ponce-de-leon-inlet-lighthouse-museumPonce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museum Photo Courtesy of Daytona Beach Area CVB

Region’s rich past helps create bright future for meetings

When Ponce de Leon waded ashore in 1513 in what is now northeast Florida, he was looking for perhaps the biggest treasure of all time—the Fountain of Youth. He never found it, of course, but that didn’t stop a plethora of other explorers from coming over the next few hundred years, all looking for treasures of their own.

Some were pirates scouring the Atlantic coastline for bounty in sunken Spanish galleons. Others were imperial powers planting their countries’ flags there in the hope of finding inland treasures in the form of territory and trade routes. Still others were simple pioneers and settlers hoping to secure the treasure of a new life.

Today, northeast Florida still bears the cultural footprints of those early explorers, scoundrels and conquerors who came ashore. The region’s colorful history is its present-day anchor, and a deep respect for it is evident in everything from festivals and culture to dining and lifestyle.

The swashbuckling history lives on from Amelia Island to Daytona Beach and combines with the area’s natural beauty to lure those in search of great meetings and events.

Amelia Island: Under Eight Flags

Amelia-IslandAmelia Island, Photo Courtesy of Amelia Island Tourist Development Council

You may have never heard of Amelia Island, which sits about 30 miles northeast of downtown Jacksonville, just below the Georgia border. But a long time ago, the French did. So did the Spanish and English. So did pirates, rum-runners, politicians, patriots, explorers, preachers, con men and sailors from all over the world—from so many places that Amelia Island has had eight different national flags flying over it at various times.

Nowhere is this colorful history more evidenced than in the island’s main town of Fernandina Beach. There, you can stroll down brick sidewalks past Victorian buildings from the late 1800s, now filled with longstanding local shops and restaurants.

“Amelia Island has long been treasured by travelers for her natural beauty and rich history, as well as its world-class resorts, spas, golf and dining,” says Gil Langley, president of the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council. “Combine that with 135,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and award-winning meeting facilities, venues and professional services, and it’s easy to see why Amelia holds great appeal for meeting planners.”

In the town’s historic district is Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro, in a restored early-1900s home with a private upstairs dining room and an outdoor patio. Joe’s is filled with historic artwork commissioned by a former owner of the home. The artwork can be enjoyed with what some say is the best food in town.

Jacksonville: America’s First Hollywood

Jacksonville offers a much different Florida than the state’s other big cities. There, the cooking is Southern, the music is country or Southern rock and the accents are as much Georgia as Florida. This is the star of northeast Florida, and its past is colorful enough to fill several history books.

Some historians believe that Jacksonville was actually the site of America’s first Thanksgiving. They claim it was celebrated in 1564 by French explorers at what’s now Fort Caroline National Monument.

This city is filled with significant African-American history, as well. The LaVilla neighborhood was once known as the Harlem of the South. American Beach was the first resort community for African-Americans in the South. Clara White Mission (also a museum), founded by a former slave, has operated continuously for more than 100 years. Kingsley Plantation, the last remaining plantation house in Florida, hosts group outings, staff retreats and outdoor events.

ribault-club-jacksonvilleRight next door to the plantation is the restored Ribault Club, once an exclusive resort where, in the Roaring Twenties, Jacksonville’s hoi polloi partied until the sun came up. Now it’s a visitor center with nearly 6,000 sq. ft. for meetings and events. Small boats, canoes and kayaks can be launched on the tidal waters behind the club.

Jacksonville holds the claim of being America’s film capital before most people had ever heard of California’s Hollywood. In the early 20th century, the warm climate, unique natural surroundings, interesting architecture, inexpensive labor and easy rail access attracted more than 30 movie studios to Jacksonville, earning it the title “Winter Film Capital of the World.”

Other “Only in Jax” historic sites include underground bank tunnels downtown, Ritz Theatre & Museum and splendid old neighborhoods such as Riverside and Avon.

Even Jacksonville’s convention center is historic. Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center is located in what used to be Union Station—the city’s first train station—built in 1895 in the neoclassical style. It offers planners wireless service in 265,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, and sits within a mile of 2,000 hotel rooms.

“Jacksonville offers a mix of Florida flair, Southern hospitality and history everywhere you look,” says Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville. “From our old days as a movie-making mecca, to our African-American roots, to being the first European settlement on our coast, and even our status as the birthplace of Southern rock, the ‘River City by the Sea’ has a very rich heritage. Local folks have a true appreciation for preserving it. And visitors really enjoy experiencing it.”

St. Augustine: 450 Years and Counting

St. Augustine celebrated a rather important birthday this year—its 450th. The city was founded by Spanish Admiral Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles in September 1565, 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

casa-monica-hotel-st.-augustineCasa Monica Hotel, St. Augustine

It’s the oldest permanently settled city in the United States, and it retains the patina of another age. For example, if you meet in the posh Casa Monica Hotel, which has 138 guest rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. for meetings, you’ll be in an 1888 building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

That’s just one of St. Augustine’s many historic meeting venues. Treasury on the Plaza was a major bank built in 1928. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building, with 6,000 sq. ft. of event space, boasts a banquet room that’s been transformed into one of the most glamorous event venues in Florida, with stately Greek-style columns and the bar set up in the old bank vault.

Attendees can visit more than 80 historic sites and attractions here, including Castillo de San Marcos, the nation’s oldest masonry fortification; the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum; Lightner Museum; the country’s oldest wooden schoolhouse; Flagler College; and Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.

“You’re in America’s oldest city, and meetings here are hardly the same old story,” says Richard Goldman, president and CEO of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. “Because of who we are and the legacy we treasure, meetings here are memorable experiences. And it doesn’t hurt that, in addition to that legacy, St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra have unique venues, world-class accommodations, bucket-list golf courses, eclectic dining and 42 miles of beaches.”

About 30 minutes north of St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra Beach lays claim to a more recent type of history. In addition to 61,000 sq. ft. of event space, Sawgrass Marriott is home to The Stadium Course, site of the PGA’s annual The Players Championship tournament, where golfers such as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods made names for themselves on the notoriously challenging links.

Daytona Beach: Racing, Beaches & History

Daytona’s Beach’s historic days aren’t in the past, either. Daytona International Speedway stages some of America’s most popular NASCAR races, and new records are often set on the world-famous track.

jackie-robinson-ballparkJackie Robinson Ballpark, Daytona Beach Photo Courtesy of Daytona Beach Area CVB

The history being made today is just the tip of the iceberg. Baseball great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in U.S. professional sports in Daytona Beach during a spring training game on March 17, 1946, as a member of the minor league Montreal Royals. The stadium in which he played, now called Jackie Robinson Ballpark, is home to a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. An outdoor museum highlights Robinson’s career and has a few pavilions for events. Fittingly, it’s located in the downtown historic district.

Nearby Ormond Beach made its own history in 1903 with the first timed auto racing trial. The race, between two well-known playboys—one of whom was a scion of the Olds (as in Oldsmobile) family—helped transform the sleepy winter resort of Daytona Beach into an auto racing mecca.

Some of the area’s most important historical attractions have meeting space, often making events one-of-a-kind experiences for attendees.

Daytona International Speedway, for example, has 60,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space in the Velocitorium, and smaller spaces in facilities such as the Daytona 500 Club. On the track, Victory Lane and the NASCAR garages are also open for events. The Speedway will complete a $400 million reimagining in time for the February 2016 Daytona 500—adding even more unique meeting possibilities to the mix.

“If you’re looking for a destination that can provide your attendees with great accommodations, meeting space with unique vistas and pricing that will please, we’re that destination,” says Tom Caradonio, executive director of Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And we can offer your attendees the beach, ocean, golf, dining, nightlife, cultural treasures and the opportunity to take in some of the great events we stage each year.”

Meeting Inspiration

From beachfront resorts to one of the most famous race tracks in the world, northeast Florida has everything planners need to stage inspiring events.

Take a cue from Ponce de Leon: Even if you don’t uncover the Fountain of Youth, you’ll feel invigorated by the ambience of Atlantic Ocean’s shoreline. As a landmark destination for more than 500 years, northeast Florida has history on its side.

Meetings at the Beach

Many planners prefer their northeast Florida meetings to be on the sands of the Atlantic beaches, and plenty of resorts are sitting pretty for just that.

The Jacksonville area boasts One Ocean Resort & Spa, nestled in the charming streets of Atlantic Beach. The imaginative decor evokes the ocean that’s right outside, and there’s a first-class art gallery. There’s more than 10,500 sq. ft. for meetings, 193 guest rooms, catering from the sophisticated menu of Azurea restaurant, customized team-building activities and an onsite photographer. Attendees can unwind at nearby Queen’s Harbour Yacht & Country Club or an onsite oceanfront spa.

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club is located just north of St. Augustine in tony Ponte Vedra Beach. This AAA Five Diamond property has hosted some of America’s most influential meetings for decades. With 250 guest rooms and 25,000 sq. ft., it’s well-equipped to do so. In addition, there are 12 distinctive dining options. The two championship golf courses feature lush tropical beauty.

Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort (pictured) is already nationally known, but it’s not resting on its considerable laurels. The hotel recently finished an $85 million upgrade, making it an even better place to meet. It sits right on the beach, on 1,350 beautifully landscaped acres, offering 404 guest rooms and 300 condo units, and 80,000 sq. ft. for meetings.

Daytona Beach Shores boasts a northeast Florida landmark, The Shores Resort & Spa. Its oceanside, candle-lit Azure restaurant is a favorite of locals, as are the small-batch whiskey and bourbon tastings every Wednesday. There’s a full-service spa that you may not want to leave. This AAA Four Diamond hotel has 212 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and is convenient to Daytona’s convention center.

Major Meeting Venues

Amelia Island

Amelia Hotel at the Beach

Reddish-peach Mediterranean-style building; steps from excellent restaurants; daily hot breakfast; large pool; easy beach access; lobby lounge is a nice gathering place; 86 guest rooms; 1,066 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort

Recently completed $85 million upgrade; beachside location; 1,350 acres; nine dining and drinking options; spa; two pools; fitness center; 11,000-square-foot lawn for events; 404 guest rooms, 300 condo units; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Residence Inn Amelia Island

Close to beach; first-class amenities; free Wi-Fi; fitness center; gift shop; putting green; complimentary full breakfast; pool; hot tub; fire pits; 133 guest rooms; 1,100 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

World-class luxury on a private beach; full-service spa; five restaurants, including AAA Five Diamond Salt; championship golf course and academy; 442 guest rooms; 48,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. q

Daytona Beach

Daytona Beach Resort

Beachfront condo hotel with four swimming pools and two hot tubs; well-equipped fitness center; spa; separate kitchen in every unit; poolside tiki bar; 322 guest rooms; 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hilton Daytona Beach Resort/Ocean Walk Village

Adjacent to shops, entertainment, restaurants of Ocean Walk Village; on the beach; seven dining options; two heated pools; fitness center; full-service A/V; 744 guest rooms; 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Ocean Center

Convention center only 400 feet from ocean; marine decor; natural light; maple doors; Florida artworks throughout building; 9,300-seat arena; award-winning catering; 200,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Plaza Resort & Spa

Three restaurants and extensive catering/banquet menu; full-service spa; 24-hour fitness center; right on the beach; oceanfront pool; water sports activities; 323 guest rooms; 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Shores Resort & Spa

Longtime local landmark on the beach; AAA Four Diamond hotel; Azure Restaurant features seaside dining; full-service spa; convenient to convention center; 212 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.


DoubleTree by Hilton Jacksonville Riverfront

Poolside events for meeting attendees; views of skyline and illuminated Main Street Bridge; Ruth’s Chris Steak House; Starbucks; meeting spaces have advanced technology; 293 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Embassy Suites Jacksonville Baymeadows

Jacksonville’s only full-service, all-suite hotel; tropical atrium lobby with waterfall; free hot breakfast; complimentary evening reception; indoor pool; fitness center; 277 guest rooms; 7,200 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront

Sweeping views of St. Johns River; business center; heated pool; rooftop hot tub; fitness club; 30 meeting rooms, most with river views; 960 guest rooms; 110,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Jacksonville Marriott

Convenient to downtown and local attractions; free Wi-Fi; fitness center; indoor pool; American classics at Bistro 202; 255 guest rooms; 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Omni Jacksonville

One block from riverfront; interior features contemporary elegance; stylish Jbar in lobby; rooftop pool with great views; performing arts center across the street; 354 guest rooms; 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. q

One Ocean Resort & Spa

Striking ocean-themed hotel on Atlantic Beach; sophisticated art throughout; Azure Restaurant serves upscale contemporary cuisine; oceanfront spa; golf privileges at nearby course; 193 guest rooms; 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center

1895 neoclassical building; combines historic architecture and modern technology; connected by monorail to Omni Jacksonville; 15 minutes from airport; flexible spaces; 265,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Sheraton Jacksonville Hotel

Minutes from upscale shopping at St. Johns Town Center; Bold City Grill; business center; heated indoor pool; nine function areas; 159 guest rooms; 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

St. Augustine

Casa Monica Hotel

Landmark hotel built in 1888 resembles Spanish/Moorish castle; Costa Brava Restaurant is superb; surrounded by brick-lined streets; meeting space includes poolside terrace; 138 guest rooms; 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront

Spanish Colonial hotel; luxury rooms overlooking Matanzas Bay; business center; fitness center; pool; Aviles Restaurant offers Spanish classics; 72 guest rooms; 1,950 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club

AAA Five Diamond-winner; 12 distinctive restaurants; two championship golf courses; excellent tennis; full-service conference center and banquet halls; 250 guest rooms; 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. q

Renaissance World Golf Village Resort St. Augustine

Largest combination hotel/convention center between Orlando and Atlanta; World Golf Hall of Fame, four golf courses; five restaurants; fitness center; free shuttles to St. Augustine; 301 guest rooms; 101,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.