Florida: Where Meetings Are Back

Orlando, South Walton and The Palm Beaches are more welcoming than ever

Visitorsincluding meeting planners and attendeesare coming to Florida again. The numbers tell the story. The state enjoyed a 223.4 percent increase in visitors the second quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Attendees can be outside all year long. From top tourist attractions to world-class beach activities, options are endless.

Orlando ranks as one of the most-visited cities in the world. It also offers the second-largest convention center in America. But Orlando also boasts year-round outdoor recreation and places of natural beauty.

On Florida’s Panhandle, South Walton has gained a reputation for productive meetings for reasons quite its own. There, attendees can frolic on 26 miles of sugar-sand beaches backed up by 16 distinct, charming neighborhoods with excellent meeting hotels and offsites, interesting restaurants, and value pricing.

On the Eastern Atlantic Coast, The Palm Beaches call with mixtures of soft-sand luxury incentive properties; historic favorites; hip, new additions; big-city flavor and small-town experiences.

But beyond the obvious appeal, a can-do attitude fuels getting back to business safely. A recent Incentive Research Foundation study of “Buyer Decision Drivers” produced in partnership with The Palm Beaches found that when a group has a clear sense of a destination’s health and safety practices and a plan for what will be required, organizers can more easily make “go/no-go” decisions.

And increasingly, all signs in Florida point to “go full speed ahead.”

Orlando

Spanish Octopus at Sear + Sea, JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa

Orlando’s renowned theme parks and attractions, dining and entertainment options—and diverse hotels and venues—make it one of the world’s great meeting cities. In addition, the region has worked hard to position itself at the head of the class when it comes to staging healthy meetings with strict safety protocols. This is an ever-evolving destination with new meeting hotels and celebrity-chef-driven restaurants, abundant outdoor event options, and a wide range of experiences for groups.

Orlando also has, of course, a world-class convention venue. In non-Covid years, Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) hosts nearly 200 events and over 1.5-million attendees, with an annual economic impact of $3 billion.

It has 2.1 million sq. ft. of exhibition space, and a total of 7 million sq. ft. spread over 400 acres. It’s also one of the “greenest” convention centers in America, with recent initiatives such as indoor hydroponic and aeroponic gardens (without soil) for growing food for its restaurants. The OCCC was recently reaccredited by Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) for its second year as a STAR facility.

The center recently added a television-quality broadcast facility called OCCC Executive Studio. Meeting rooms and food courts in the West Building have been fully renovated, and the Center is also upgrading its lighting and closed-circuit cameras. In addition, two restaurants have been upgraded and a new one opened in July.

The OCCC is on track to host 133 events this year, with nearly a million attendees and an estimated $1.5 billion in economic impact. Among the groups that gathered there are GSX 2021 (Global Security Exchange), InfoComm 2021; coming this month is IAAPA Expo (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions).

Orlando’s newest luxury meeting properties are nearby. JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa opened in July 2020 with 516 guest rooms, 50,000 sq. ft. and luxurious amenities, followed two months later by Tru by Hilton Orlando Convention Center, with 259 guest rooms, 2,200 sq. ft., a 24-hour fitness center, and complimentary breakfast.

AC Hotel by Marriott opened in downtown Orlando in January, with 180 guest rooms, 2,000 sq. ft., a SkyBar Rooftop Terrace with 360-degree views and a fitness center.

Newly opened Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, at the iconic Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin complex, features 349 upscale guest rooms and 15,853 sq. ft. of meeting space—bringing the property’s total to 350,000. Amenities include an elevated pool deck that can be used for events, rooftop ballroom space with signature lighting and sweeping views of Disney World’s fireworks from floor-to-ceiling windows. The property was designed with meetings in mind. Flexible suites include amenities for board meetings and brainstorming.

Opening soon is Lake Nona Wave Hotel, in its namesake tech/medical community, with 234 guest rooms and 12,098 sq. ft. of meeting space, a fitness center and a spa developed by Deepak Chopra.

Orlando hotels are constantly upgrading, as well.

Caribe Royale Orlando is fresh off a $125 million renovation, including a new grand ballroom that boosts total square-footage to 220,000, all 1,335 guest rooms and the public spaces. Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld, with 781 guest rooms, recently added the new Peninsula Ballroom and breakout space, bringing total event space to 215,000 sq. ft.

The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes completed a $30 million renovation of its 582 guest rooms, pool and Club Lounge last winter, to go with 49,000 sq. ft. indoors and 64,000 sq. ft. outside. Orlando World Center Marriott is scheduled to complete an upgrade of all 2,010 guest rooms by year’s end. It’s also adding 24 breakout rooms of 1,200 sq. ft. each by next summer, boosting total meeting space to 450,000 indoors and out.

Orlando’s attractions and offsites are also constantly reinventing themselves.

Jurassic World VelociCoaster at Universal Orlando Resort

At Universal Orlando Resort, the Jurassic World VelociCoaster is now Florida’s fastest and tallest launch coaster, and The Bourne Stuntacular takes visitors on an edge-of-your-seat chase with Jason Bourne.

At Walt Disney World, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios places your group aboard a Resistance transport captured by an Imperial Star Destroyer; and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway transforms classic cartoons into 3D adventures.

The Museum of Illusions, now open at popular ICON Park (with 150,000 sq. ft. of meeting space indoors/outdoors), is a mind-bending “edutainment” experience with 50 interactive exhibits. Dezerland Park is an exciting new indoor attraction, with go-kart tracks, arcade games, trampoline park, the Orlando Auto Museum and event spaces for 10,000.

Outdoor venues are plentiful, too.

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, Lake Buena Vista

DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld offers a 6,000-square-foot veranda, two pools, and a mini golf course. Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort has open-air options that include Lady Palm Lawn, hosting 550, and King Meadow Lawn, holding 700. The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin has 128,190 sq. ft. of beautifully landscaped function space.

One of the coolest offsites is Rustic Front House Event Space, a classic old-time house accommodating 50 for dining and 75 standing. Groups up to 200 can gather outdoors at Harry P. Leu Gardens, or on 80 acres at Cypress Grove Estate House, built in 1925. In addition, Dr. Phillips Center For the Performing Arts has outdoor space for 5,500.

Jody Mosley is vice president of operations for New York-based Emerald, which specializes in building market platforms integrating live events and media into nearly 140 unique corporate experiences each year. She’s been bringing groups from client companies to Orlando and the OCCC for many years. “This year, we’ve held three big events there…all B2B events,” she says. “Both the region and the OCCC are very conscientious about health and safety protocols. And it’s hard to beat Orlando if you want to stage a unique meeting for corporate clients…it’s a region that specializes in unique events.

“In fact, we just had Surf Expo there, a very successful show and one of the largest events we have staged for Emerald, in September.”

South Walton

Picture 26 miles of sugar-white sand beaches and turquoise water touched by spectacular sunsets, and you’ve pictured the beaches of South Walton.

There, 40 percent of the region is reserved for state parks, preserves and forests, and these natural lands provide pristine outdoor settings for group events or meetings. Attendees find themselves refreshed, recharged and ready for productive meetings.

From boutique and convention hotels to full-service resorts, South Walton can handle everything from small executive retreats to 1,500-person conventions with Southern-style charm, creative dining options, eclectic shops and galleries, and championship golf.

These wide-open spaces and natural beauty are surprisingly accessible, too. South Walton is less than 35 miles from Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS), and an easy drive from most of the Southeast.

Also, Visit South Walton offers attractive incentives, including site-inspection assistance and rebates for first-time groups considering the destination.

Guest room at Hotel Effie, Miramar Beach

South Walton’s newest meeting hotel just opened in February. Hotel Effie, at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, offers planners 250 stylish guest rooms; 20,000 sq. ft. of bright, airy meeting space; chef-curated dining; a spa and true Southern elegance. In addition, it boasts the only rooftop pool with a lounge and event space on the Emerald Coast.

Beach campfire event at Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, Miramar Beach

Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort itself is a 2,400-acre property on a beach with emerald-green waters. The resort boasts over 1,600 guest rooms; four championship golf courses; 15 tennis courts; 19 swimming pools; a fitness center; and shopping, dining and nightlife at the on-site Village of Baytowne Wharf. There’s 65,000 sq. ft. at the Baytowne Conference Center, and another 80,000 outdoors.

WaterColor Inn just began a renovation/addition that will be completed next spring, adding seven new suites to its 60 guest rooms and 9,921 sq. ft. of meeting space. Renovations will include an expanded outdoor lounge and a new indoor/outdoor bar.

South Walton offers attendees the opportunity to meet in places of lush natural beauty. Nature reigns at more than 200 miles of hiking and biking trails, four state parks, a state forest, as well as 15 coastal dune lakes found in only five places in the world. These outdoor spaces offer team-building options such as eco-tours, paddleboarding, exploring the dune lakes, beach bonfires and scavenger hunts.

In addition to the opportunity to hold your reception or dinner on the beach, other South Walton options include The Rooftop Sanctuary at The Pointe, with space for 150 attendees; Eden State Park; Sandestin Baytowne Marina; and the 20,000-square-foot beachside pool deck at Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. There’s also event space at The Hub, a popular shopping/entertainment complex.

Planners and attendees are finding that the Emerald Coast is a rare jewel, indeed.

The Palm Beaches

Tucked in the far eastern reach of the Sunshine State, 39 distinct destinations beckon modern travelers with signature experiences. They share a bright outlook and signature foliage that dates back to a fateful 1878 wreck of a Spanish ship carrying 20,000 coconuts and the seeds of the future.

From West Palm Beach’s colorful boutiques and nightclubs to Boca Raton’s iconic pink-hued Mediterranean Revival architecture, new and refreshed venues await returning guests with wellness-centered luxury, innovative culinary concepts and lots of outdoor space. A total of eight new or reimagined hotels, 17 fresh restaurant concepts and surprising new experiences make the destination worth a second look.

The wellness resort Amrit Ocean Resort & Residences on Palm Beach County’s Singer Island features 155 guest rooms and 182 condos in towers named Peace and Happiness. Personal wellness coaches will created individualized programs that combine Eastern philosophies and Western technology in the resort’s 100,000 sq. ft. of wellness space, including an Aayush Hydrothermal water therapy circuit, indoor/outdoor treatment rooms and an ocean-view demonstration kitchen.

The Ray Hotel Delray Beach, Curio Collection by Hilton’s 141 smart guest rooms and 20,000-square-foot-pool deck perch a few blocks north of downtown. There’s even a floating glass cube event space for parties of 135 to 458.

Recently remodeled Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan absolutely pops with luxury and fun after a Jonathan Adler treatment to the 309 guest rooms and 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The Spa is the star, however with a lounging garden and personalized services.

The Boca Raton

Boca Raton Resort & Club is unveiling a massive phase-one renovation this winter along with a return to a beloved name, The Boca Raton. The resort is actually five distinct hotel experiences, including a 40,000-square-foot wellness oasis being renamed Spa Palmera to reflect the refreshed design and programming, a supercar racing adventure, 200,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 835 guest rooms.

Mandarin Oriental Boca Raton is scheduled to open by late 2022 with 158 luxury guest rooms, two rooftop pools, a signature MO Bar + Lounge and a 4,500-square-foot ballroom.

A Keys State of Mind

Saltwater experience at Hawks Cay Resort, Duck Key

After the last two years, The Florida Keys & Key West’s tagline, “Come as you are,” will resonate with groups looking to find their footing again. The southernmost reach of the United States offers a laid-back vibe unlike any other.

How different are the Keys? Well, in 1982, they staged a mock “secession” from the Union…complete with passports! Luckily, no documentation is needed to slip into a more relaxed state at the following smile-inducing venues.

North Key Largo’s Ocean Reef Club has 145 guest rooms, 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, Buccaneer Island beach and pool, and two 18-hole golf courses. Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo sits amidst a nature sanctuary, with 200 guest rooms, 17,000 sq. ft., outdoor event spaces and team-building options.

Islamorada boasts two legendary properties. Cheeca Lodge & Spa sits on 27 acres, with 214 guest rooms, 4,600 sq. ft. of meeting space, five restaurants/bars and three pools. Hawks Cay Resort is a 60-acre, AAA Four Diamond property with 427 guest rooms, 48,760 sq. ft. of indoor/outrdoor event space and two restaurants.

Isla Bella Beach Resort opened in Marathon in 2019 with 199 guest rooms, 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including outdoor spaces and an oceanfront event area, five pools, three restaurants and a spa.

Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel has 222 guest rooms, 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a large beachside patio, and two restaurants, while Casa Marina Key West offers 311 guest rooms, 11,000 sq. ft., two restaurants, a bar and a private beach.

Groups can also charter sightseeing or fishing boats; go kayaking; swim with dolphins; take biking/beer tours; see rare, tiny deer at the National Key Deer Refuge; or rent motorized water bikes.

Great offsites in Key West include Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum and President Harry Truman’s “Little White House.” In Marathon, the Dolphin Research Center offers group activities.

A Fresh Start in Magic City

The destination famous for encompassing fun, funky Little Havana, polished Coral Gables and bohemian Coconut Grove is looking to the future more than ever before. New Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO David Whitaker returned “home” this summer from successful tourism roles in Chicago and Toronto.

The homecoming couldn’t come at a more expansive time. Miami International Airport (MIA) recently welcomed Spirit Airlines, with its first flights in October, and has seen a recent expansion by its dominant carrier, American Airlines. During the pandemic, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue also began service to Miami.

The 1.4 million-square-foot Miami Beach Convention Center finished an expansion in late 2020 with the addition of 127,000 sq. ft. of modern meeting space, a hurricane-resistant façade inspired by ocean waves and a stunning 60,000-square-foot ballroom. A more functional outdoor plaza charms with a tropical garden, game lawn and 12 acres for nature bathing. The venue boasts a LEED Silver stamp of approval—and will soon have a new neighbor.

An 800-room, 17-floor Grand Hyatt Miami Beach is planned for 2023 as the city’s first headquarters hotel in walking distance of the beachfront, New World Symphony and The Bass Museum. Two of its floors will be devoted to meeting spaces and ballrooms. A resort-style pool deck will offer thrilling views, and a skybridge will invite event attendees to move freely between hotel and convention center in a climate-controlled, art-filled corridor.

Resources

  • Discover The Palm Beaches
  • Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
  • The Florida Keys & Key West (Monroe County Tourist Development Council)
  • Visit Orlando
  • Visit South Walton
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