When the call goes out for a stellar meeting destination that hits all the high notes, Florida soars. With perpetual sunshine, award-winning beaches, easy airport access, and no shortage of attractions and activities, planners have all the makings for creating world-class, memorable events.
Accessibility and affordability set the stage for Jacksonville’s status as a top-notch meeting destination. Located in Northeast Florida, the city of nearly 900,000 residents is just a hop, skip and a jump away from “more than 30 U.S. cities offering non-stop flights, plus two major highways intersecting here [Interstate 10 and Interstate 95],” says Michael Corrigan, president & CEO of Visit Jacksonville. “It’s easy to get here. Once here, it’s easy to get in and out of the airport. The rental cars are on-site, no shuttle needed.” And when it comes to lodging costs? “Jacksonville consistently has some of the lowest hotel rates in the state of Florida. Depending on the time of year and the part of town you book in, it’s easy to get an affordable rate to stay within budget.”
Meeting planners enjoy a wide range of indoor/outdoor event spaces in Jacksonville — which is celebrating its bicentennial this year — from the bustling business energy of the downtown riverfront to a more easy-going vibe that comes with oceanfront meetings steps away from the beach scene. “And in between the two are unique, diverse, historic neighborhoods with their own personalities and entertainment districts for visitors to enjoy,” Corrigan says.
For planners looking for a downtown site with water views, the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront, adjacent to the landmark Main Street Bridge, is a favorite option. The hotel boasts 951 guest rooms, including studios and suites, and features free Wi-Fi access. For events, the hotel boasts 110,000 sf of versatile meeting and exhibit space, a nearly 29,000-sf Grand Ballroom, 41 meeting rooms and an additional expansive outdoor space overlooking the St. John’s River. Culinary choices include simple grab-and-go options of coffee, pastries and sandwiches at the Market, to sit-down dining at the SHOR Seafood Grill with signature dishes such as Bourbon Glazed Grouper, and favorite craft beers and cocktails at the Tavern.
For groups with a preference for ocean views, AAA four-diamond, Forbes Travel Guide four-star property, One Ocean Resort & Spa in Atlantic Beach, offers 10,500 sf of flexible indoor/outdoor beachfront, obstruction-free meeting spaces. Special resort amenities include unique coastal cuisine at the Resort’s signature restaurant, Azurea; VIP spa packages featuring signature experiences, such as the Healing Sea Cocoon body treatment and Ocean Polish & Marine Detox Wrap; exclusive golf partnerships with world-class championship courses, such as TPC Sawgrass and Queens Harbour; and proximity to Atlantic Beach Town Center for retail therapy, dining and entertainment.
Also, in downtown Jacksonville, Corrigan suggests Riverfront Plaza, “a wide-open space available for a group to make their own,” and where “strolling receptions can be set up along our Downtown riverwalks on both sides of the river.” For evening receptions or an overview of the area, he says, “St. Johns River Taxi can host groups on their boats for sunset cruises or tours around the river.” And he adds, “Coming soon, Downtown Jacksonville will have its own Navy destroyer, the USS Orleck, as a museum and event venue situated right on the Northbank Riverwalk.”
For more fun off-site venues, consider The Cocktail Room at Manifest Distilling; or Intuition Aleworks Bier Hall for an evening reception; or rooftop bars, a popular trend among locals, Corrigan recommends. “Most recently,” he says, “Estrella Cocina opened Downtown with great views of the skyline and river, and O-Ku Sushi opened at the beach with great ocean views. Other rooftop options are Cowford Chophouse Downtown, as well as River & Post and Black Sheep Restaurant in our historic Riverside – Five Points neighborhood.”
Jacksonville’s unique meeting venues further include a professional sports facility at TIAA Bank Field, where the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars play, or 121 Financial Ballpark, home stadium of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp Minor League Baseball team. “Imagine a pool party on the deck at Jaguars stadium,” Corrigan says. “For art and garden lovers, there’s the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens that overlooks the St. Johns River.”
In dining experiences, Corrigan recommends two culinary must haves for a visit to Jacksonville that are always trending — craft beer and shrimp. “We have the Jax Ale Trail, a self-guided tour of more than 20 — and growing — local craft breweries, offering everything from IPAs to stouts to sours. Each brewery has its signature drinks and feel. Food-wise, Mayport shrimp is our staple. [The shrimp are] caught fresh each day off the coast of Jacksonville and sold in a small fishing village called Mayport, and served throughout Jacksonville in a variety of ways — everything from shrimp and grits, to tacos to Po boys.”
For planners considering Jacksonville as the site for upcoming meetings and events, Corrigan says, “Jacksonville is a perfect destination for medium-sized groups; meetings with 250-500 attendees thrive here in ‘Jax.’ Here in our city, your group can be the big fish in the little pond. Every group that comes to visit us means a lot, and we want to be sure that when you are here, you feel the love from our city. Our team works to make sure every group gets the best possible service when planning their meeting and the opportunity to make your event special for your attendees.”
The city of Daytona Beach owes its claim to fame to a 23-mile stretch of wide-open, hard-packed, white sandy beaches, attracting beach lovers and car enthusiasts alike. Host to NASCAR’s Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway since 1959, the destination offers “The Ultimate Daytona Beach Trail Guide,” a compendium of “cars, craft and culture” tours for visitors to explore. From historic landmarks to mural art, biking and hiking trails, to artisan foods and spirits, there’s something here to pique everyone’s interests.
For travel, lodging and meeting information, the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau is a good place to start. The city’s award-winning Ocean Center is Florida’s fifth-largest convention center. Home to sports, entertainment, conferences and meetings, the center features more than 200,000 sf of flexible indoor/outdoor space that includes a 42,000-sf, 9,600-seat arena; 36 breakout rooms, plus an executive boardroom and VIP suite; a 12,000-sf banquet hall with banquet seating for 850; exclusive in-house caterer and more than 2,500 on-site parking spaces.
Partner hotels of the Daytona Beach Area CVB feature more than 200 properties and 12,000 guest rooms, offering a wide range of unique options for event organizers. In describing one such venue, the Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach, Kathy Masterson, director of sales, says: “We are a Hard Rock Hotel — which itself makes us very unique. But add to that our location on a beautiful stretch of legendary Daytona Beach, and that makes our property offering even more distinctive. Our music-centric property features many Hard Rock exclusive amenities, such as the Rock Spa & Salon, a Rock Shop for collectible merchandise, Sessions Restaurant and a Sound of Your Stay program, where you can borrow a Fender guitar or Crosley record player and a set of 10 vinyl records during your stay,” she says. “Additionally, the uniqueness of our music experiences from a catalog of live bands to custom-curated, music-centric activations are always popular with attendees.” After all, where better to channel your inner rock ’n’ roll artist? And at “just 4 years old,” Masterson adds, “so much is still very new. We are always offering new types of entertainment offerings and activations, however.”
The hotel’s 200 guest rooms include deluxe accommodations, plus Rock Royalty, Celebrity and Courtyard Suites at Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach. Among the VIP amenities are oceanfront views from private balconies; Oceanfront Sun Porch Rooms with extended balconies; floor-to-ceiling windows; plush bedding and Rock Spa bath amenities. For a unique yoga and music experience to start or end the day, the hotel’s branded Rock Om program in partnership with Manduka yoga products and DJ Drez, Sound Ambassador, offers a series of three on-demand videos available on the TV in the guest room or on personal devices.
When it comes to meeting trends, “We are seeing smaller-sized meetings, or large meetings and events being broken into multiple smaller meetings,” Masterson says. The variety of venues in size and function at the Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach provides plentiful options to meet those needs. More than 20,000 sf of event space includes a 6,200-sf ballroom, and an open-air, oceanfront Wave Terrace together with on-site catering, A/V equipment and support.
Myra Harper, director of hospitality for Sports Dimensions Inc., has booked her client event for NASCAR race series sponsors at the Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach for the last four years. “Our program consists of smaller meetings throughout the day on Saturday, and then a more formal dinner on Saturday night in the ballroom. [The hotel doesn’t] “offer the breakout rooms and meeting spaces for large conventions, of course, but for small-midsize groups/meetings/events in the Daytona Beach area, this is the spot.” She continues, “Our attendees love this property. Many come from the New England or Upper Midwest area — so Daytona Beach in February is a great escape from the cold and snow. And the location is very convenient to Daytona International Speedway.”
But what makes this property unique from all others, Harper says, is “The people and personal service. They literally treat you like a rock star. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful hotel with stunning views of the beach, and the rooms are gorgeous and modern. But the staff goes above and beyond every single day for every single guest.”
If there’s one downside, Harper says, it’s that “There’s not a lot of shops/restaurants within a reasonable walking distance. But that’s certainly not the hotel’s fault. The hotel has everything you need on-site — great restaurant, coffee shop, spa — and I firmly believe that if you needed something they didn’t have, their staff would go get it on your behalf.”
When it’s time for play and relaxation, the music-infused, family- and pet-friendly hotel features an oceanfront pool with expansive pool deck and spellbinding views of the Atlantic Ocean, beachfront activities and the Hard Rock Roxity Youth Club for younger rockers. For rock-star treatments, head to Rock Spa and Salon where the “signature Rhythm & Motion menu is more Zeppelin than Zen, but definitely relaxing.”
As for dining experiences, guests can experience beachside dining at the resort’s Sessions Restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Constant Grind, for espresso coffees, gelato and tasty treats. “One trend we have been seeing is buffet dinners requested to be served at the table,” Masterson says. “There has also been an increase in requests for vegan and gluten-free buffets and entrees. We always work to provide locally sourced options, which is quite popular as well.”
Harper makes a point of mentioning the hotel’s new chef, who has “elevated the F&B program to a new level. It’s hard to serve filet and lobster to 100 people and every plate come out perfect, but he did that [for us].” Harper sums up her advice for other meeting planners succinctly: “Book this property. Don’t waste time with RFPs from other properties in the area.”
South and west across the Florida peninsula sits Tampa Bay, which offers its own beautiful beachfront amenities, on the Gulf of Mexico. Looking for great airlift? Tampa International Airport (TPA) is located in the city’s center — close to the downtown area, as well as attractions — and offers nonstop flights from dozens of cities. TPA recently also expanded its main terminal and added a new rental car facility. A second phase of expansion will include new curbside express lanes, an atrium, a new pedestrian bridge and a 170-acre commercial development with two new hotels that will make the travel process for attendees much smoother.
The 600,000-sf Tampa Convention Center (TCC), which has a picturesque waterfront location, is in the midst of a $30 million capital improvement plan. The job entails adding new waterfront meeting spaces, upgraded facilities and the addition of local restaurants. Also part of the improvements: 18 waterfront meeting rooms will span 16,000 sf, and two stories will be added with a terrace and outdoor spaces for attendees to enjoy expansive waterfront views.
One popular attraction, the Tampa Riverwalk, stretches 2.6 miles, and offers attendees a trip through Tampa’s most popular attractions and runs past numerous museums, attractions and water activities along the Hillsborough River. Meanwhile, the city also offers the $500 million Midtown development, with 1.8 million sf of retail, residential, entertainment and hospitality space.
Some of the convention hotels include the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel, which is within walking distance of the TCC and offers more than 12,000 sf of total event space and six event rooms. JW Marriott Tampa Water Street, which opened in 2020, is also near the TCC. The 519-room hotel offers 100,000 sf of meeting space downtown. The recently renovated Tampa Marriott Water Street is connected to JW Marriott Tampa Water Street via skywalk, and together they offer a combined 1,256 guest rooms, 150,000 sf of event space, and eight food and beverage offerings.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa boasts a 1,500-seat venue on the second level of the hotel’s casino complex, and nearly 29,000 sf of meeting and event space. Seminole Hard Rock Tampa also offers an array of entertainment and gaming options to keep meeting and event attendees engaged for hours. Yet another venue adjacent to the TCC is the Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Downtown Convention Center. This waterfront hotel is connected to the TCC by a skybridge, and offers more than 11,000 sf of flexible meeting space all on one floor, including the Bayside Ballroom, capable of accommodating up to 375 people.
Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay recently renovated its meeting rooms by adding large windows to bring in natural light. In addition, the hotel offers 33,000 sf of event space and features a series of unique outdoor spaces with waterfront views. Finally, Hilton Tampa Downtown also offers a large array of event options, including ballrooms, breakout rooms, pre-function space and more than 38,000 sf of event space.
“In Florida, we like to say that the sand, the salt and the sunshine have a way of soothing your soul,” says Rhiannon Reynolds, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Walton Beach. “Visitors return from a Florida convention more relaxed and ready to conquer the months ahead.” Reynolds portrays the Florida panhandle as “a special place, defined by Southern hospitality and emerald green waters, [where] we believe in bringing sunshine and peaceful vibes into everything we do.”
Located in the heart of the “Emerald Coast,” Fort Walton Beach offers visitors endless ocean vistas and sugary, white sandy beaches with front-row seats to the Gulf of Mexico. “If you have not yet had a chance to spend the last few minutes of your lunch break listening to waves crash from the deck of a pool, you’ve not been attending the right meetings,” Reynolds says. “Meeting-goers value the opportunity to learn and grow through the events we host, while also letting go of stress and anxiety with a Gulf-front view and the soothing sounds of waves crashing on the shore.”
As evidence, Reynolds describes an enticing scene at the Hilton Garden Inn: “From the moment you walk through the front door and look straight through the lobby and the glass wall to the lazy river, sand dunes and finally the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you can feel some of your stress easing,” she says. “Once you have arrived in our building, you can let us handle the rest. Your attendees will be entertained, your meals will be delicious, and your toes will have unlimited access to the sugar-white sands.”
The property offers 178 guest rooms and more than 5,000 sf of versatile meeting space, including three breakout rooms and Gulf views for up to 500 guests. “No matter the scope of your imagination, the events team at the Hilton Garden Inn Fort Walton Beach can turn it into a reality,” Reynolds says. “A small hybrid meeting in our executive boardroom or a large pool deck social gathering with fire dancers and a s’mores bar – anything is possible.” When it comes to health and cleanliness protocols, Reynolds says, “We are able to work with meeting guests to provide a customized level of pandemic response. Florida guidelines allow us to work with our clients and their preferred level of caution for each event. We can plan outside distanced meetings, or if the client feels comfortable, can have a traditional indoor meetings with spacing that will work for your guests, and events that will fit your price point and engage your employees. Masks are no longer required on-site, but are recommended for those not vaccinated.”
The hotel property features a Great American Grille Restaurant on-site and a tiki bar. Guests can “Enjoy a cool and refreshing salad adorned with fresh local produce or a basket of parmesan garlic-butter pretzels bites. Then, after an enriching day of meetings, a specialty frozen daiquiri poolside or a locally brewed craft beer while walking in the breaking waves can restore balance to your day, and an ice cream sundae in a souvenir sand pail serve our young-at-heart guests with a sweet treat to celebrate a day well lived.”
From the beachfront property, off-site explorations of Okaloosa Island include nearby Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park and Okaloosa Island Pier. The Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center sits across from the property and features 32,000 sf of flexible indoor space while multiple outdoor patios offer additional meeting options. In addition to the 21,200-sf Grand Ballroom, five smaller breakout rooms range from 425 to 1,575 sf. For outdoor venues, Bayview Plaza provides 30,000 sf additional meeting space together with several outdoor terraces. A full range of innovative catering services and A/V equipment is also available.
“We crave new and exciting visions, and will always collaborate fully to integrate our team and yours,” Reynolds says. “A seamless meeting experience and happy guests are always possible at the beach. Come to visit us and truly open your mind to growing, and open your body to those soothing Gulf smells and sounds.”
Not to be missed in an exploration of Florida’s abundant charm is beautiful Amelia Island located along the state’s east coast just south of Georgia. Johanna Marlin, director of sales & marketing for The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, calls the area “an unparalleled corporate getaway destination, a paradise for meeting-goers given the island’s combination of mild, year-round climate, its rich history, 13 miles of pristine uncrowded beaches, world-class restaurants, championship golf courses and unique local activities.”
Dana Noles, vice president, community & corporate advancement for the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, recommends The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island to “anyone looking to host their next board meeting, leadership retreat or conference.” Noles has booked multiple conferences for between 500 and 700 attendees at the property, with future contracts already set in place. “The staff has always been willing to assist with our ideas to execute the vision we see for our event,” Noles says. “They have helped us greatly in unique sponsor requests to help provide exposure, and the overall property creates an unforgettable experience for attendees.”
Offering luxurious oceanfront accommodations and venues, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island celebrated its 30-year anniversary last summer with a multimillion-dollar renovation. As part of the hotel redesign, all 446 guest rooms have undergone “a dramatic visual and functional transformation” drawing on the site’s unique sea and sky coastal elements to create the ultimate sanctuary for rest and relaxation. Spacious living areas, luxurious bath amenities and expansive balconies are among the enhanced features.
In addition, The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island has opened three new food and beverage outlets as part of the resort’s transformation. Tidewater Grille presents a casual ambiance for American grill classics and “fresh-from-the-boat” coastal cuisine uniquely prepared using the chef’s own family recipes together with a selection of regionally brewed beers. Coquina showcases a culinary menu reflecting the island’s Spanish heritage, where guests dine al-fresco while enjoying ocean views. For locally roasted coffee, fresh juices, handcrafted milkshakes and smoothies, and bites with carry-out options, First Drop Espresso & Brew Bar is the resort’s newest F&B addition.
Among the popular upgraded F&B activities, Marlin references the resort’s Salt Infusion class “where guests blend their own salts under the direction of our Salt Chef” and the launch of “our chef’s theater series, which can be re-created as a group activity.” Guests enjoy an intimate chef cooking demonstration, followed by having guests experience the featured dishes and wine pairings.
Conference and meeting amenities include more than 48,000 sf of versatile meeting space, a Conference Concierge and Event Coordinator, wellness programs and A/V experts among its offerings.
High on the list of desirable destinations for meeting attendees, Miami’s magical appeal derives from “offering great business amenities and an endless array of entertainment day and night,” says Carol Motley, senior vice president, convention sales and services at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). “Miami’s world-class meeting facilities, surrounded by a sophisticated tropical playground, draw convention and business travelers in droves each year — more than 1.3 million to be exact. Miami is a sure bet for meeting planners looking to build attendance and entrepreneurs looking to seal the deal.”
With more than 58,000 hotel rooms — from chic boutiques to the luxurious beach and golf resorts for all budgets, and ample meeting, convention and trade show options, Miami provides endless opportunities for creating one-of-a-kind events, Motley says. Among hotel developments in 2022, Atwell Suites, a new hotel brand for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), will open its first location in downtown Miami. Designed to inspire community and collaboration, Atwell Suites features spacious suites, flexible co-worker meeting and lounging spaces in the lobby, and The Study, a bookable small meeting room for up to eight people. Focusing on “affordable luxury,” CitizenM Miami will open two new hotels, one located in the Miami World Center and another in the Brickell area of Downtown Miami in 2022. Called SocietyM, innovative meeting rooms are designed to inspire with “lightning-fast Wi-Fi,” stylish Vitra furniture, walls to write on, unlimited coffee, tea and water, A/V equipment, stationery for “old-fashioned note-taking” and art.
In the works to open in 2025, Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC) expects to unveil its new headquarter hotel, the Grand Hyatt Miami Beach. Conveniently located within walking distance of the beachfront, shopping and entertainment adjacent to the MBCC, the 800-room hotel will feature 12 floors of guest rooms, two floors of meeting spaces, a resort-style pool deck and an elevated skybridge connecting the hotel to the convention center. I&FMM