by Barbara Beckley | November 01, 2015

Association meeting-goers love to gather at resorts, which is just one of the reasons Florida remains a popular site. In the central and northern part of the state, both big cities and small out-of-the-way towns boast beautiful resorts, top-notch convention facilities and distinct off-site venues.

"Meeting in Florida gives attendees an opportunity for renewal, to relax and recharge," said Valorie Boyd, executive director of the Adult & Community Educators of Florida. What's not to like about that promise?

Orlando: Bigger & Better

Orlando is ever-changing. Barbara Logan, the U.S. Travel Association's vice-president of meetings and event services attested to this after its international marketplace, IPW 2015, was held in the city earlier this year. "Orlando offers so much more than it did when we were here in 2010," Logan said. "I know when we return in 2022, there will be even more to see and do."

When Barbara McDaniel, assistant vice-president of conferences and programs for the National Training & Simulation Association, brought 14,000 delegates to town for its recent annual exposition, she was also impressed. "The new West Hall of the Orange County Convention Center is amazing! It looks brand new," she said, speaking about the center's ongoing, multimillion-dollar improvement project. New additions at the 2 million-square-foot venue include the 48,961-square-foot Tangerine Ballroom and the indoor-outdoor Sunburst Terrace. McDaniel also said she loves the way area hotels work together, the wide range of hotel price points and the fact that there's "always something for everyone."

Orlando's newest attraction is I-Drive 360, an entertainment complex that opened south of downtown on International Drive in May. Its focal point is a 400-foot-tall observation wheel called the Orlando Eye, which welcomes groups to ride in its 30 air-conditioned capsules (15 people per carriage) for an elegant champagne toast; in addition, at its base, receptions for up to 2,500 or sit-down events of up to 1,400 can be accommodated. Nearby, the Wyndham Orlando Resort International Drive can host groups of up to 2,390. Other attractions at the complex include Skeletons: Animals Unveiled!, one of only two skeleton museums in the nation; Madame Tussauds/Orlando; and the Sea Life Aquarium. Also planned for the International Drive area is a development called Skyplex, expected to open as early as 2017 with the world's tallest roller coaster, other thrill rides and an observation tower restaurant.

Downtown, two major sports venues have captured the attention of planners: the 75,000-seat Citrus Bowl, which underwent a $207 million renovation and reopened in November 2014, and a 25,500-seat, soccer-specific stadium expected to open next fall. A few blocks away, the 20,000-seat Amway Center also welcomes group events. For cultural occasions, the year-old Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts hosts Broadway productions and the Orlando Ballet and can entertain events of up to 2,700.

Many of the city's major meeting hotels are also making improvements. Convenient to the Orange County Convention Center is the Hilton/Orlando, which plans to add new meeting rooms (a total of 8,909 square feet) that will be connected to the Florida Ballroom in early 2016. In addition, plans include a new registration desk, new pre-function space and additional restrooms. The Hilton and nearby Hyatt Regency/Orlando work together to offer the "Orlando 3000," a one-stop meeting program for large conventions, a reference to their combined 3,000 guest rooms adjoining the south side of the center. And just down the street is the Rosen Plaza Hotel, which will open two certified orthodox kosher kitchens this fall. The kitchens will serve as a catering service to guests at all seven area Rosen hotels as well as be available for events in greater Orlando.

Expanded transportation options are making it easier for delegates to get around. The SunRail commuter train line, which stretches 31 miles throughout greater Orlando, will be adding another 17 miles of track, with a southern line into Osceola County expected to be running in 2017.

Orlando's theme parks are expanding like crazy, creating new and wonderful opportunities. At the Walt Disney World Resort, the new big-budget Boathouse Restaurant is already a hit with groups. The restaurant is just one component of Downtown Disney's transformation into Disney Springs, a shopping, dining and entertainment center that is expected to be fully complete in 2016 when it will boast high-end retailers like Lilly Pulitzer and restaurants like recently opened Morimoto Asia. Another big Disney draw is the redone Fantasyland-double its original size-at Disney's Magic Kingdom. And future attractions like the Avatar-inspired land, set to open in 2017, will offer even more for guests.

On the hotel scene, Disney's Polynesian Village Resort just added 20 bungalows on the Seven Seas Lagoon that sleep up to eight guests each and offer views of the nightly fireworks. And the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin is undergoing a $125 million redo that is scheduled to complete updates to the Swan Hotel by year's end and the Dolphin Hotel rooms to follow by 2017.

At SeaWorld/Orlando, which welcomes groups of up to 4,000, a new 200-foot-tall coaster called Mako is expected to open in summer 2016 as the city's tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster. It will be the centerpiece of SeaWorld's new shark-themed plaza-available for events-that aims to explain the impact humans have on sharks and why these animals are critical to the environment. Also new is Discovery University, a customizable education program for groups. The adjacent DoubleTree by Hilton/Orlando at SeaWorld is becoming more meetings friendly. As part of a property-wide renovation, the new owners plan on adding 30,000 square feet of function space.

At the Universal Orlando Resort, the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is on track to open in summer 2016 with 1,000 guest rooms and 123,000 square feet of meeting space. It will be connected to the recently expanded Loews Royal Pacific Resort and, combined, the two properties will offer 254,000 square feet of space for group functions. For music fans, the newly revamped rooms at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando feature wall mirrors with the heights of famous musicians, so guests can compare themselves to celebrities. In addition to the Hard Rock's 6,000 square feet of meeting space, groups can utilize 140,000 square feet of function space at related venues at Universal CityWalk: the Hard Rock Café and Hard Rock Live. Coming attractions include Skull Island: Reign of Kong, scheduled to open in summer 2016, and Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort, a water park experience inspired by postcard-perfect tropical islands, to open in 2017. Both will offer event space for up to 20,000 people. Less than four miles from Universal, the condo-style Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa plans to debut 20,000 square feet of additional space in January.

Seven miles north of Orlando, the enclave of Winter Park is a charming choice for small gatherings and retreats. The two-year-old Alfond Inn at Rollins College offers 10,000 square feet of meeting space, and its net operating income endows the Rollins College Alfond Scholars Program for deserving students.

Greater Kissimmee: Worth the Return Trip

Kissimmee, south of Orlando, welcomes associations with more than 300 venues, among them hangars at Kissimmee Gateway Airport, the Kissimmee Air Museum and its collection of World War II fighter planes, and the Osceola Performing Arts Center, with a 2,000-seat theater and a 23,600-square-foot exhibit hall. To the south, in Kenansville, the year-old Wild Florida Airboat & Wildlife Park has a 2,500-square-foot ballroom and a 1,500-square-foot covered deck for events and offers airboat tours of the Everglades.

The Professional Insurance Agents of Florida has held its 2014 and 2015 Agent Expos at the Embassy Suites/Orlando-Lake Buena Vista South. "The event and lobby staff were some of the best I've ever worked with," said Cherie Pinksy, the association's director of education and events. "And with reasonable rates and a beautiful property, we knew we couldn't go wrong."

Another property of choice for visiting groups is the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, Kissimmee's largest conference resort. It recently hosted the Asphalt Contractors Association of Florida and in 2016 is scheduled to welcome the American Astronomical Society and the Florida Dental Association.

As a fresh alternative for small gatherings, planners might want to consider Kissimmee's large inventory of upscale, custom-built vacation homes. Many are located on golf courses and range from two- to 14-plus bedrooms, with pools, game rooms, theater rooms, concierge services and in-house chefs on demand.

Fifteen miles west of town, in ChampionsGate, is the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, site of the Adult & Community Educators of Florida's annual convention since 2004. "The Omni is a beautiful setting. It's convenient for the attendees who drive from throughout Florida, and the staff is superb-always professional, yet fun," said Boyd of the Adult & Community Educators of Florida.

Attendees can unleash their inner cowboy at the Westgate River Ranch Resort in River Ranch, 60 miles to the south. The high-end dude ranch features cowboy-themed activities from cattle drives to the longest-running Saturday night championship rodeo in Florida, and 8,000 square feet of indoor meeting space along with plentiful outdoor space.

Gainesville to Pensacola: Southern Charm & Sweet Beaches

Studious yet fun-loving Gainesville is always popular with groups, including, more recently, the Florida Association of Veterans Education Specialists, the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants and Animal Grantmakers. Favorite meeting sites include the University of Florida campus, home to the IACC-approved Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Hotel and the Reitz Union Hotel, located atop the student union. Off campus-but less than two miles away-the Paramount Plaza Hotel & Conference Center offers 14,000 square feet of function space and views of Bivens Arm Lake.

Several repurposed structures also attract association gatherings. The Hippodrome Theatre, once a post office and courthouse, has venues for luncheons, small conferences and dinners. The Mediterranean Revival-style Thomas Center, a former hotel, can accommodate up to 150 people. And the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Harn Museum of Art can host functions of up to 180 and 400 people, respectively.

The romanticism of the Old South comes to life around Tallahassee, the state capital, just 20 miles from the Georgia border. A bevy of antebellum plantations serve as special-event sites, including the Goodwood Museum & Gardens with a carriage house for up to 200 guests and extensive grounds, and the downtown Hotel Duval. A few blocks away, the modern Four Points by Sheraton/Tallahassee Downtown has meeting space for up to 250.

The 51,000-square-foot, newly renovated Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, which is operated by Florida State University, is one of Tallahassee's largest venues. Other campus options include the 82,300-seat Doak S. Campbell Stadium and its 64,000-square-foot University Center Club, and the Florida State Conference Center, designed with 11 spaces including a 350-seat auditorium and 280-seat dining room.

To the west of Tallahassee, new meeting space in Destin proves that the Florida Panhandle's sugary white beaches are as irresistible to associations as they are to tourists. The Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort & Spa can now accommodate groups of up to 2,000 thanks to the addition of a third ballroom and expanded pre-function space. And large events can turn to the 2,400-acre Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, which has 1,200 accommodations, from studios to villas to penthouses, and 65,000 square feet of function space in a variety of venues throughout the property. A new build is the Henderson Beach Resort, expected to open in summer 2016 with 171 guest rooms, a signature restaurant, a spa, a 10,000-square-foot meetings wing and 30,000 square feet of outdoor oceanfront function space.

You can take the resort vibe to the next level with small gatherings in one of the Emerald Coast's luxurious vacation homes. Agencies such as St. Joe Club & Resorts offer oceanfront homes that can sleep up to 16 and include access to the Greg Norman-designed Sharks Tooth Golf Club in Panama City Beach and other private area golf clubs. It can also help arrange off-site breakout sessions and other activities. For trade shows and related functions, the Emerald Coast Convention Center in Fort Walton Beach offers 35,000 square feet of convention and exhibit space as well as the 30,000-square-foot Bayview Plaza for outdoor events.

The summer season in Pensacola is prime time for this beachfront city, when attendees and their families might enjoy making a vacation out of the trip, but year-round it appeals to planners with a number of impressive venues. There's 10,000 square feet of event space at the National Naval Aviation Museum, and next door, the 100,000-square-foot National Flight Academy has overnight accommodations, catering and meeting spaces. Downtown, the Pensacola Bay Center has 33,000 square feet of function space and a 10,000-seat arena.

Greater Jacksonville: The River City by the Sea

Even with its skyscrapers, the vacation-like setting of Jacksonville on the St. Johns River makes it a destination that groups return to again and again. "The views of the river and bridges are so beautiful, and the city is so appealing," said Amy Edmunds, who helped organize a recent convention for the nonprofit group YoungStroke at the downtown Omni/Jacksonville. "We organized a stroll along the riverfront each morning, and we didn't need transportation because all the shops and restaurants in Jacksonville Landing (an entertainment district) and the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts were across the street." She has booked the Omni for functions again in 2016 and 2017.

"Jacksonville was a great host," said Daila Boufford, director of professional development and market research for the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences, whose annual conference and expo were held in town in June. "The Hyatt Regency/Jacksonville Riverfront was very attractive and a perfect fit, providing plenty of guest rooms for our large attendance and the necessary meeting space to accommodate our many concurrent meetings all under one roof," she said.

Redevelopment and renovation mean that new and returning delegates will have even more to enjoy. Unity Plaza, an urban park and amphitheater in the hip downtown Brooklyn neighborhood, opened in September with a packed calendar of concerts, festivals and performances. A few blocks away, the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens can host events of up to 300. And February saw the opening of the rebuilt Southbank Riverwalk, which features two floating docks, new slips for dinner cruise boats and event space. In the works is a floating party boat called the Barge expected to be running by year's end; plans include space for up to 250 people. Historic buildings have also been reinvented: Sweet Pete's, Jacksonville's own candy factory, located in the old Seminole Club, offers flexible event space on the top two floors (and candy-making classes), and the Jessie Ball duPont Center in the former Haydon Burns Library has a conference center, a lecture hall, 12 meeting rooms, reception spaces, a catering kitchen and a future rooftop garden that will be available for events. Scheduled openings in 2016 include the Cowford Chophouse in the Bostwick Building and Intuition Ale Works in the former Boland Co. Building, with a rooftop beer garden and event space.

All of Jacksonville's major convention hotels have recently completed renovations or plan to do so soon. The Hyatt Regency, the Omni and the DoubleTree by Hilton/Jacksonville Riverfront (formerly a Crowne Plaza) are each newly transformed, and in June, what was formerly the Wyndham/Jacksonville Riverwalk became the Lexington Hotel & Conference Center Jacksonville Riverwalk. New hotels scheduled to open in 2016 include a TownePlace Suites by Marriott on Jacksonville's southside, a downtown Courtyard by Marriott and a La Quinta Inn in the Arlington neighborhood.

Jacksonville's largest venue for events is the 275,000-square-foot Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center, smartly repurposed from the 1919 Union Station. Additional options include the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts and Veterans Memorial Arena. At EverBank Field, Jacksonville's newly embellished NFL stadium, new poolside cabanas are available for up to 140.

Amelia Island, 30 miles northeast of Jacksonville, is a destination in its own right, with two notable meeting properties: a Ritz-Carlton and the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort. Or 20 miles east of the city is Ponte Vedra Beach, where the recently renovated Ponte Vedra Inn & Club recently welcomed the annual convention of the North Carolina Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association. "It was the ideal spot for our group because, along with our meetings, hospitality and receptions, it had something for everyone-the spa, golf, kids activities, various pools, workout facilities, multiple dining options, shopping and, of course, the beach," said Mary Catherine Green, the association's associate director. "We will hopefully be back sooner rather than later."

For many, golf is as good as it gets at the TPC Sawgrass Course, also located in Ponte Vedra Beach, with a clubhouse that can host up to 1,500 people. Adjacent, the recently redesigned Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa features a golf cart path leading directly into the golf course. Attendees who prefer to spend their time on the beach instead of the greens can head to the Marriott's oceanfront Cabana Club, which includes an Olympic-sized pool, a restaurant and event space.

St. Augustine: Everything Old is New Again

St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city, celebrated its 450th anniversary in September but continues to wow visitors with its historic venues. Planners can look to the 18th-century Colonial Quarter, with an amphitheater under a giant oak tree and table seating for more than 250, or the 1928 Treasury on the Plaza, with 6,000 square feet of event spaces. The Fountain of Youth is here, too, at Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park on St. Augustine Inlet. Its new 3,000-square-foot Events Pavilion welcomes gatherings of up to 300. Another possibility for events with a historic bent are costumed characters such as Ponce de Leon and pirates, which can be hired to give presentations and liven up events. And abundant landmark-status meeting facilities attract a constant stream of associations. These include Flagler College (formerly the Hotel Ponce de Leon) and the 19th-century Casa Monica Hotel.

About 15 miles north of St. Augustine, larger conventions frequently use the World Golf Village Renaissance St. Augustine Resort. In addition, it's home to the World Golf Hall of Fame museum and features two championship golf courses, including the world's only course co-designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Over in St. Augustine Beach, a 205-room Courtyard Marriott is expected to open by year's end with nearly 6,000 square feet of function space, and an Embassy Suites is set to open in 2017.

Daytona Beach: Sand, Speed, Showtime

With 23 miles of sunny beaches, top-notch convention facilities and resorts, and fast-paced action at attractions like the Daytona International Speedway, groups are flocking to Daytona Beach. Near the airport, the speedway welcomes groups with a number of dedicated spaces and offers attendees the chance to race with a professional driver, while five miles east is Ocean Center, the city's convention complex, featuring 264,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor exhibit space, a 9,600-seat arena, 32,000 square feet of meeting space and a 12,000-square-foot banquet hall. Some 1,200 guest rooms are within walking distance of the center, including the adjacent Hilton Daytona Beach Ocean Walk Village Hotel. Slightly farther south is the Shores Resort & Spa, which recently completed a property-wide upgrade.

Picturesque off-site venues include the Daytona Beach Bandshell & Oceanfront Park, which can host up to 5,000, and the Sunset Harbor Yacht Club & Conference Center on the Intracoastal Waterway, which can host up to 100. The Museum of Arts & Sciences is scheduled to open its new West Wing on October 30 with additional space for groups.

The Florida Fire Chiefs Association recently signed a five-year contract to host the Fire-Rescue EAST convention and trade show through 2020 at the Ocean Center, and Shriners International will host its 20,000-delegate Imperial Sessions in 2017 and 2018 in Daytona. The Shriners' headquarter hotels will be the Hilton, the Shores and the Plaza Resort & Spa, with another 25 overflow hotels.

Many Happy Returns

Central and North Florida are filled with resort settings and attractions that have an eye on meetings and conventions, and new projects are going up at lightning speed. With so many destinations already on the radar of Americans, planners who schedule an event in these regions of the state are bound to attract the maximum number of attendees-and then some, as families tag along to get in on the fun.