Florida’s Open for Business: North Florida

Destinations

Jacksonville

Have a ball in Jax

The largest city in the continental United States (more than 840 square miles), Jacksonville offers hundreds of unique and exciting off-site venues, 22 miles of stunning beaches, more than 50 beautifully manicured golf courses, waterfront dining options and world-class attractions—all served up with a combination of Florida flair and Southern hospitality.

Jax—as it’s called by locals—can host groups of 10 or 10,000, with more than 200 hotels and resorts (and close to 18,000 rooms) to choose from.

“We’ll make our exciting and affordable city the ideal coastal destination for your next meeting,” says Patty Jimenez, communications manager for Visit Jacksonville, which works with more than 400 visiting groups and organizations a year.

What’s new and exciting in Jacksonville? Start with Daily’s Place Amphitheater and Flex Field at EverBank Field. It’s a new, 5,500-person capacity amphitheater and 94,000-square-foot, covered flex field, as well as a luxurious back-of-house artist building. A roof covers both venues, and they are just feet from the sparkling St. Johns River. Daily’s Place is fully integrated into the home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

Topgolf Jacksonville has opened a 65,000-square-foot golf entertainment center near St. Johns Town Center. Private meeting spaces are available throughout the venue. In the hip Brooklyn area of downtown, Unity Plaza is an outdoor event venue featuring a botanical garden and wellness center, food and beverage kiosks, an amphitheater and a community center.

On the hotel front, Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront has completed a major renovation that includes additional meeting space and complete overhaul of the hotel’s 951 guest rooms. Sheraton Jacksonville Hotel has completed a $7 million renovation of its entire property. Other recently refurbished properties include Omni Jacksonville Hotel, DoubleTree by Hilton Jacksonville Riverfront, Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows and Lexington Hotel & Conference Center.

Don’t Miss

The Land of the Tiger at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; exploring the nearly century-old gardens at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens; the RiverWalk from downtown to Riverside; kayaking the Timucuan Preserve and its marshes; riding the downtown Jacksonville River Taxi; and the Currents of Times exhibit at Museum of Science and History (MOSH), a journey in time, exploring Florida wildlife through the ages.

Meet Here Now

Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center combines historic architecture and state-of-the-art technology to create Northeast Florida’s premier convention center. Once the city’s train terminal, it offers 265,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space. The largest meeting room is 78,000 sq. ft. A Skyway monorail connects it to Omni Jacksonville Hotel.

Time-Union Center for the Performing Arts is a hub for professional and community artistry in downtown. Venues include the 2,900-seat Moran Theater; The Jacoby Symphony Hall, an acoustically exquisite room that seats 1,800 guests in three tiers; and the multiuse Terry Theater, which seats 600. Plus, there’s more than 20,000 sq. ft. of lobby and reception space.

Jacksonville Equestrian Center is one of the premier equestrian facilities on the East Coast. The 1,700-acre complex can be used for a wide variety of outdoor events. An attached 7,200-square-foot covered staging area provides access to the Main Arena, which has a total seating capacity of 3,700 and 80,000 sq. ft. of concourse space.

St. Augustine & Ponte Vedra

History lives on

Tourists have been making pilgrimages to St. Augustine since the 1880s, thanks largely to Standard Oil founder and industrialist Henry Flagler and his East Coast Railroad. It was colonized in 1565, is the United States’ oldest continuously inhabited European foothold, and is clearly proud of it. The word “oldest” is worn as a badge of distinction. You’ll find the oldest store, oldest house, oldest wooden schoolhouse and so on.

You can tour one of America’s oldest man-made structures, Fort of Castillo de San Marcos, and imagine how Spanish, British and American soldiers protected the city hundreds of years ago.

Don’t overlook The Vault at the Treasury on the Plaza. It’s a real bank vault, in St. Augustine’s tallest building, a six-story tower dating to 1927. Another brush with history can be yours at Casa Monica Resort & Spa, a posh Spanish-style hotel with 12,000 sq. ft. of event space that dates to 1888. And Flagler College offers its ballroom, replete with Tiffany stained-glass windows, to groups, as well.

St. Augustine Aquarium, Snorkel Adventure and Zipline is the city’s newest attraction. A great team-building experience, it offers interaction with sharks and stingrays, snorkeling and hand-feeding of reef fish in an 80,000-gallon aquarium, as well as ziplining over wild Florida habitat. St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum has opened a Maritime Archaeology & Education Center with conservation labs.

And there’s golf, of course. St. Augustine is home to World Golf Hall of Fame, where the best players in golf history are celebrated. Within 15 minutes’ drive, enjoy 108 holes of championship golf.

New on the hotel scene is Embassy Suites on St. Augustine Beach, with 175 guest rooms. The hotel will feature 10,000 sq. ft. of event space with dedicated outdoor oceanfront space for receptions and themed events, on-site restaurant and food service, direct beach access and more. It’s expected to open in April.

Northward up the coast lies Ponte Vedra, a resort town with world-class amenities including golf, golf and more golf, as well as luxury spas. It is home to The Players Championship, often referred to as “golf’s fifth major.”

Beached on Amelia Island & Beyond

Amelia Island is treasured for pristine white-sand shores, perfectly framed by picturesque dunes and sprawling live oaks—a Florida beach with distinctly Southern charm. Authentically Amelia experiences include horseback riding on the beach and strolling the historic downtown.

Meeting planners who want to stray off the beaten path should consider White Oak Plantation, a 13,000-acre conservation facility located a half-hour from Amelia Island, and home to more than 35 wildlife species, including rhino, giraffe, okapi and cheetah. The animals roam freely in spacious natural enclosures and can be viewed on a safari-like tour hosted by wildlife and conservation experts. Or tour historic Gilman Hall, where Al Capone’s bar, a bowling alley and a collection of performing arts memorabilia coexist. See the dance studio built for Mikhail Baryshnikov and enjoy cocktails by the pool overlooking the St. Mary’s River at sunset. This private sanctuary, open by reservation only, has hosted global policy makers and celebrities.

Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort is a 404-room property that features 80,000 sq. ft. of versatile meeting space, and boasts the largest conference center on the island. Meeting space includes a new 16,825-square-foot ballroom, an additional 13,200-square-foot prefunction space and a new 11,000-square-foot event lawn. Other new island attractions include two cooking academies—Amelia Island Culinary Academy and Salt Cooking School at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. This Ritz-Carlton features 446 guest rooms and a 13,348-square-foot ballroom.

Across the state on the Emerald Coast, in northwestern Florida, Henderson Beach Resort opened just last year in Destin, next to the 208-acre Henderson Beach State Park. The resort, its steep gabled rooflines and shingled facade an homage to a seaside manor, offers 170 guest rooms and 30,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space. Managed by Salamander Hotels & Resorts, it joins the group’s other three Florida properties—Reunion Resort in Kissimmee, Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor near Tampa and Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, near Daytona.

Don’t Miss

For meeting planners, St. Augustine offers a rich history found nowhere else. From the ballroom of the former Alcazar Hotel, now part of Lightner Museum, to the Gardens of the Oldest House Museum, the multitude of historic venues provide distinctive settings for memorable meetings and events. Pirates were big and bad in St. Augustine’s past, and “Think Like a Pirate, Command Success” is a team-building session led by one Commodore Mayhem, who navigates your group through the “Five Points of Success” that made pirates prosperous, with team competition, videos and a little interactive magic.

Meet Here Now

St. Johns County Convention Center and World Golf Village Renaissance St. Augustine Resort are both in World Golf Village. The former has 40,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and 14 meeting rooms. The resort has 301 guest rooms and more than 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space.

The Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a AAA Five Diamond resort, accommodates groups of up to 350 people with 249 guest rooms and more than 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and facilities. Recent conference center renovations include new flooring, upgraded furniture and audiovisual equipment.

The Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a AAA Five Diamond resort, accommodates groups of up to 350 people with 249 guest rooms and more than 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and facilities. Recent conference center renovations include new flooring, upgraded furniture and audiovisual equipment.

Daytona Beach

Rev your engine!

How do you count the ways Daytona Beach delights groups of every stripe? Well, begin with 23 miles of hard-packed Atlantic coastline, aka World’s Most Famous Beach. Add unique meeting venues that include dozens of top-notch oceanfront hotels, with one-of-a-kind local eateries, craft breweries and a lively food truck scene close at hand. Then add group activities that deliver unforgettable bonding experiences, including surfing and sailing, kayaking and canoeing, paddle boarding and para-sailing, race cars and roller coasters, festivals and food, ale trails and biking trails, and fishing and fun.

Other hallmark attractions include Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of Arts and Sciences (housing one of the most important collections of Cuban fine and folk art outside of Cuba) and Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

“We also have beautiful meetings and event venues at the Museum of Arts and Sciences, CiCi Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, News Journal Center—on the Halifax River—as well as many newly renovated meeting hotels,” adds Linda McMahon, director of group sales for Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Most keenly anticipated of those renovations is historic Streamline Hotel, an art deco-style property that hosted the meeting to launch NASCAR—and, more recently, an episode of Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible. It reopened in May as an upscale beachside boutique property. The Delta by Marriott Daytona Beach is also newly open. Two more hotels will debut at One Daytona, a premier mixed-use retail, dining and entertainment complex being built across from Daytona International Speedway. The first, a 105-room Fairfield Inn & Suites Daytona Beach Speedway/Airport, is opening by year’s end. A luxury, 145-room Marriott Autograph Collection hotel called The Daytona will follow in 2018.

Also new on the scene are Residence Inn by Marriott Daytona Beach Oceanfront, Hilton Garden Inn Daytona Beach Oceanfront and Chateau Mar Beach Resort, an understatedly elegant boutique property.

Don’t Miss

That grrrrrr under Daytona Beach’s hood, of course, is NASCAR. World-famous Daytona International Speedway has recently completed a $400 million re-imagining—and is the biggest outdoor stadium in Florida. It’s home not only to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400 and other NASCAR races, but also to fast-track opportunities for team building that include tours, driving experiences and group meeting spaces totaling 120,000 sq. ft. that can shift any event into high gear.

Meet Here Now

Ocean Center is the fifth-largest convention center in Florida, boasting more than 200,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, including a 9,300-seat arena—and is a state-of-the-art, newly renovated facility literally steps from the beach and adjacent to Ocean Walk Village, a $1 billion entertainment and shopping venue.

Hard Rock Hotel Daytona Beach (rendering picture) is opening this month, with 200 guest rooms (including Rock Star Suites), Fender guitars and amps for hire, sweeping ocean views and 20,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space. There’s a 6,200-square-foot ballroom and 10,000-square-foot ocean terrace.

Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort (formerly Hilton Daytona Beach Resort/Ocean Walk Village) has just completed a $25 million renovation. Next door to Ocean Center and adjacent to Ocean Walk Village, it offers 744 guest rooms and 60,000 sq. ft. of event space.

Orlando

The mouse still roars, and that’s just for starters

Orlando, the world’s most popular tourist destination, is also the nation’s El Supremo for meetings—and to think it all began with the mouse. A record 68 million people visited last year, and they pumped more than $60 billion into the local economy. It’s easy to see why Orlando is a meeting planner’s dream—there are experiences and facilities for every taste and budget, and attendees love to bundle their stay with a family vacation.

New attractions keep coming. Universal Orlando Resort’s Volcano Bay water park is a new themed, immersive environment inspired by postcard-perfect tropical islands. Walt Disney World Resort’s Pandora-The World of Avatar is the largest expansion in Animal Kingdom’s history, featuring floating mountains, bioluminescent rain forests and a Banshee flying attraction. SeaWorld Orlando has debuted its first digitally enhanced ride experience, transforming Kraken roller coaster into a deep-sea virtual-reality romp.

On the hotel front, Caribe Royale remains the largest all-suite, convention hotel in Florida, with 1,335 suites, 150,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and abundant dining and personal-time options. Universal Orlando Resort opened Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, featuring 1,000 guest rooms with a casual Caribbean theme. The new Loews Meetings Complex consists of 247,000 sq. ft. of contiguous meeting space between Loews Royal Pacific Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Also at Universal, Aventura Hotel will add 600 guest rooms when it opens in 2018. Buena Vista Palace Resort and Spa in Disney Spring is now Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace, with 108,000 sq. ft. of renovated meeting spaces. Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek has unveiled its new 3,500-square-foot Bonnet Creek Ballroom and a 2,155-square-foot Expedition meeting room.

Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, the largest of the six convention hotels at Walt Disney World Resort, is expanding over the next two years, adding new dining options, 500 resort rooms and outdoor networking spaces. The expansion will add a board room and two multipurpose rooms to the resort’s current 220,000 sq. ft. of dedicated meeting and function space. DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld will soon have a new 20,000-square-foot ballroom, for a total of 100,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

Don’t Miss

Disney Springs has transformed into a dining and entertainment hot spot with five restaurants helmed by James Beard Award-winning chefs. New dining experiences include The Polite Pig, sister restaurant of The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, led by local celebrity chefs James and Julie Petrakis; Planet Hollywood Observatory, offering a Guy Fieri sandwich menu; Art Smith’s Homecomin’ Florida Kitchen, featuring Southern cuisine; and Wine Bar George, the only Master Sommelier-led wine bar in Florida, which opens in early 2018.

Meet Here Now

Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) affords a whopping 2.1 million sq. ft. of exhibition space and 479,190 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, including two new ballrooms. OCCC Vision Gardens is the country’s largest aeroponic garden in a public venue, producing lettuces, chards, herbs, micro-greens and more—40,000 plants per year—for the center’s catering. A new 7,000-square-foot destination lounge with video wall, LED systems and lighting to support corporate branding and displays can host meetings and presentations. And a new pedestrian bridge connects to Hyatt Regency Hotel; it’s the fifth bridge that links to nearby hotels.

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, on 87 acres of scenic lakefront, has just completed a $140 million, multiyear redesign to transform all 2,267 guest rooms. Together, they offer 329,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Tech is state-of-the-art. Amenities include highly regarded Mandara Spa, 14 restaurants and five heated pools.

Villas of Grand Cypress Orlando sprawls over 1,500 meticulously manicured acres that include fishing lakes, bicycle trails and 45 holes of golf designed by Jack Nicklaus, as well as a golf academy. Its newly renovated 7,200 sq. ft. of event space in a Mediterranean-style facility is complemented by 146 resort-quality guest rooms, two restaurants and a pool with bar.

Ocala/Marion County

An escape to yesterday’s Florida

Welcome to Florida horse country, where coastal high-rises give way to farms, freshwater streams and gentle hills. The bright lights of Central Florida’s Marion County are concentrated in Ocala, population nearly 60,000. Its winding community pathways, lined with oaks trellised in Spanish moss, reveal a pleasant town with a nice selection of restaurants and cultural attractions. Appleton Museum of Art displays a surprisingly broad collection that spans pre-Columbian artifacts; and European, Islamic and African art; and contemporary American works. Docent-led group tours are available.

But nature is the real draw, which is why the county’s backdrops have starred in Hollywood movies. Near Ocala is Silver Springs State Park, a national landmark on 350 acres with waters dotted with canoes, kayaks and glass-bottom boats. The park has recently undergone a major renovation to its Paradise Ballroom, which features two floor-to-ceiling window walls, overlooking lawn and boat dock. This is a unique setting for up to 300 people.

The park is also gateway to the woods and lakes of vast Ocala National Forest, the world’s largest sand pine forest. East of downtown, Fort King National Historic Park was an important Second Seminole War site. Group horseback tours are a popular team-building opportunity in the area, as is Canyons Zip Line and Canopy Tours.

Hotels are responding to the county’s increasing popularity for groups. Chief among these is Hilton Ocala, where renovation is currently focused on exterior ambiance, including an 8,000-square-foot pavilion. The 196 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space are next on the upgrade agenda. Courtyard By Marriott Ocala has refreshed its 169 guest rooms and offers 3,062 sq. ft. of event space.

Among services offered by Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau is a “Meet and Save” program to help planners offset the cost of meetings. Such extra attention lavished on planners and visiting groups pays off in satisfied attendees. “Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau is one of the best,” says Tommy Thompson, director of Florida Outdoor Writers Association. “Their professional staff’s attention to detail and creativity has been invaluable to several Florida Outdoor Writers Association Annual Conferences over the years.”

South Walton

Where nature comes first

Stretched along 26 miles of Northwest Florida, between Pensacola and Panama City, South Walton is a strand of 16 distinct beach neighborhoods. No cities, just white sand, turquoise water and life’s-a-beach ’tude. There’s more than enough to do there, as you choose—interesting dining, arts and culture, “ecosploring,“ forests and preserves with tree-lined trails, water fun on rare dune lakes and Choctawhatchee Bay, not to mention shopping and spa-surfing.

In essence, though, South Walton values state parks over theme parks, and sunsets over the jet set. It venerates its natural habitats and wildlife such as loggerhead sea turtles. More than 40 percent of its area is protected from development, in fact.

South Walton Turtle Watch is a treasured conservation project. Funded by Visit South Walton, it engages and trains volunteers to patrol the beaches during nesting season, May through October, for endangered loggerheads, to make certain females are unmolested and hatched newborns safely inch their way into the warm, welcoming waters of the Gulf.

In Freeport, E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center is an environmental educational facility. Nestled on 50,000 acres in the Longleaf Pine ecosystem, the sixth-most biologically diverse area in the continental United States, it underscores the importance of biodiversity and furthers visitors’ eco-education. Most of this nonprofit’s work is with school children, but the center is open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays in June and July.

For groups, prime accommodations include Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa in Miramar Beach (602 guest rooms, 60,000 sq. ft. of event space); WaterColor Inn & Resort in Santa Rosa Beach (60 guest room and 200 rental homes, 9,921 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space); Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Miramar Beach (1,300 guest rooms, 65,000 sq. ft. of event space); and The Pearl Hotel in Rosemary Beach (54 guest rooms and suites, 5,500 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space). Vacation rentals are also an option. Three Wyndham-managed properties that cater to groups are The Pointe in Inlet Beach, Gulf Place in Santa Rosa Beach and Tops’l Beach & Racquet Resort in Miramar Beach.

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