History and nature thrive in the Sunshine State’s northern meeting destinations
Orlando is the big kid on the block for Florida meetings with the most meeting space in the state, while three Sunshine State destinations in the north offer small- and medium-size meetings a taste of history and nature in a relaxed setting. St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches combine the country’s oldest city, golf and Atlantic beaches. Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, is a mecca for nature lovers, surrounded by natural attractions such as freshwater springs, a wildlife refuge and arched trees over canopy roads. On Florida’s Panhandle, the emerald waters and white-sand beaches of Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island nurture conferences in a laid-back atmosphere.
In August, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions gave its figurative hand and 25,000 annual IAAPA Attractions Expo attendees in a 10-year marriage to Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center. “The city is known for imagination, creativity and innovation—the foundations of the attractions industry—and that, combined with the city’s world-class facilities, makes Orlando the best long-long-term location,” says IAAPA President and CEO Charles Bray.
The June opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park had already “reinforced our position across the world, with a strong meeting planner reaction,” says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services for the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Few meeting planners are immune to the allure of Orlando’s unique and popular family attractions, which are perfect for all ages. Pam Soules, event manager for Minneapolis-based Winmark Corporation, arranged for a 325-person corporate-level meeting in May 2009 at Loews Royal Pacific Resort. And she’s been there before. “Orlando will always be a popular destination for all of our groups. The airlift is great—easy and fairly inexpensive. Attendees either arrive early or stay late, bring their families and tie a vacation in with our conference.”
Orlando, home to multiple theme parks within Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, has managed to weather the intense economic downturn: “We didn’t slow down,” Runzler says. “We added three Hilton Hotel properties in 2009, the Peabody Orlando just opened, restaurants continue to open, roads are improving and development is booming.”
Major Meeting Venues
The National Training and Simulation Association has held its annual meeting, a citywide with 16,000 attendees at 14 hotels, in Orlando since at least 1993. Barbara McDaniel, NTSA’s director for conferences and programs, says her attendees enjoy the “compactness” of Orlando’s 116,000 hotel rooms, of which 16,000 are within two miles of the OCCC, and 7,500 rooms within walking distance, according to Runzler.
The Orange County Convention Center, the second largest in the U.S., along with International Drive restaurants and shopping outside the door, ensure NTSA’s return. OCCC West and OCCC North/South together provide 2.1-million sq. ft. of exhibit space and 479,190 sq. ft. of meeting area, including 74 meeting rooms, the 62,000-square-foot Valencia Room, two 92,000-square-foot general assembly areas, the 2,643-seat Chapin Theater and a 200-seat lecture hall.
The Orlando CVB has a significant portion of its sales team in an office within the OCCC, a unique situation where the convention center, bureau personnel and the three theme park companies all have offices on-site, Runzler says. That enables them to respond quickly to planners’ needs. “The entire OCCC staff sees ownership of our conference as partners,” McDaniel says.
And for Iain Mackenzie, CMP, the meetings and event director for the International Sign Association, whose 17,000 attendees use the OCCC for their association trade show every other year, the OCCC staff “are great partners and work hard.” The International Sign Expo event in April requires accommodation at all price points and family-friendly activities. Mackenzie works with the CVB to arrange discounted theme park and same-day theater tickets offered through the association’s website.
Elsewhere in Greater Orlando is 3-million sq. ft. of meeting space, including more than 5,000 guest rooms and 600,000 sq. ft. of meeting space among Walt Disney World properties, and 2,400 rooms and 133,000 sq. ft. of meeting space at Universal Orlando Resort.
Unique Venues & Activities
Pick an interest and chances are there’s a venue to indulge it or something new to discover in Orlando. Runzler’s “building boom” includes Pointe Orlando, which has become “a hub for visitors,” with improved food and beverage outlets, a Pointe Performing Arts Center theater, an Improv Comedy Club and the B.B. King’s Blues Club. NTSA’s McDaniel says her attendees report that Pointe Orlando has been redesigned from a closed-in space to a place where people want to go to see what’s there.
Any theme park additions are news and must-sees the moment they are introduced. Such is the case with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which includes a Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff roller coasters, as well as theme-faithful entertainment, dining, drinks and sweets in an impressively detailed rendition of the wizarding village, Hogsmeade.
Disney's Bay Lake Tower, Orlando.
On October 1, the long-awaited Amway Center opened downtown. The city of Orlando’s new 875,000-square-foot events center hosts the Orlando Magic NBA franchise, NCAA basketball, hockey, arena football and stage concerts. There are small event spaces and hospitality suites; 500 people can attend events on the practice court (when not in use!), and the 31,000-square-foot arena floor can be used for tradeshows or meetings. The Sky Bar and terrace in the 100-foot-tall exterior tower look out over Church Street to the expanse of Orlando below.
ST. AUGUSTINE, PONTE VEDRA & THE BEACHES
Combine the history and ambience of America’s oldest city, St. Augustine (founded in 1565), with superb golf and 42 miles of Atlantic beaches in and near Ponte Vedra, and it’s a “revelation,” says Richard Goldman, executive director of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. “This interesting counterpoint creates a bond between two different worlds.”
Major Meeting Venues
The 40,000-square-foot St. Johns County Convention Center, off Interstate 95, is next to and operated by the 301-room Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village. The hotel, convention center and World Golf Hall of Fame complex can host up to 1,000 attendees in 86,000 sq. ft. of combined meeting space. Hotel function space includes the 26,450-square-foot St. Augustine Ballroom and the 6,845-square-foot Legends Ballroom.
At Ponte Vedra Beach, the 508-room Sawgrass Marriott has 56,000 sq. ft. of meeting space that includes the configurable, 15,741-square-foot Champions Ballroom. Through the Sawgrass Marriott, planners can book meeting and banquet space in the TPC Sawgrass Clubhouse, close to championship golf played on The Players Stadium Course and Dye’s Valley Course. The 250-room Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and its Florida Conference Center provide 17,400 sq. ft. of meeting space, with 17 meeting rooms that can accommodate up to 450 participants. In St. Augustine, the historic Casa Monica Hotel includes a 1,200-square-foot tented, Moroccan-style Sultan’s Pavilion within its 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Unique Venues & Activities
“St. Augustine is loaded with history,” says Michael H. Feit, event planner and sessions committee chairman of the Grand Chapter of Florida, Order of Eastern Star, Inc., whose 1,234 attendees in 2009 were based at the Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village, and took city tours that showcased its history. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León first landed on Florida’s shores in 1513, and 52 years later, a permanent Spanish settlement was established on St. Augustine’s coast. The fortress, the 1672 Castillo de San Marcos (nps.gov/casa), will provide a costumed interpreter for your group—with a heart-pounding cannon firing as a highlight.
Horse-drawn carriages leave visitors at the gateway to Old Town. Meeting attendees can wander or tour St. George Street, a brick-lined pedestrian area with small museums. History is brought to life at the 1740s Colonial Spanish Quarter. The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse in the U.S. is a notable pocket museum. Feit’s membership visited the 15-acre, meeting-friendly Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park to drink the waters, as well as the Lightner Museum, a Gilded Age private collection, with 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space that includes the former Alcazar Hotel pool.
Nineteenth-century railroad mogul and Standard Oil co-founder Henry Flagler built his own Victorian architectural fantasies downtown, among them the Ponce de León Hotel, now Flagler College, with Moorish-style turrets, and the 1888 Casa Monica Hotel. Nearby, Granada’s scaled-down Alhambra Palace replica, now the Villa Zorayda Museum, was the inspiration for the city’s Moorish Spanish Revival architecture, and hosts groups in 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. San Sebastian Winery, with capacity for 200 and 2,200 sq. ft. of event space near downtown, is in a Flagler East Coast Railway Building and is renowned for its jazz concerts.
For a touch of the natural world, there’s the U.S.’s oldest oceanarium, Marineland, with the Dolphin Conservation Center on the Atlantic that hosts 400 for a function around the dolphin habitat. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm, more than a century old with its own venerable history, is an accredited zoo with all 23 crocodilian species on view in unique habitats.
Florida’s capital city, home to Florida State University and Florida A&M University, and a proud part of Florida’s Panhandle, approaches the small meetings market with gusto. “We treat any planner and group with lots of attention, where in a larger market [the group] can get lost in the shuffle,” says Kerri Post, senior marketing director for Visit Tallahassee. Area inventory includes 6,000 hotel rooms and 400,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
“Even living here, there’s a small-town feel [and] Southern hospitality,” says Nia Wellendorf, 2010 conference chair for the Florida Native Plant Society (Magnolia Chapter), whose meeting brought 450 attendees from throughout the state to the tree-lined city.
As the state capital, Tallahassee’s facilities see heavy use in March and April when the legislature is in session, and on fall weekends when the universities’ rabid football fans fill accommodations. Janet Roach, Visit Tallahassee’s meetings and conventions director, suggests summer for maximum meeting value, and says mid-week in fall has good weather and ample space availability. History and government groups also meet here, while the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory near Florida State University draws scientists from around the world to its test labs and scientific meetings.
Major Meeting Venues
The Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center has 54,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including an 18,000-square-foot, 13,000-seat arena; 35,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space; and six meeting rooms. The 47,000-square-foot Florida State University Conference Center opened this year, and is a state-of-the-art standout. It offers three video walls, LCD screens, Blu-Ray technology, live webcasting, a 400-seat auditorium, 320-seat dining room and eight other breakout rooms.
The downtown, 243-room Doubletree Hotel Tallahassee has 6,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting and banquet space and two executive meeting suites.
Event set-up at the Sawgrass Marriott, Ponte Vedra.
Another option to consider is the 135-suite Residence Inn Universities at the Capitol, which accommodates up to 250 attendees in 4,200 sq. ft. of meeting space and five meeting rooms.
Unique Venues & Activities
“Environmental groups like Tallahassee,” says Visit Tallahassee’s Roach. The region is filled with nature: Apalachicola National Forest, Wakulla Springs State Park and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge are not far from city limits. Green space within and around Tallahassee is a lure for environmental, ecological and other nature-oriented groups, and many Tallahassee hotels have green certifications.
Groups with an interest in history can reach back 12,000 years to visit Native American temple mounds at Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park. In 1539, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto celebrated North America’s first Christmas in an Apalachee Indian village where Tallahassee is today. Mission San Luis is a restored site where Spaniards and Apalachees once lived, with costumed interpreters and meeting space. Goodwood Museum & Gardens is an antebellum plantation mansion with the 4,200-square-foot Carriage House Conference Center. Surrounded by greenery, historic farm buildings and a zoo with Florida’s indigenous wildlife, Bellevue Plantation offers 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space at the Tallahassee Museum. Plantation Country from Tallahassee to south Georgia includes nine canopy roads shaded with moss-draped live oaks and a number of gracious pre-Civil War mansions.
DESTIN/FORT WALTON BEACH/OKALOOSA ISLAND
“We’ve always had and [still] have 24 miles of sugar-white sand beaches and emerald waters,” says Sherry Rushing, CTIS, travel industry sales director for the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You can work a little or play a lot, and get a breath of fresh air here. It’s like being in the Caribbean without your passport.”
The Emerald Coast section of Florida’s Panhandle includes several communities, including Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island, the barrier island that protects Choctawhatchee Bay. Hard-hit with recent negative publicity from the effects of the Deep Horizon Gulf oil spill, the area’s waters and beaches were cleared to resume fishing, boating and recreation in August.
Emerald Coast Conference Center on Okaloosa Island.
The emphasis is on the pristine water, from Destin, aka the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”—with Florida’s largest fishing fleet, sailing, dolphin-watching tours and parasailing—to Fort Walton Beach west across Choctawhatchee Bay, sitting just south of Eglin Air Force Base.
Major Meeting Venues
The Emerald Coast Conference Center (destin-fwb.com/conference) on Okaloosa Island hosts meetings, conferences, sporting events and concerts, and serves Destin, Fort Walton Beach and other communities with 35,000 sq. ft. of column-free meeting and exhibit space, including the 2,000-capacity, 21,000-square-foot Emerald Grand Ballroom, 12 meeting rooms from 450–1,800 sq. ft. and free parking.
Unique Venues & Activities
“It’s very easy to travel in the area [and] things are easy to find,” says Joice J. Ventry, CMP, owner and lead planner of Meeting Spots, who plans meetings all over Florida and also uses the Emerald Coast for a personal getaway. She loves the seafood and ambience sitting at a Destin Harbor restaurant, one of 400 area eateries.
“Everybody has a favorite restaurant,” says Joe Huffine, manager of corporate member services for the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, which again held its longtime annual meeting in July with 576 attendees. The meeting’s annual ice cream social, with roaming clowns performing magic, sets the fun tone for meetings here. A local softball field was rented for a families game, and 60 members played golf, teeing off on some of the area’s 1,080 holes. The CVB also played a helpful role, helping to locate a photographer and speakers during meeting sessions. They even secured a local group to engage attendees by singing karaoke.
Ventry has planned many meetings on the Emerald Coast, a destination that’s “ideal to do business and bring the family.” All-inclusive room rates have included outdoor activities such as tennis, rowboats and cycling. Unlike most Florida destinations, summer vacation travelers keep warm-season accommodation rates high. In other months, rates can be very reasonable; October weather is “absolutely gorgeous,” while April is similar, but breezy, Ventry says.
Unique activities and venues run the gamut here. The Gulfarium marine show aquarium has exciting dolphin and sea lion performances, penguin and otter feedings, and other exotic species on view. One nature-oriented meeting group recently planted sea oats, a golden, protected grass species that stabilizes sand, at Henderson State Beach, after picnicking in a pavilion near a boardwalk with beach access. For something completely different, meeting groups can visit the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum on Eglin Air Force Base, to view aircraft, bombs, weapons, war photography, films and more.
Maxine Cass is a San Francisco-based freelance photojournalist and guidebook author who specializes in travel and business. She enjoys Florida’s nature and nuances.
For more information about properties, venues and attractions in Florida, visit smartmeetings.com/event-planning/florida.
Orlando International Airport
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches
Jacksonville International Airport
Daytona Beach International Airport
Tallahassee Regional Airport
Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island
Northwest Florida Regional Airport
- Boarding the I-Ride Trolley at any of 107 stops on International Drive in Orlando
- Magnificent Tiffany stained glass at The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park
- Time in one of Orlando’s theme parks
- Strolling European-style Spanish Colonial-era St. Augustine on pedestrian-only St. George Street
- Castillo de San Marcos’ fortress vista of St. Augustine’s Matanzas Bay
- Stunning views of Atlantic Ocean beaches from atop the diagonal-striped St. Augustine Lighthouse
- Every known crocodile species at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park
- A freshwater springs swim or boat ride at Wakulla Springs State Park
- Tallahassee’s clear-day view to the Gulf of Mexico from the New Capitol building’s 22nd-floor observation deck
- Mission San Luis in Tallahassee, a sensitive living history enactment of the National Historic Landmark village and mission where Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto celebrated North America’s first Christmas with Apalachee Indians
- Ordering fresh grouper or Destin’s specialty fish, amberjack, accompanied by hushpuppies, a delicious Southern and Florida specialty
Leisurely strolling the Emerald Coast’s sugar-white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico