious resort that felt like a world away. “We had the Disney experience in a very casually elegant, upscale setting. The Disney logo was present, but very subtle. The hotel also offers a VIP Disney desk amenity for help in planning Disney excursions and character breakfasts.” For airport convenience, luxury ambiance and AAA Five Diamond service, Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort is an ideal venue for a meeting planner.
Located on 26 acres in a lakeside retreat surrounded by lush gardens, pools and woodlands, the resort offers exceptional event and playtime amenities. Meeting planners have access to 66,587 sf of available space, ranging from the 14,000-sf Grand Ballroom, to more intimate spaces like the 1,288-sf Palm Ballroom for pre-function events and a 715-sf Executive Boardroom. Four Seasons Resort Orlando emphasizes the versatility of its event spaces, as there are numerous open-air venues and hybrid meetings capabilities. The resort offers livestream capabilities, flexible meeting space, indoor/outdoor venues, and covered terraces for dining. Also, for attendees who bring their spouses or families, there are plenty of on-site diversions to keep them entertained.
In consultation with Johns Hopkins Medicine International, the property’s enhanced global health and safety program, Lead With Care, is updated regularly and is consistent with local health regulations and recommendations. Protocols may include temperature screenings upon entry, mask coverings in indoor public spaces and social distancing. Lead With Care kits are distributed in each guest room, contactless delivery is provided for in-room dining, and restaurants offer a-la-carte service with digital menus wherever possible.
Redesign of the 443 guest rooms and suites include connecting rooms in a nod to multigenerational travelers, new artwork inspired by Walt Disney World attractions, tech-savvy features such as in-room iPads and bedside reading spotlights, and Plum Wine Machines in Park View rooms for happy hours from the comfort of your own room.
“The on-site resort staff made it very special,” Roche says. “We felt taken care of with luxury service. Our food and beverage experience was outstanding, as was the overall feedback from attendees; we will return here again,” she says, making special mention of the group’s fun, Disney-themed welcome reception for producers and immediate family. Under the direction of the executive chef, who oversees all restaurants and operations, guests enjoy Italian cuisine featuring recipes from the chef’s grandmother at Ravello, and can also sign up for a private cooking class in the Ravello Demonstration Kitchen. Roche also cites Capa, the resort’s 17th-floor rooftop steakhouse and bar — noted among the “Best 100 Wine Restaurants in the US” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine — as “exceptional.”
Popular recreation options include the Tom Fazio designed Tranquilo Golf Course — also a certified Audubon Sanctuary set among protected wetlands and wildlife habitat — together with the newly renovated, $2.5 million, world-class practice facility. In addition, a state-of-the-art fitness center; three Har-Tru tennis courts; a private, 5-acre water park, and 13,000-sf full-service spa with 18 treatment rooms, offer plenty of ways to unwind at the end of a day of business meetings or to keep family members entertained.
Set on 23-waterfront acres overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Naples Grande Beach Resort provides just the right coastal escape for the attendees of any convention or event. The resort received a bevy of national and worldwide accolades in 2020, such as AAA Four Diamond ranking, a Silver Badge Winner distinction among “Best Hotels 2020” by U.S. News & World Report and Green Lodging Florida Two Palm Designated Resort status.
Last spring, the resort implemented additional health measures for guests and staff protection through its “Safety & Well-Being Promise,” which focuses on three key pillars — Prevention, Cleanliness and Reducing Contact. At Naples Grande, this includes a PPE amenity kit upon check-in, special function setups designed to follow social distancing of 6 feet apart, with three guests per 72-inch round table and 6 feet of space between chairs, mask requirements at all sessions, special group photo staging, and no scheduled network reception events.
With more than 83,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor event space, meeting planners have a range of unique venues for hosting organizations. The resort’s 474 guest rooms feature 50 Garden Villa Suites and 29 Tower Suites boosted by private, panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico. Recent property enhancements include a multimillion-dollar renovation of the second-floor ballroom level, and the 2019 debut of 38 innovative, non-traditional therapies and wellness services, such as a new Saltwater Float Tank, Cryotherapy Tank, and Infrared Sauna and BioCharger Therapy Machine at The Spa at Naples Grande among the latest resort amenities.
Guest dining options at the resort are plentiful, whether enjoying the fresh local seafood and premium steaks in the sophisticated, yet laid-back ambience at The Catch of the Pelican, casual meals and tropical cocktails in a beachside setting at Rhodes End, or inventive Pan-Asian food fare at Mantra’s open kitchen and bar. Al-fresco meals and drinks are served both on The Sunset Veranda and Gulfcoast Oasis Pool Bar while breakfast at Aura Restaurant, and grab-and-go items such as coffee specialities at Spressi Marketplace, round out the menu choices.
To assist event organizers from afar, the resort’s sales & events team has compiled a new digital library of room diagrams and live photo samples of indoor and outdoor spaces that demonstrate the resort’s commitment to social distancing setups, and safe food and beverage banquet displays.
Conveniently located near Tampa International Airport and within walking distance to downtown museums and entertainment, The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club averages meetings ranging from as intimate as 10 attendees up to 1,500. It offers 60,505 sf of event space, with 22 event rooms and 24 maximum breakout rooms, including four distinctive ballrooms. The recently renovated Grand Ballroom features dramatic arched windows “that will soon overlook a newly designed lush living wall, bringing The Vinoy’s vibrant natural surroundings into the luxurious and historic space,” says Brooke Kull, marketing manager. For a fun event set in the style of the roaring ’20s, Fred’s Cellar hosts Speakeasy events such as the Hunch Punch Tub Action Station, craft cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and entertainment by a live jazz band.
The resort follows Marriott’s “Commitment to Clean” program to elevate its already rigorous health and safety protocols. “We want planners to know that they can feel confident hosting their next meeting at The Vinoy, as our guests’ safety and comfort are top of mind during this time,” Kull says. Beyond indoor event spaces, the resort offers three unique open-air venues to accommodate the need for social distancing and modified catering, while ensuring the health and safety of staff and attendees. Offering waterfront views covering 9,600 sf of outdoor event space, the grassy Esplanade lies adjacent to the resort’s private, 74-slip marina. Overlooking the 18-hole private championship golf course, the Vinoy Golf Club’s 930-sf Sunset Terrace is located on Snell Isle, a complimentary shuttle ride away from the main resort. And for a quiet respite in a serene setting, the 4,200-sf Tea Garden provides a spacious outdoor meeting area surrounded by lush landscaping. Off-site meeting venues include such inspired spaces as the Salvador Dali Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Chihuly Collection and Yacht Starship.
The resort’s 361 well-appointed guest rooms include Tea Garden and bay views, balconies, and terraces and patios. Two outdoor pools, a wellness center offering complimentary fitness classes, a day spa, 10 Har-Tru lighted tennis courts, golf outings, abundant water activities and walking trails offer boundless opportunities for rest, retreat and rejuvenation before, and after, meeting events. Citrus, seafood and smoke define the essence of the featured food at Paul’s Landing overlooking the Vinoy Marina and Tampa Bay. Other notable eateries include the upscale Vinoy Club Grille, Lobby Bar and Veranda Patio, The Veranda Café and Clark’s Snack Bar.
Florida, with its abundance of venues capable of hosting any kind of meeting or event, is eager for the return of face-to-face events. “The last year has been difficult for everyone — emotionally, financially, and socially, especially for people who have lost loved ones,” acknowledges GMCVB’s Fong. “It’s been a wake-up call for everyone, for what’s important. But we will come back very strong. Hotels and restaurants are already seeing more people, and we can’t wait to welcome [them] back.” I&FMM