Year after year, Florida ranks as one of the top statewide meetings destinations in the country. And there is one simple reason for its unparalleled popularity.
“Florida always draws,” says Jamie Pepper, senior vice president of meetings and coordination at Opal Financial Group in New York City. She has been using Florida destinations regularly since 2010 and already has hosted four third-party, voluntary-attendance meetings this year in Naples, Boca Raton, Tampa and Miami. “It draws for us because at the time of year we do these meetings, people want to be in warm destinations. And because of that, over the last couple of years, when we’ve done meetings in Palm Beach and Miami, we’ve drawn more attendees and needed more hotel room nights than we contracted for. That means that they exceed our expectations and are very successful. So that makes Florida a destination we like to return to.”
Joe Fijol, DMCP, the Fort Lauderdale-based partner of statewide destination management company 360 Destination Group Florida, notes that another key selling point of the Sunshine State is its extraordinary diversity in terms of local destinations. “It’s like a continent unto itself, with six or seven distinct countries located within it,” he says. “They’re each a unique destination with unique benefits and value for meetings. That means a company can come multiple times over the years and have entirely different experiences. For example, if you use Orlando one year and Miami the next, you’re enjoying two completely different kinds of major destinations. And the same is true of Amelia Island versus Naples or Fort Lauderdale versus Tampa. But they’re all in Florida.”
Another important feature that makes Florida perennially popular with meeting planners is that it’s so easy to access, says Paget Kirkland, owner and president of independent meeting planning and destination management company Kirkland Events and Destination Services in Lake Worth, Florida. “We have three major airports, in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando that can get people to Florida very efficiently from all over the U.S. and across the world.”
Fijol agrees that the ease and efficiency of access the state’s airports create play major roles in Florida’s prominence as a destination. “Our airlift dominates a lot of decision-making in the meeting industry today,” he says.
Yet another reason for Florida’s historical dominance as a statewide destination has been its extraordinary range of options and price points for hotel rooms, even during the high-demand winter season.
“One of the reasons for the excellent value proposition in Florida is the fact that you have so many hotels and resorts across the state,” Fijol says. “And many of them choose different times of the year to get very aggressive about their rates. For example, one of the best times to get a great deal in Florida is during the summer months. And if you go then, you get the pick of the litter when it comes to restaurants or offsite venues or activities because demand is low.”
Fijol also points out that there is often a big difference in room rates between two different destinations during the same dates. “For example,” he says, “even though both offer the beach and great weather, there’s often a significant difference between the costs of Miami and Orlando, or Miami and Fort Lauderdale, or Naples and Amelia Island.”
As a planner who is conscious of budgets, as all planners must be, Pepper notes that “Florida is not cheap, especially if you’re using destinations like Miami or Boca Raton. But you get what you pay for. And depending on what other destination in the state you’re looking at, there is something for every budget.”
Fijol also stresses that the state has a destination and hotel for virtually any meeting budget. “And the quality of our infrastructure,” he says, “means that the state offers exceptional value across a wide range of budgets and price points.”
Although red-hot major destinations Orlando and Miami generate much of the meeting industry press coverage, time-honored Palm Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale, is the gold standard of Florida destinations, says Kirkland. Of the 300 Florida meeting and incentive programs she planned last year or for which she served as DMC, 200 were held in greater Palm Beach. And 70 were housed at her go-to hotel, Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, the former Ritz-Carlton now operated by private owners.
“Palm Beach is a sophisticated and exclusive destination,” Kirkland says. “And Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa is now the go-to property. It’s the place in Palm Beach to host a meeting.”
One of the reasons for the hotel’s burgeoning popularity is its private ownership. “The good thing about that is that you don’t have a corporate hierarchy and all the red tape that comes with that to deal with,” she says. “That means as a planner, you have a lot of freedom to create and execute a vision for the event, without anyone saying, ‘Oh, we have a policy that prevents you from doing that.’ At the Eau, the staff takes a lot of pride in what they do, and they really make the effort to make sure you can do everything you envision for the meeting. They do whatever it takes to make it happen. The owners, who bought the hotel about three years ago, are ‘yes’ people. And because of that, the property has gotten a lot of attention and notoriety lately.”
She cites a particular example of the service attitude that sets Eau Palm Beach part from major brand corporate hotels. “The resort has a world-renowned spa she says. “And in the spa, there’s a wonderful area that is perfect for a private dinner or other event for board-level or other VIP attendees, like senior management. So I had a client who had seen a Moroccan-themed party that we did, and she had loved it. She said, ‘I want to do that kind of event, but I want to do it in the spa.’ This was for a group of 80 people, which meant it would be a bit of a tight fit.
“When the client came in to see the space, we realized that there was a small water area, like a relaxation pool, that took up space we needed. So the client asked that they just drain the pool and make that space usable. At a major brand corporate hotel, they would have said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if we can do that. We’ll have to check with corporate and get approval.’ So maybe it would have happened and maybe it wouldn’t have. At the Eau, they just said, ‘Let’s call engineering and make sure we can make it work.’ And engineering said ‘No problem,’ so we immediately got permission to do it. At a corporate property, they would have probably not even tried to make it happen. They’d just have tried to talk us into doing the event in a ballroom.”
Kirkland also has high praise for room product at Eau Palm Beach. “All of the sleeping rooms were recently redesigned by acclaimed designer Jonathan Adler,” she says. “And they call it ‘Santorini meets Palm Beach.’ And that’s a very good description of it. The color schemes are the bright, beautiful yellows and blues you’d expect from that description. The rooms are just gorgeous. They represent something new and fresh. It’s amazing room product. And when you walk in the door, you see the ocean. It’s like you’ve walked into someone’s waterfront Palm Beach mansion, where they’ve gone to Europe and collected all of these interesting decorations, like vases or a shell.”
Eau Palm Beach also delivers exceptional food and beverage services, Kirkland says. “And Breeze, one of their outdoor restaurants, has recently been renovated. It’s right on the ocean, and it serves very creative ‘Floribbean’ cuisine that is based on the various cultures that represent South Florida, like the Caribbean. That means there’s a lot of fresh seafood. And their F&B staff can do anything you can imagine. For example, we did a surf-and-turf dinner on a patio overlooking the beach, and it was amazing event.”
In addition to its exclusive mansions, Palm Beach also offers some of the most unique and impressive offsite venues in the country. The historic Henry F. Flagler Museum and the Brazilian Court Palm Beach can host elegant receptions or dinner meetings.
This year, Pepper has used Naples, located in Southwest Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, and Boca Raton, located north of Fort Lauderdale and south of Palm Beach, for highly successful meetings.
The two-night Naples meeting, for 100 attendees, was hosted at Naples Grande Beach Resort. “It’s a beautiful, five-star hotel,” Pepper says. “So you know you’re going to get amazing service there.” Pepper’s attendees also appreciated the exclusivity and laidback elegance of Naples.
Fijol also points out the area now boasts a new five-star hotel, the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, as well as a pair of time-tested and popular Ritz-Carlton hotels in Naples.
“And the Naples area has what are arguably the best beaches in the state,” Fijol says. It offers an exceptional level of sophistication as a result of its stature as the No. 1 retirement spot for former Fortune 500 CEOs.
Pepper’s Boca Raton meeting, held in late April for 140 attendees, was hosted at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Naples.
The destination also lent itself to an activity unique to tony destinations such as Palm Beach and the Hamptons on Long Island, New York.
“We got rained out this year, but the meeting we did in Boca Raton last year corresponded with the polo season,” Pepper says. “We always try to offer an interesting and unique activity as a draw for attendees, and the opportunity to do a polo-related event gave us that. The event we did last year, at the International Polo Club in Wellington, was really great. People loved it.”
Why polo? “Our CEO had been talking about polo for years, even though he’d never actually played it,” Pepper says. “And from a meeting perspective, it’s just something different to do that is very much associated with the Palm Beach lifestyle. Before they got there, 99 percent of our attendees probably had very little idea of what polo is. So we gave out ‘Polo 101’ instructions and information so they could understand who was playing and what was going on. And people loved it. It was a great networking opportunity. And the weather was absolutely beautiful.”
Despite the popularity of classic destinations such as tony Palm Beach, and trendy Miami, Orlando rules the roost as the most popular meeting destination in Florida. In fact, Cvent has cited it, more than once in recent years, as the No. 1 meeting destination in the entire U.S.
Traditionally known for large meetings and major conventions, the city is now gaining new popularity among incentive planners because of the opening of new luxury properties such as The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and more recently Four Seasons Resort at Walt Disney World Orlando, opened in 2014, Fijol says.
“The addition of those five-star hotels means that more insurance and financial services companies are now looking at Orlando as the destination for high-end incentive programs,” he says. “And like Miami, Orlando is a destination that continues to evolve and become more exciting.”
The city’s meeting infrastructure also continues to evolve, with the spectacular I-Drive 360 complex along International Drive, the new Mango’s dining and entertainment venue, and the expanded and sensational Disney Springs dining, shopping and entertainment complex formerly known as Downtown Disney.
Universal Orlando Resort also has debuted a pair of new properties, the Loews Cabana Bay Beach Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, as well as a new water park, Volcano Bay.
Noting that some planners still resist serious consideration of Orlando because of its stereotypical association with Mickey Mouse and family vacationers, Fijol says, “There are planners who do not look at Orlando because they think they know Orlando and that it’s not right for them. But there is so much going on there that is new and exciting that it’s time for them to take a fresh look. It’s just a great destination for meetings and incentive programs.”
Over the last couple of years, Miami has become one of the hottest meeting destinations in the country. “It is the destination in Florida now,” Fijol says. “It’s new, it’s different, it’s exciting, and it’s culturally diverse. Everybody wants to go to Miami, because it has so much to offer, whether that’s South Beach or the restaurant scene, or exciting new neighborhoods like the Wynwood art and dining district, the Miami Design District north of downtown, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts or the new Perez Art Museum. It’s just an incredible destination now.”
Sarah Sebastian, owner and creative director of Miami-based statewide destination management company Rose Gold Collective, agrees that Miami is now the most talked about destination in Florida. It’s home to 90 percent of Rose Gold Collective’s events.
“Miami is now a meeting destination with global appeal,” Sebastian says. “It has grown tremendously over the last couple of years, with a long list of new hotels opening. And the diversity of its neighborhoods and the constant emergence of cool new neighborhoods like Edgewater means that there are always unique new restaurants and activities. The thing about Miami I find most exciting is the creative energy the city has and the many ways you can incorporate that into a corporate meeting or incentive program. For example, there are many very distinctive kinds of local talent, foods and activities that can be used to make a meeting very distinctive and very ‘Miami.’ ”
Among the most acclaimed and celebrated new hotels is the Forbes Five Star Faena Miami Beach Hotel, created by Argentinean hotelier and developer Alan Faena, who also has developed the Faena Arts District that surrounds the hotel. The hotel epitomizes the glamour of Old Hollywood. It was designed by “The Great Gatsby” director Baz Luhrmann and his costume designer wife, but also incorporates modern art and world-class sophistication and luxury. “It represents glamour at its finest,” Sebastian says.
Both Sebastian and Fijol also single out for praise the new Miami Beach Edition. It is the flagship outpost of a fast-growing new global “lifestyle” hotel brand created by legendary boutique hotelier Ian Schrager in partnership with Marriott. It features two restaurants from acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I&FMM