Florida: Why Sunshine State Meetings Have It Made in the Shade

Florida: Why Sunshine State Meetings Have It Made in the Shade

July 15, 2016
Published: November 2015
Insurance & Financial Meetings Management
By Mark Rowh


The allure of Florida as a destination is unquestionable. How can you top a place that calls itself the Sunshine State? And with the investments made by a number of properties, today’s options may be better than ever.

“Florida offers many of the sun-and-sand benefits which can be so motivating to participants, but is also likely to meet the business requirements of many financial services or insurance organizations,” says Susan Adams, senior director of engagement for Dittman Incentive Marketing in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “When policies require domestic travel, travel within footprint only or restrict the number of days out of office, Florida can inspire guests and satisfy these business rules.”

She adds that the combination of great airlift, reliable hotel partners and creative destination or event management partners can contribute to a memorable experience for guests and make planning easier.

“When you’re considering white sandy beaches for a corporate program, Florida can be pretty hard to beat,” Adams says.

Certainly diversity of offerings is a key factor when considering Florida. The wide range of properties around the state offers nearly unlimited options for meeting planners.

Weather is also an important factor in site selection for Noël S. Mladinich, supervisor, meetings and events for financial advising firm Raymond James. But it’s far from the only one.

“Florida is an attractive destination for meetings in the colder months because it can provide respite for our attendees from the more harsh Northern climates,” she says. “It also offers many diverse areas, from Orlando to Miami to the beaches in the Panhandle, which can help serve an array of meeting objectives.”

Central Florida

Adrienne Gutbier, second vice president, corporate marketing for Ohio National Financial Services in Cincinnati, reports that Florida is an ideal meeting destination for her company, having coordinated several meetings at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort

Bonnet Creek. Last winter, 97 qualifying general agents from across the country attended a meeting along with headquarters staff and spouses. Gutbier cites the weather in January and February as a prime factor in the location’s attractiveness.

“This is an incentive for most of our attendees,” she says, noting that sunny Florida will always be a draw in the first quarter of the year, and that historically many of those eligible to attend these meetings reside in states where the weather is less ideal.

“As we have changed our business model and agents across the U.S. are now eligible, weather doesn’t draw quite the way it used to, but it is still a factor,” she says. And she adds that Orlando specifically is a great destination with its airlift capacity and number of direct flights.

And when it comes to accommodating her meetings, Gutbier says the Wyndham has consistently offered everything her groups have needed.

“There is ideal meeting space, wonderful sleeping rooms, great food and beverage, and impeccable service,” she says. “Overall it has been a perfect value proposition for us for three years.”

The 400-room hotel can serve both large and small groups. A total of 32,000 sf of meeting space includes facilities accommodating up to 800, while the smallest, at 304 sf, seats 10. The hotel recently embarked on a meeting space expansion set for completion in May 2016.

“The meeting space fit our group perfectly,” Gutbier says. “We were able to have the ideal amount of general session and breakout space. We were moments from Downtown Disney, which offered a great offsite option for one evening, and being a new property, everything was fresh and sharp.”

A few attendees came early or stayed late with spouses or kids to enjoy the Orlando parks, Gutbier adds. That option served as a welcome bonus to a successful business outing.

Located in the Walt Disney World Resort and offering easy access to the area’s theme parks is the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista. Along with its 814 guest rooms, the hotel has 78,000 sf of meeting space. Prefunction space includes three built-in registration counters that service two large ballrooms. The grand ballroom, with more than 18,000 sf, can accommodate more than 2,000 guests. The hotel recently completed a remodel of public spaces, guest rooms and meeting space. A new walkway bridge between the hotel and the new Disney Springs was completed this fall. (Disney Springs is a transformation of Downtown Disney featuring more dining, shopping and entertainment options.)

At Universal Orlando Resort, with five hotels and several theme park attractions, meeting participants can enjoy both large-scale and smaller events. At the upper end of the spectrum, corporate groups can buy out either Universal’s Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios for an event highlighted by exclusive access to rides and attractions. Or for groups under 200, customized options from dinner receptions or teambuilding to “ride & dine” options are available. A variety of venues accommodates from 300 to 1,900 attendees.

New in 2016 will be the Caribbean-themed Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which will be Universal Orlando’s fifth hotel. It will bring another 1,000 rooms and 115,000 sf of meeting space to the picture. All told, the combined meeting and function space among all of Universal Orlando’s hotels will then total nearly 250,000 sf, with options for meeting the needs of virtually any sized group.

Located within the Walt Disney World Resort, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel recently redesigned every guest room in the 758-room Swan hotel, with the same effort planned for the 1,509-room Dolphin hotel. The rooms feature new upgraded furniture, the latest technology including large HDTVs, additional power outlets and attractive colors and other design features.

Along with its convenient location between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and proximity to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom Park, the Swan and Dolphin offers a huge variety of meeting options with more than 329,000 sf of combined meeting space. Some 84 meeting rooms include executive boardrooms and a number of ballroom configurations. One totals 55,000 sf divisible into 16 meeting rooms, and another 34,000 sf is divisible into 11 meeting rooms. Convention and exhibit space tops 110,000 sf, and 99,000 sf of outdoor space includes a number of terraces and courtyards.

The hotel also offers some truly nontraditional event spaces. Dinners, receptions and other group events can be held in areas including

banquet kitchens, back hallways and even a giant freezer. With the latter, up to 60 guests may enjoy unusual offerings such as a martini bar served on carved ice, or a raw bar and caviar also served on ice — all while outfitted in parkas provided by the hotel.

At SeaWorld, exotic marine life and exhibits can provide exciting backdrops for group events. Meeting and event spaces include the Ports of Call banquet facility, featuring a 12,000-sf ballroom; Discovery Cove, with a capacity of 100–400; and TurtleTrek (with the same capacity) with naturalistic habitats featuring rescued manatees and sea turtles. Still other choices include the Penguin Encounter and Wild Arctic.

New in Orlando, I-Drive 360 opened in May. The $200 million retail, dining and entertainment complex revolves around the 400-foot-tall Orlando Eye observation wheel. In addition to a range of restaurants, the complex includes a 420-foot-tall spinning attraction, the StarFlyer; Madame Tussauds Orlando; Sea Life Aquarium; and Skeletons: Animals Unveiled.

Planners looking for an incentive retreat far from the maddening crowds would do well to consider Streamsong Resort, located 86 miles south of Orlando and accessible from both the Tampa and Orlando airports. Set on 16,000 acres of dunes, lakes and lagoons, the 228-room resort offers a spectacular grotto-style spa, golf on two championship courses (with a third on the way) and unique outdoor activities (think teambuilding) such as sporting clays at multiple stations and guided bass fishing. The property has 25,000 sf of conference facilities, which can accommodate groups of 10 to 500, as well as 50,000 sf of outdoor event space.

Northeast Florida

Among the attractive properties in Northeast Florida is the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront. It offers 110,000 sf of function space including 30 meeting rooms, most of which overlook the St. Johns River. Facilities include more than 21,000-sf of outdoor river decks, eight conference suites and space for small meetings.

Twenty-nine miles north of the Jacksonville airport is the oceanfront Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, which now boasts 80,000 sf of meeting space, including a new 16,825-sf ballroom. The spacious conference center houses more than 13,000 sf of prefunction space as well as an 11,000-sf event lawn. The 404 oceanfront guest rooms include 27 suites.

Twenty miles southeast of Jacksonville is the AAA Five Diamond Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a 300-acre resort in operation since 1928. Its luxury accommodations include 250 rooms and suites. Guests can enjoy top-quality golf and tennis programs as well as a spa. The resort has 25,000 sf of meeting and banquet space and 17 meeting rooms, the largest of which is just over 6,200 sf. The resort recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of its Peyton House accommodations and oceanfront Surf Club, while also introducing the new Tavern Lounge and upgrading the complimentary Wi-Fi system property-wide. The resort will complete a multimillion-dollar renovation of its Ocean House accommodations in fall 2017.

Sister property Ponte Vedra Lodge & Club has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of its 66 oceanfront guest rooms.

The Shores Resort and Spa in Daytona Beach Shores completed a property-wide renovation last year encompassing the 212 guest rooms and 20,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space. Event facilities include a 6,800-sf grand ballroom that can be subdivided into five smaller meeting facilities ranging from 830 to 3,700 sf. Guests using this ground-level facility find themselves walking through the Daytona Beach Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame featuring plaques of famous faces in racing. Also available are boardrooms and smaller meeting rooms plus more than 8,000 sf of rooftop “cloud level” meeting facilities with floor-to-ceiling glass for outstanding views.

Daytona’s multifaceted Ocean Center convention center features 32 meeting rooms, an executive board room and VIP suite and 32,000 sf of total meeting space. A large ballroom offers divisible space, and the facility also includes a 94,000-sf exhibit hall and 42,000-sf arena that seats 9,300. Located 400 feet from the ocean, the center is flanked by a selection of shops and restaurants.

The Panhandle

Located in Destin, in Northwest Florida’s Panhandle, the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa proclaims that it is Northwest Florida’s largest full-service beachfront resort hotel. It offers 602 guest rooms as well as 40,000 sf of recently renovated meeting space designed to handle groups ranging from 10 to 2,000. Included in the total meeting space is the new 7,500-sf Coastal Ballroom.

At the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, The Baytowne Conference Center features a 13,500-sf ballroom along with an array of other facilities including boardrooms and breakout rooms. And the resort’s Linkside Conference Center and Exhibition Hall offers 33,000 sf of function space. Designed for groups of up to 1,200, it includes two bay-front venues and a 12,600-sf exhibit hall. The resort also features 20,000 sf of outdoor event space.

The Gulf Coast

Following an $18 million renovation completed earlier this year, the Waldorf Astoria Naples in Southwest Florida transitioned to the independently owned Naples Grande Beach Resort & Naples Grande Golf Course. The 474-room hotel has 83,000 sf of meeting space, five restaurants and bars, three pools and 100-foot waterslide. A scenic boardwalk to the beach winds through a protected mangrove sanctuary.

Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa boasts more than 95,000 sf of meeting and function space. Some 34 meeting and breakout rooms are available, along with 15 outdoor areas. The largest ballroom offers 17,743 sf of space for up to 1,400 guests, while another with 12,500 sf of space accommodates up to 750. The unusual glass-enclosed 5,763-sf Lagoon Pavilion is built out over the water. Outside event venues include the Commons, which provides 13,000 sf of space that can accommodate banquets for up to 1,000 guests or receptions up to 1,360, and a 9,600-sf super-pool deck.

A unique event venue is the 18th fairway of the Saddlebrook Course which, when lighted during evening hours, handles large groups. And a sports village overlooking the golf course and lake can be used for casual gatherings and teambuilding activities.

Southeast Florida

Just opened in 2015 in Hollywood, the 349-room Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort also adds something new to Florida’s already rich selection of destinations. Inspired by the lyrics and lifestyle of “parrothead” singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, the facilities overlook the Atlantic Ocean and include 30,000 sf of combined indoor and outdoor event space. The 23,000 sf of meeting and prefunction space on the resort’s ninth floor is strategically located to avoid distractions for business activities. In addition, two floors higher is a 7,000-sf outdoor event area for receptions and dinners with great oceanfront views. Meeting spaces include a 10,000-sf ballroom and seven smaller rooms for breakouts or other needs. They range in size from 600 to 1,170 sf.

The oceanfront Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa on Palm Beach island was named the top resort in Florida in the 2015 Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards. The tony AAA Five Diamond resort, which offers 309 guest rooms, recently debuted a new oceanfront restaurant and lounge, a celebrity-chef-led culinary program and a bespoke Cultural Concierge program. For meetings, there is more than 30,000 sf of meeting and event space that includes a 9,860-sf ballroom divisible into three equal salons. Two additional ballrooms are supplemented by 10 breakout meeting rooms, including two boardrooms, ranging in size from 387 to 602 sf. Outdoor event space includes an oceanfront courtyard, pool terrace and poolside cabanas.

An important amenity for incentive programs, Eau Spa is 42,000 sf of welcoming relaxation. The Forbes Five Star, award-winning spa offers a departure from traditional appointment-based treatments, encouraging an individualized spa approach. A few of the features of the spa include the Self-Centered Garden, Private Villas, Scrub and Polish Bar, Bath Lounge, Eau Zone Relaxation Lounge, 19 treatment rooms and salon.

Also on Palm Beach Island is the historic Brazilian Court Hotel, dating back to 1926, where ballroom and Conservatory spaces were recently remodeled. With only 68 units available at any time, planners can consider a buyout of the iconic property.

Across the bridge to the mainland in West Palm Beach, the new 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach is being constructed next to

the 350,000-sf Palm Beach County Convention Center. The convention hotel, which has announced that it will open ahead of schedule in January 2016, will house 24,000 sf of meeting space, and will be accessible via covered walkway from the convention center.

In choosing a Florida destination, Mladinich especially likes the Miami area.

“Miami is a prime location for meetings as there is a wide range of properties to choose from, and a plethora of dining and leisure options as well,” she says.

In October, Mladinich and her colleagues coordinated a meeting at Turnberry Isle Miami for 100 financial advisors along with

partner firm and home office representatives, and they were pleased with the results. A major consideration was the convenient access to both the Fort Lauderdale and Miami airports.

“The sleeping rooms, common areas, dining outlets and meeting space have recently been redone, and are phenomenal,” Mladinich says. “The staff, at all levels, is professional and easy to work with.”

Located in Aventura, an exclusive section of North Miami Beach, Turnberry Isle is a Mediterranean-style resort covering 300 acres. Along with 408 guest rooms and suites and beach access, it also has two championship golf courses. More than 40,000 sf of meeting space provides planners a variety of options. A grand ballroom totaling nearly 12,000 sf and accommodating up to 1,060 guests can be divided into three sections. The resort’s conference center has 21 meeting rooms, and a 7,314-sf outdoor terrace accommodates up to 400 guests.

The Trump National Doral Miami offers more than 100,000 sf of redesigned meeting space plus 75,000 total sf of outdoor function space. Heading the list is a 24,000-sf grand ballroom. Other facilities include the 9,500-sf White & Gold Ballroom, the 8,100-sf Ivanka Trump Ballroom, and the Crystal Ballroom & Terrace with 7,200 sf of indoor space and an 8,000-sf outdoor terrace.

The Miami Worldcenter, which breaks ground later this year, will be anchored by a new, $750 million 1,800-room Marriott Marquis Miami Worldcenter Hotel & Expo Center that will include more than 600,000 sf of convention facilities, including a 100,000-sf ground floor exhibition hall, a 65,000-sf main ballroom, a 1,500-seat theater and 390,000 sf of meeting rooms and event space.

Key Largo

The Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, located on 2,500 acres of the northernmost tip of the Florida Keys, welcomes select groups for meetings, corporate retreats and conferences. The property — which has a range of accommodations that include 175 inn rooms, 100 spacious one-, two- and three-bedroom villas and private homes — boasts its own private airport and private 175-slip marina, two golf courses, tennis, croquet and 30,000 sf of meeting space, including a ballroom that can hold 700 and a rooftop terrace for 175 with views of the marina.

Attendees can take advantage of a range of group activities beyond golf and spa at Ocean Reef Club: Angling aficionados can experience deep-sea, flats, reef or backcountry fishing off the shores of the resort; other group activities can include chartered yacht dinners, beachside events, eco-tours and teambuilding programs such as golf cart scavenger hunts, cardboard boat regattas and beach olympics, to name a few.

A new meeting facility, Carysfort Hall, will open in February. Able to accommodate up to 300 guests, the hall will include a 5,607-sf ballroom; five breakout rooms, all with natural light; an expanded, 3,000-sf interactive cooking school where up to 150 attendees can participate in tasty teambuilding activities; and wraparound outdoor decks with breathtaking views of the marina. I&FMM

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