Award-winning venues and activities await in Southwest Florida
Mangrove Forest, Lee CountyImagine 663 miles of white-sugar sand beaches with turquoise waters and balmy Gulf of Mexico breezes, a place to kick off your shoes and relax. In contrast, just a short drive from most Southwest Florida cities are 4,500 sq. mi. of marshy Everglades loaded with wildlife and flora.
Southwest Florida is a place to enjoy seafood fresh from the gulf, some of the world’s best beachcombing and shelling, and upscale shopping and dining all in one place. And oh, don’t forget those spectacular tropical sunsets!
“It is essential for hospitality employees to have effective guest service skills in today’s competitive market,” says Tamara Pigott, executive director for The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. “We are steadily moving forward to our goal of becoming the friendliest destination in the United States.”
There’s something else planners need to know about Southwest Florida: It offers renowned guest services.
The Beaches partner with American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute to offer customer service certifications that are a key part of its multifaceted Guests First Customer Service Training Program.
While Orlando, Miami and Tampa are key event cities in Florida, beach towns such as Fort Myers, Naples and Marco Island stand out as award-winning alternatives. These smaller destinations are well worth your attention.
Thomas Edison & Henry Ford Winter Estates
Inside an old Atlantic Coastline Railroad depot is home to an original fort, an authentic replica of a pioneer cracker house and a 1929 private Pullman rail car. The museum’s education center can accommodate 55 for meetings and events.
An elegant offsite venue option is , a 1901 stunning Georgian Revival mansion that has hosted the Edisons, Fords and Firestones. Live oaks and lush tropical gardens fill the stately property, while a new open-air pavilion along the lazy Caloosahatchee River can seat 300 for meetings or reception.
The Bubble Room Restaurant
Captiva & Sanibel Islands
Near Fort Myers are two of the state’s most enchanting islands—Captiva and Sanibel.
In 2014, Coastal Living recognized Captiva Island, just north of Sanibel, as runner-up for the Happiest Seaside Town. Dotting the shoreline are grand mansions and quaint cottages painted in soft shades reflecting a gentler era. Just five miles long and one-half mile wide, this barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico features the historic Chapel by the Sea, several eclectic restaurants and shopping options ranging from boutiques to the charming Captiva Village.
Captiva has one main road through the island, more than 250 kinds of seashells and thousands of loggerhead turtles that surface May to October. Like most Southwest Florida islands, it’s a birder’s paradise and a kayaker’s dream.
Captiva also boasts the region’s most famous eatery, , in a multicolored wooden shack covered with old signs and thousands of pop culture and Americana items; it’s a fun place to share a meal or conduct a casual meeting.
It’s only a short ride via water taxi from Captiva to neighboring Sanibel, which has earned praise from USA Today as one of 10 Most Romantic Coastal Destinations and from Outsideonline.com as one of the five best Florida beaches.
For a relaxing adventure, take a four-mile scenic drive through the 6,400-acre . The mangrove forest is filled with wildlife including alligators and 272 species of birds. For a more intimate experience, take a leisurely walk, ride a bike or paddle for up-close encounters, especially at low tide in the mornings and at sunset.
Noteworthy: Sanibel Island was ranked No. 3 by U.S. News & World Report for best family beach vacations, ahead of Hilton Head, Honolulu and U.S. Virgin Islands.
Third Street South - The Plaza, Naples
Florida’s Paradise Coast conjures up notions of tropical airstreams floating across white sandy beaches along the 30 miles of coastline. Collier County, which includes Marco Island, Naples and Everglades City, provides a serene setting for attendees to unwind and rejuvenate between sessions.
“Groups love experiencing the beautiful and sophisticated atmosphere of Florida’s Paradise Coast,” says Debi DeBenedetto, tourism sales and marketing manager for Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “After meetings, they can soak in the sun on Marco Island’s pristine beaches, take a walk down Naples’ Fifth Avenue South for upscale fashion boutiques, striking art galleries and amazing gourmet restaurants, or explore Everglades National Park. With great year-round weather, top resorts, award-winning beaches and golf, this area is a must for every planner with from 20 to 1,000 attendees.”
Accolades include the area being voted 2014 Golf Destination of the Year by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.
The largest and only urbanized property in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, Marco Island presents world-class amenities combined with small-town charm.
Marco Island’s exotic beaches and tranquil waters are enticing, whether on an airboat gliding through the Everglades, fishing and parasailing, or just watching for dolphins and collecting sea shells. The elaborate resorts, antique shops, galleries and premier restaurants are a bonus.
With nature trails and boardwalks, is waiting to be explored just south of the island. The largest subtropical wilderness in the country with 1.5 million acres of terrain and wildlife is a naturalist’s heaven, with guided tours, cabins and campsites and waterways. USA Today voted Everglades National Park the seventh Best National Park in 2014 in its 10 Best Readers’ Choice category.
The 63,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve features an 11-mile scenic drive to a swamp touted as the native orchid capital of the United States. If watching alligators sun along the roadside is appealing, drive the isolated Loop Road in to see dozens. Keep a camera in hand as you traverse these woodlands, capturing photos of turtles, river otters and hundreds of bird species, including bald eagles and wood storks. Walk the 2,000-foot Big Cypress Bend Boardwalks among cypress rooted in freshwater swamps, and an amazing cypress dome.
Noteworthy: Marco Island was designated as the No. 1 island in the United States and No. 4 island in the world by TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice in 2014.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Naples
Naples is a culturally rich city celebrated for its high-end downtown shopping with boutiques and shops along Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South. It’s a prime destination for art galleries, restaurants and pubs in Southwest Florida. The area also caters to those just wanting to sink their toes in the sand as they watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico.
Naples was named America’s Best All-Around Beach by Travel Channel in 2005 and one of the 20 Best Beaches in America by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine.
Birder’s World has named one of the country’s top bird watching sites. This 13,000-acre preserve claims the largest stand of virgin bald cypress trees in the world as well as the largest colony of nesting wood storks. Take a leisurely stroll along winding boardwalks to appreciate the significance of this area to the watershed and ecosystem in the Everglades.
Lush tropical foliage is beautifully displayed at which also has special animal encounter events for groups. The is another offsite relaxing destination for up to 1,000 guests, with inside and outdoor venues.
Home to more than 90 challenging golf courses, Naples is often referred to as “The Golf Capital of the World.” With almost as many spas, Naples mixes a beautiful coastal cocktail of culture, adventure and relaxation.
Ngla Wildlife Preserve, Naples
Up to 1,000 guests will relish being entertained by tribal dancers and exotic animals at , an exclusive meeting site on 42 acres. Set among waterfalls and stone bridges, the private preserve has three majestic tents boasting crystal chandeliers and over-the-top luxurious amenities. Wildlife Preserve
During a fam trip sponsored by Paradise Coast, meeting planner Susan Henderson said getting to know the area really makes her want to bring groups back to Southwest Florida.
“The dune buggies and walk on the beach were nice add-ons to make sure we had fun and really soak up the destination’s atmosphere,” Henderson says. “The trip to Ngala was very memorable—special kudos for that. The entire trip was great fun and educational. I learned so much about the destination that I’m really looking forward to recommending it to my clients.”
Noteworthy: Naples is listed as the No. 1 Small Art Town in America in the book, The 100 Best Art Towns in America. In 2011, American Style Magazine recognized it as one of the Top 25 Small Cities for Art.
Ten Thousand Islands
The intriguing Everglades ecosystem is a place where adventures flourish. Everglades City serves as the gateway to Ten Thousand Islands and is located right across from the Gulf Coast entrance to Everglades National Park.
Groups will be mesmerized by an outing to a private island for wildlife viewing and birding adventures. Sightseeing boat tours, including airboats, are ideal for this. As you glide along the water with herons, egrets and osprey for company, keep an eye out for bottlenose dolphins in the gulf. Take a swamp walk or canoe the mangrove tunnels. And if convenient, catch the Everglades Seafood Festival in February for a taste of the Florida coast.
Overlooking Chokoloskee Bay, Everglades City features colorful old buildings and a native charm. Many local restaurants welcome large groups, including where fresh gulf seafood, frog legs and alligator tail are served.
To learn the history of Everglades City, visit . At one time, this remote frontier was only accessible by boat, but has since become the entrance to one of the most fascinating tourist destinations in the world. The museum exhibits permanent and rotating collections reflecting more than 2,000 years of history. There’s also meeting space available for smaller gatherings.
The perfect place to set up base camp for eco-tours is Port of the Islands Everglades Adventure Resort, which has 42 guest rooms, meeting space for up to 50 and a wilderness concierge.
Noteworthy: Everglades National Park was among the 10 Best National Parks as chosen by readers of USA Today in 2014.
Southwest Florida has developed the perfect balance of culture, ecotourism and recreation to satisfy the needs of any conference planner and to attract attendees in record numbers. So grab a hat and sunscreen, and plan to work some playtime into your next meeting. Attendees will go wild.
Mona L. Hayden is an independent writer and award-winning photographer. She publishes Louisiana Road Trips magazine.
Resources-Captiva Island -The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel -Visit Florida
Meeting SpotlightWho: Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting What: Training When: January 2014 Where: Westin Cape Coral at Marina Village, Fort Myers Quote: “Dealing with the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau was one of the best experiences ever. The professionalism and personal attention of their sales team made my job as a meeting planner much easier. The time they took to understand our organization and make sure we saw the properties and points of interest specifically for our group was impressive. Our program we had in the Fort Myers area was one of our best ever. We hope to return to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel for future events.” −Barbara Haas, executive administrator and conference coordinator
Shelling TipsSeashells are the empty protective outer layers of a mollusk, an animal living in the sea. It takes just one year for mollusks to reach maturity. As they wash ashore, the animal has died and decomposed with just the shell remaining. Here are tips to find more shells: -Rise early, as mollusks collect on the beach by morning. -The best times to gather shells are during low tide and immediately after storms and cool fronts. -Ask a ranger or guide to recommend the best shelling spots. -Look for protruding areas of undeveloped land with seaweed and rocks, as this tends to be a catch basin before shells land on the beach. -Plan your search for one hour before low tide and one hour after. (Extreme tides that occur during a full moon or new moon are great for shelling!) -Feel beneath the sand after the tide has gone out. -Step ankle-deep into the water and feel for shells in the sand. -Take note of successful shell-seekers on the beach and move closer in. Practice beach side etiquette by keeping a respectful distance. -Notice wind directions, as shelling after a storm with west winds is ideal. -Remember that the beach changes daily.
Wildlife of Everglades National Park
Alligators and crocodiles and eagles, oh my. Everglades National Park is an international wildlife destination that is close enough to meeting properties to give attendees an experience that is like no other. Here are a few of the species that can be found:
-Birds: Swans, geese, ducks, swifts, hummingbirds, goatsuckers, shorebirds, gulls, terns, bitterns, herons, ibis, storks, pigeons, doves, kingfishers, cuckoos, anis, birds of prey, gallinaceous birds, loons, cranes, rails, limpkins, passerines, boobies, pelicans, cormorants, anhingas, flamingos, woodpeckers, allies, grebes, shearwaters, petrels, parrots, parakeets, typical owls
-Threatened and endangered species: American alligator, American crocodile, green sea turtles, hawksbill sea turtle, Atlantic Ridley sea turtle, leatherback sea turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, Everglades snail kite, wood stork, Cape Sable seaside sparrow, red-cockaded woodpecker, piping plover, bald eagle, roseate tern, Florida panther (pictured), manatee