For more than a year now, the message from the state of Florida to meeting planners, attendees 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 put into effect “phase three” of the Plan for Florida’s Recovery.
However, Florida stayed in the spotlight as the state experienced some of the nation’s highest rates for COVID-19 for much of the pandemic. But the state is singing a different tune now. Florida finishes off 2021 with one of the lowest rates, on a per-capita basis, and Miami-Dade County boasts one of the highest vaccination rates of any major metropolitan area.
Brandon Green, co-organizer of the Bitcoin 2021 Conference held in Miami in early summer, says the state and city were willing to work with the 12,000-attendee conference to ensure the event could happen, despite the pandemic. “Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez directly connected with us to make this happen,” Green says. “He asked, ‘How can I help?’”
It probably didn’t hurt that Miami is one of the first cities to accept Bitcoin payment for government fees. The recently re-elected mayor has stated that he wants to make the city the most attractive in the nation for those in the crypto and blockchain industries, and he also revealed recently that he is taking part of his 401(k) payment in Bitcoin. But that doesn’t mean that Miami wasn’t a good fit for the conference on its merits. Green says that COVID-19 regulations, coupled with warm weather, abundant outdoor space and sufficiently large venues combined to create a fun environment for the Bitcoin conference.
“We used Mana Wynwood Convention Center for the conference,” Green says. “It was an excellent venue and offered all the space we needed.” Located in the heart of Miami’s Wynwood Art District, 2-1/2 miles north of downtown Miami, the venue is well suited to large-scale productions, offering an 83,000-sf Event Hall and a 38,000-sf Sound Stadium Hall. “It offered a great main stage site and exhibition space, and an awesome outdoor area. Plus, there was an excellent team.”
With 12,000 attendees, the conference secured rates with multiple area hotels, but used Kimpton EPIC Hotel as the base location. The 411-room hotel located downtown offers 31,000 sf of meeting space, which allowed conference organizers to throw a VIP party on the terrace. “The Kimpton EPIC staff was excellent and friendly, room rates were good and the venue space was reasonable,” adds Green.
Bitcoin 2021 was successful enough that event organizers are set to return to Miami in April, and expect attendance to substantially increase. The four-day Bitcoin 2022 event will be based at the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC), which was substantially overhauled in 2019, debuting a $620 million renovation just prior to COVID-19’s arrival. The expanded facility includes a new 60,000-sf Grand Ballroom, nearly 500,000 sf of exhibition space, an expanded Grand Lobby, up to 84 breakout rooms and 800 roof deck parking spaces.
“Mayor Suarez and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) are excellent advocates for the city and county,” Green says. “They will open doors for you to be able to throw the best event possible.”
For Joe Fijol, DMCP, and principal, ETHOS Event Collective, the broad availability of outdoor spaces in Florida was an important factor for a 650-person incentive program he helped organize for Indiana-based CNO Financial Group. As Fijol explains, “COVID has made outdoor spaces part of the consideration when planning meetings and events. Florida’s weather not only provided a wide range of outdoor options but, throughout the state, they have proven their ability to meet safely.”
International locations were originally under consideration for the recent early fall gathering, but changes to company travel restrictions eliminated the destinations being considered with only 90 days’ notice. Fijol says a hybrid incentive was not considered, as virtual experiences have not been well received by prospective attendees. “Miami not only had availability, but it also offered experiences that were comparable to the international cities being considered, as well as a range of direct flights,” Fijol says. “Florida is a popular choice for incentives because of its range of experiences, hotel options, accessibility and warm weather. And for this group, it also had the availability needed.”
For the incentive trip, CNO Financial chose Loews Miami Beach Hotel, the 790-room classic located in South Beach and just a half-mile from the MBCC. “The Loews Miami Beach could accommodate both the rooms and outdoor event spaces for this group, and they were flexible if changes were needed due to additional company mandates,” Fijol says. “The hotel offers a prime location on the beach, and is within walking distance to many iconic experiences and places. It also has a wide range of full-service amenities, dining options and flexible event spaces.” Additionally, CNO’s incentive would be the only group at the hotel during their stay.
Fijol continues: “Due to uncertainty around COVID, rate and flexibility were important. The Loews and ETHOS Event Collective teams worked together to create contract terms that accommodated those needs while ensuring proper coverage for the hotel and staff.”
Loews Miami Beach offers 65,000 sf of indoor meeting space, including the 28,000-sf Americana Ballroom, which can seat more than 7,000 attendees, banquet style. Twenty-eight breakout rooms are available, along with 15,000 sf of outdoor space, most of it just a stone’s throw from the breathtaking beach. “Originally, the meeting included off-site venues, which we sited during the planning stage,” Fijol says. “Due to convenience, safety and the flexible outdoor space at Loews Miami Beach, we opted to keep the group on property using décor and entertainment to create unique destination experiences.” Fijol says the outdoor events were well received by attendees, and provided additional safety measures that minimized COVID concerns. “During all the events, the Loews conference services team also exceeded food and beverage expectations.”
Fijol concludes: “The Loews Miami Beach gets high marks from planners for its prime location, amenities and service. Their team is expert at accommodating meetings and events, and it is one of our top recommendations for groups interested in Miami.”
Across Florida, the meetings and incentives industry used the pandemic’s pause to refresh and renew their offerings, even in smaller destinations, such as the Florida Keys, which allow for the seamless blend of work and play. “Our outdoor wide-open spaces, with many of them scenic waterfront settings, offer a unique advantage for all types of activities and help to create unforgettable Keys meetings,” says Jack Meier, group sales manager for the Keys’ Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “Creatively styled and enhanced outdoor venues throughout the Keys continue to be unveiled as we all look forward to reconnecting and renewing with business opportunities.”
Options in the Keys can be large enough to cater to groups numbering into the hundreds to smaller, more intimate properties that are ideal for intimate incentives. From 427-unit Hawks Cay Resort, offering 48,760 sf of indoor and outdoor meetings space, to the 40-unit Sunset Key Cottages, located just 500 yards off Key West, there is a venue to meet almost any need or size. Now celebrating its centennial, the legendary 311-room Casa Marina Key West, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, has hosted generations of business tycoons, artists and dignitaries, providing more than 11,000 sf of events space, including the historic Flagler’s Ballroom.
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, The Ritz-Carlton, Naples is undergoing a significant expansion and a redesign of interiors that commenced late last spring. The resort soon will reveal 92 new luxury suite accommodations, including 57 additional suites and a sprawling Ritz-Carlton Club Lounge, as well as enhancements to the lobby, meetings and events spaces, pools and all existing guest rooms and suites. When completed, the hotel will encompass 474 guest rooms and suites, and more than 42,000 sf of versatile events space, including a 10,140-sf ballroom, along with picturesque outdoor venues.
The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, honored its 30th anniversary in 2021 by refurbishing its 446 guest rooms and suites. The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island’s AAA five-diamond Salt has been joined by Okan Kizilbayir, previously the sous chef at Eric Ripert’s three-Michelin Star Le Bernardin. In 2020, the resort opened Spanish-influenced Coquina, North Florida’s largest alfresco restaurant and oceanview bar, while Tidewater Grill debuted in 2021, offering a coastal bounty.
That culinary focus is being felt across the state, and for 2022, Visit Florida has teamed with the MICHELIN Guide to create a first-ever MICHELIN Guide Miami, Orlando and Tampa. “Visit Florida, along with our destination partners, are thrilled to partner with Michelin to develop a guide to further establish Florida as a world-renowned culinary destination,” says Dana Young, president and CEO of Visit Florida. “This gives Florida the opportunity to highlight the dynamic and unexpected culinary adventures the Sunshine State has to offer from locally grown produce and fresh seafood, to unique fusions from cultures around the world.”
With more than 150 convention hotel options alone, Orlando hasn’t missed a beat. New MICE properties include the 597-room JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, located in the Walt Disney World Resort. With 50,000 sf of events space, including a 22,000-sf ballroom and exceptional views of Walt Disney World’s nightly fireworks, the hotel is ideal for VIP group experiences.
In Orlando’s Medical City, just south of the Orlando International Airport, the new Lake Nona Wave Hotel is powered by innovative technology while grounded in visitor well-being. The property’s View Smart Windows use predictive intelligence to respond to outdoor conditions — eliminating any need to adjust blinds mid-meeting — voice-automated in-room controls, TOTO smart toilets and Healthe Inc. Cleanse Solutions to keep surfaces sanitized. The resort has nearly 13,000 sf of flexible events space, and offers access to the 130,000-sf Lake Nona Performance Club fitness center, as well as the first-of-its-kind Chopra Mind-Body Zone and Spa headed by Dr. Deepak Chopra.
Nearby, the Caribe Royale Orlando is nearing completion on a $127 million renovation and was awarded the AAA’s highly coveted Four Diamond distinction. In 2021, Caribe Royale opened the 50,000 sf Palms Ballroom, bringing the hotel’s versatile meeting and events space to 220,000 sf.
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 meetings space, featuring two ballrooms, plus almost 14,000 sf of outdoor space. Including the existing Swan and Dolphin wings, the resort’s total meetings space has ballooned to more than 350,000 sf.
CNO Financial Group isn’t the only company that turned to Florida this year when other options became less feasible. Amanda Coetzee, director of corporate events for Georgia-based Kalos Financial, says her company’s annual meeting is typically based at an overseas location, such as the Caribbean, Central America or Hawaii. “Our guests were not comfortable leaving the U.S. in 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and access to medical care, if needed,” Coetzee says. “They felt comfortable meeting as a group, but within the U.S.”
For her recent event, Coetzee wanted to be able to use a hotel’s outdoor venue for an awards dinner and game night. She needed a variety of food and beverage locations for a dine-around, excursion options and warm weather. With abundant air access from across the U.S. also a factor, Kalos ultimately chose Orlando for the 170-attendees event, and narrowed the options to Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando Resort. “The Loews Royal Pacific has the feel of a resort in the South Sea Islands,” Coetzee says. “It was reasonably priced, guests have access to the Universal theme parks, and each guest had an express pass for the rides. There was so much to do at the venue, and the guests were well entertained. Plus, the hotel was close to the airport, which is very important to my group.”
Coetzee says Kalos employed a number of precautions to ensure a safe and clean event. “We made sure all our attendees were comfortable attending by sending out a health and safety email detailing how the hotel and Kalos would help create the safest conference environment possible within our means,” she says. “Masks and hand sanitizers were made available at all times during the event, and we added additional space to allow for seating that was socially distanced during the meetings and meals.”
The 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort is directly connected to the meeting facilities at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which creates the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando, offering 247,000 sf of combined space. However, the one challenge Coetzee cited with the resort is the distance from the hotel rooms to the Oceana ballrooms. “It is quite a distance to walk every day,” she says, adding that “the hotel’s service is excellent, and the staff was professional, courteous and easy to work with … [The] area conference manager for Loews Hotels & Co. was key to the successful planning and execution of our conference. [And the] food and beverage sales manager at CityWalk Universal Orlando Resorts was instrumental to our planning of dine-arounds. [Representatives] from Eventures Unlimited Inc., a local DMC, handled all our transportation, excursions and off-site dine-arounds. They were responsive and professional, and I would recommend them to anyone planning a conference in Orlando.”
When asked what she learned through the process of planning a meeting in 2021, Coetzee did not hesitate. “This year, we had more to celebrate than ever,” Coetzee says. “COVID-19 challenged our industry, our advisers, our partners and our clients in unimaginable ways. While the challenges still continue, there is no doubt that people need and want to meet face to face. These events are a true reminder of the power of in-person connections.” I&FMM