Bandalloop dance company performs at New World Center, Miami Beach (photo by Atossa Soltani)

South Florida has come a long way as a destination

Only a few decades ago, South Florida was often called a “cultural desert,” even by its own residents. Many also noted, sadly, that the sidewalks “rolled up” every summer, meaning that cultural events and facilities were even scarcer during the warmer months.

It wasn’t much of an exaggeration.

But what a difference a few decades can make! The four-county South Florida region now has more than 6 million residents. Miami has become a world-class city, with sky-spiking buildings and international cache. Fort Lauderdale is now a thriving midsize city in its own right, with a vibrant downtown and an ever-rising skyline. Thirty miles north, West Palm Beach is experiencing a big downtown and arts revival, and recently inaugurated its new Downtown Financial District.

Now, the former cultural desert is blooming, with magnificent performing-arts facilities, a nonstop calendar of cultural events, and creative arts companies and individuals making their marks in a stunning variety of art forms.

The world’s greatest performing artists and arts companies, including Bandaloop dance company, regularly appear on South Florida stages, and an increasing number of them are homegrown. This region now produces a wave of exciting new artists—often using sidewalks and city walls as their canvases or stages—who are bringing new life to the three metro areas.

What does this mean for meeting planners? Attractive new venues to hold their meetings or events, and interesting new artists, companies and spaces that can provide attendees with creative inspiration.

Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale

Greater Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale was once a place where sailors went ashore for liberty, and spring breakers went ashore for wild times. Now it’s a place with glittering cultural palaces, where people come for cultural events as sophisticated, and as innovative, as any on Earth.

Studios and galleries are opening all the time in FATVillage (the Flagler Arts & Technology Village), a four-block creative district filled with emerging musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers and videographers. On the last Saturday of each month, FATVillage hosts an art walk showcasing these artists, along with food and live music.

Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District, along downtown’s New River, features the world-class Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Florida Grand Opera, Fort Lauderdale History Center, the renowned NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, Historic Stranahan House (home of Fort Lauderdale’s first settler), and the incredible Museum of Discovery and Science/AutoNation IMAX Theater—complete with a live otter habitat, Everglades airboat simulator and hands-on interactive exhibits.

Downtown Hollywood has experienced a dramatic rebirth. It’s now home to ArtsPark at Young Circle, featuring musical performances, festivals, visual arts and glass-blowing demonstrations. The Arts & Culture Center of Hollywood currently manages five spaces, including the center itself, adjacent Arts School, and Hollywood Central Performing Arts Center (HC-PAC). The Downtown Hollywood Mural Project sponsors imaginative outdoor murals by renowned local, national and international artists.

Many of these spots host meetings and events. Broward Center for the Performing Arts, for example, ranks among the most-visited theaters in the world, presenting Broadway musicals, operas, ballets, concerts, live theater and lectures to more than 700,000 attendees annually. Speaking of attendees—the meeting kind—there’s also 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Museum of Discovery and Science has memory-making surprises in store for meeting attendees. This museum, a startling collage of colors and shapes, features more than 200 interactive exhibits, including live animal habitats and flight simulators, along with the biggest movie screen in South Florida, at AutoNation IMAX Theater. Groups from 25 to 2,500 can be accommodated in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings.

In northwest Broward County, Coral Springs Center for the Arts offers meeting planners a 1,471-seat auditorium, 10,000 sq. ft. of museum space and onsite catering. In southwestern Broward, Miramar Cultural Center/Artspark has an 800-seat theater, galleries, a botanical garden, a banquet hall and onsite catering.

“We live here, so we know how great it is for meetings,” says Dan Zintsmaster, vice president of events for Team National, a nationwide company that bands members together for greater buying power. “But our reps all over America want to come here, too.

“We’ve held our annual convention down here the past three years…and our members and reps don’t want to go anywhere else. We’ve brought 5,000 attendees each year, put them up in nine local hotels, and met at the convention center. Our people always comment about the incredible cultural life and amenities down here. And many save up the whole year just to come to Fort Lauderdale.”

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami

Greater Miami & the Beaches

In just a short time, Greater Miami has become one of America’s great centers of culture, with state-of-the-art new facilities, a boundary-pushing arts community and exciting new urban arts districts.

Take, for instance, the Wynwood District. In the late-’90s, it was somewhat downtrodden. Today, it’s one of the most vibrant arts districts in the world, with trendy new restaurants, innovative artists’ spaces, hundreds of visual and performing artists, and people coming from all over the world to experience it. Some of Wynwood’s best art, the movement that started it all, is found on the walls of its old buildings.

There are now more than 70 galleries and museums there, along with weekly art walks and highly anticipated festivals such as Art Wynwood in February.

In the Little Havana section, settled by the first wave of Cuban emigres, art—both street and traditional—has become part of the fabric of daily life. Colorful murals adorn old walls, Cuban-Afro music is heard all over, and colorful storefronts and art galleries line the streets. On the last Friday of every month, Little Havana stages Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays), a gallery night showcasing the vibrant cultural flavor of the neighborhood.

Across town, the Little Haiti neighborhood is also an artistic slice of the Caribbean. Haitians who’ve never had an art lesson produce some of the most vibrant and complex paintings in the world. Plenty of artists from this neighborhood have achieved widespread recognition. Interesting little galleries are now accompanied by Haitian book and music stores. In addition, Little Haiti Cultural Center offers unique dance and theatrical performances.

New World Center, Miami Beach

Many of Miami’s cultural icons are excellent for meetings. The stunning Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, amid the downtown skyscrapers, is an example. The opera house and concert hall in this complex can accommodate 2,400 and 2,200, respectively, and smaller theaters and rehearsal rooms hold from 60 to 250.

Perez Art Museum Miami, facing Biscane Bay, is the city’s newest cultural gem, with an international collection. The East Portico can hold up to 1,200 for a reception or 500 for a banquet; the auditorium can seat 231; and numerous smaller spaces spark as much creativity in meeting attendees as they do in the artists.

Nobu Eden Roc Hotel showcases iconic Miami Modern architecture, offering a special array of dining options, including the Malibu Farm restaurant. With indoor and outdoor options, the sophisticated venue space is flexible to fit any occasion.

Across Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, New World Center is the home of the much-acclaimed New World Symphony. Happily for planners, it’s also home to great meeting spaces such as the main performance hall, holding 1,200; the stunning Rooftop Garden & Donor Lounge, seating 160; and the Atrium Terrace, seating 160 and offering magnificent views of the Frank Gehry-designed center.

Opening this spring is Faena Forum—featuring an art gallery, a hotel, meeting space and performing arts center—in one of the most architecturally distinctive buildings in America. Offering 43,000 sq. ft. with eight flexible event spaces, each more striking than the next, this facility can accommodate nearly 700 attendees.

If you would like to coordinate your meeting with one of Miami’s colorful cultural festivals or events, consider Art Deco Weekend in January; the South Beach Food & Wine Festival, generally in February; Art Basel Miami Beach in December; and the Miami Film Festival, generally in March.

“Our post-event surveys about our Miami meetings consistently note that they’re our best ones ever,” says Valerie Moore, president of Woodmere, New York-based Executive Meeting Consultants. “I’ve managed a dozen meetings there over the past few years…because our clients want to keep going back. Our attendees love the arts-culture scene; there’s always something exciting going on. They love the international flavor and the ethnic foods. They love the easy airlift. And they love the energy of the city.”

Boca Raton Museum of Art

The Palm Beaches

The Palm Beaches have been experiencing a renaissance, as well. Palm Beach County now has over 1.5 million residents. The area is also growing in its business profile, lodging and meeting options, culinary diversity and cultural vitality.

The opening of the CityPlace—a complex that includes dining, entertainment, residences and retail stores—in 2000 gave the city of West Palm Beach a true urban core, which it never previously had. The 350,000-square-foot Palm Beach County Convention Center came four years later, and last year saw the completion of a new convention center hotel, Hilton West Palm Beach, with 400 guest rooms and 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

In fact, West Palm is now a completely different city. The once-neglected main artery, Clematis Street, is filled with trendy restaurants and nightspots. In November, the city just inaugurated the new Financial District.

A world-class performing-arts facility arrived in 1992, with the opening of the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. Almost instantly, a stream of renowned orchestras, bands, singers and theater companies began performing there.

In truth, however, Palm Beach County was a cultural heavyweight long before that. In the magnificent Whitehall mansion, built by Standard Oil pioneer Henry Flagler in 1901, Flagler Museum has some of the most opulent meeting spaces in America, ranging from great halls to elegant ballrooms and gardens.

Boca Raton Museum of Art debuted in 2001 in the Mizner Park entertainment and residential complex, and now has a permanent collection of more than 5,000 works. Event spaces include the auditorium, seating 125; sculpture garden, seating 400; and boardroom, accommodating 20.

Palm Beach Photographic Center

In downtown West Palm, Palm Beach Photographic Center showcases both the art of the lens and interesting event spaces. Its studio, classrooms and boardroom all have event spaces.

The town of Delray Beach has one of the most unique meeting spots in America. In the early-1900s, Delray was home to a thriving agricultural colony of Japanese immigrants. The colony eventually disappeared. But thanks to George Morikami, a mid-20th-century resident, its history never will. Today, Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens offers a pastoral setting with red, wooden footbridges and waterfalls tucked into forested paths. The lobby holds 300 for receptions; a theater seats 240; and an outdoor terrace accommodates 300.

The Palm Beaches, too, are creating colorful arts districts. In Boynton Beach, the Neighborhood Arts District is a former industrial area where abandoned bulldozers—and just about anything else available—now serve as canvases for a growing community of artists. Downtown Lake Worth has metamorphosed into a huge outdoor gallery in which old buildings are adorned with bright murals. Just across the Intracoastal Waterway, the wealthy village of Palm Beach has some of the finest art galleries in America.

“Where meetings are concerned, we don’t necessarily have a hometown bias,” says Paget Kirkland, president of West Palm-based Kirkland Events & Destination Services. “But our clients do—they keep coming back! We bring in groups from 50 to 500. And attendees love the cultural scene here.

“We take many smaller groups to the studio, and sometimes the home, of world-famous artist Bruce Helander, a local resident. Our groups love the shows at the Kravis Center and museums like the Flagler. And our post-meeting surveys are off the charts.”

Steve Winston is an award-winning writer who has traveled extensively and writes for national and international magazines.

The Arts in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys revel in being different. How different? Well, in 1982, they “seceded” from the United States, issuing their own “passports” and proclaiming themselves The Conch Republic, (pronounced “conk”), after a tasty shellfish in local waters. They then issued their own flag…with a conch on it, of course. When it comes to meeting places in arts facilities, however, this scenic 160-mile island chain is no different than the rest of South Florida.

The island of Islamorada, for example, is known for its vibrant arts community and very cool galleries in Morada Way Arts & Cultural District; some of the galleries have space for very small groups. The town also stages a monthly Morada Way ArtWalk. Also on Islamorada is the extraordinary History of Diving Museum, at which your attendees can utilize meeting space and then browse through the history, artifacts and equipment of the sport of diving, along with the big underwater discoveries made by divers.

Also in the Middle Keys, Marathon boasts Crane Point Hammock Museum & Nature Center, where groups can gather in the 100-year-old Adderley House, along with outdoor spots with great views.

At the end of the chain of keys is Key West. This historic island has a number of cultural facilities that make excellent meeting spaces. Fort East Martello Museum & Gardens, a Civil War-era fort, has three event spaces that can accommodate a total of 900. Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, filled with the beautiful illustrations of naturalist John James Audubon, can host cocktail receptions for 250 and dinners for 150. The rococo-style theater at San Carlos Institute (pictured), founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles, can hold 360.

Major Meeting Venues

Greater Fort Lauderdale

B Ocean Resort Fort Lauderdale

Formerly the Yankee Clipper; four dining options; water sports; two pools; meeting spaces have world-class technology; 487 guest rooms; 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Bonaventure Resort & Spa

23-acre resort; great amenities; four pools; four restaurants; luxurious Alaya Spa; 24-hour fitness center; championship golf course; 501 guest rooms; 60,000-square-foot conference center.

Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach

Slated to open late-winter; beachfront location; luxurious amenities; Brezza Restaurant has panoramic ocean views; all guest rooms have kitchenettes, balconies overlooking ocean; 290 guest rooms; 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center

Striking glass structure lets the sunshine in; convenient to the beaches, great hotels, downtown Las Olas Boulevard nightlife; 600,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six

Iconic round hotel; sits on 22 acres; renowned marina; beach shuttle; business center; five restaurants and bars; Pier Top offers 360-degree-view event space; 384 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort

Located right on the ocean and the Hollywood “Broadwalk”; elegant St. Somewhere Spa; eight restaurants and bars; 349 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Diplomat Beach Resort

Spiffed-up landmark resort; located on the oceanfront in Hollywood; beachfront pools; water sports; waterslides; championship golf; excellent spa; eight restaurants; 1,000 guest rooms; 200,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale’s only AAA Five Diamond hotel; Burlock Coast Seafare & Spirits restaurant; outdoor event terrace overlooking ocean; 144 guest rooms; 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Greater Miami

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County

Stylish performing arts palace; downtown, close to Biscayne Bay; Ziff Ballet Opera House can accommodate 2,400; Knight Concert Hall, 2,200; smaller spaces range from 60 to 250.

East Miami

Built on top of the new Brickell City Centre retail and entertainment facility; stylish public and guest rooms; two excellent restaurants, rooftop bar and garden; 352 guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Fontainebleau Miami Beach

A local landmark; six shops; 12 restaurants and lounges; two nightclubs; cutting-edge technology; 1,504 guest rooms; Lapis is a full-service spa; 107,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

JW Marriott Marquis Miami

In the heart of downtown, close to museums, arts districts; Enliven Spa & Salon; four restaurants; fitness center; business center; 313 guest rooms; 41,917 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Loews Miami Beach Hotel

In the heart of South Beach; three eateries; Exhale Spa; pool; free Wi-Fi throughout; 790 guest rooms; 65,000 sq. ft. of modern meeting space.

Miami Beach Convention Center

Undergoing a top-to-bottom upgrade; still open for business and fully operational now; will feature 500,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Perez Art Museum Miami

Recently opened, 200,000-square-foot museum; located on the waterfront; world-class art; a variety of indoor spaces; sprawling outdoor plazas with water views; full-service catering.

The Biltmore Miami

Luxurious Mediterranean palace that opened in 1926; three signature restaurants, three casual ones and afternoon tea; golf course; 275 guest rooms; 75,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Palm Beaches

Boca Raton Resort & Club

This is the resort that made Boca Raton…Boca Raton; landmark since 1926; 356 waterway-laced acres; Waldorf Astoria Spa; 1,047 guest rooms; 146,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa

Beachfront luxury property; two heated pools; four restaurants; Forbes Five Star spa; fitness center, with classes; business center; 309 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hilton West Palm Beach

AAA Four Diamond hotel; connected to Palm Beach County Convention Center; business center; fitness center; pool; two eateries; 400 guest rooms; 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Kravis Center for the Performing Arts

Stunning glass building; world-class arts center; Dreyfoos Hall holds 2,195; Gosman Amphiteater, 1,400; and Rinker Playhouse, 289.

Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

In Delray Beach; authentic slice of Japan commemorating early Japanese community there; gardens, bonsai trees, red footbridges, tranquil gardens; indoor spaces hold up to 300; outdoor spaces up to 600.

Palm Beach County Convention Center

Modern facility connected to Hilton, across the street from CityPlace and Kravis Center for the Performing Arts; 350,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

The Breakers Palm Beach

World-famous palace on the sand; opened in 1896; nine restaurants range from casual to continental; two championship golf courses; spa; great event spaces outdoors; 538 guest rooms; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.