by Barbara Beckley | November 01, 2016

There’s nothing like a unique meeting site to prompt conversation between attendees and offer a fresh take on an annual event. So it’s no surprise that associations love to meet in the central and northern region of Florida, an area that isconstantly refreshing its venues and attractions.

From theme parks in Orlando to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine, creative facilities for conferences are as plentiful as the state’s resorts and convention centers. Combine them all for an agenda that delights, surprises and drives attendance numbers up. That’s what happens when you plan something outside of the traditional meetings box.

Orlando: A Top Travel Destination

Last year, 66.1 million people visited Orlando, solidifying the city’s position as the most visited destination in the nation, according to Visit Orlando. Anchored by the 2.5 million-square-foot Orange County Convention Center, currently undergoing the biggest renovation in the facility’s history, Orlando hosts thousands of organizations each year. This month alone it will host more than a half-dozen major events including those of the International Association of Amusements Parks & Attractions, the National Business Aviation Association and the National Association of Realtors.

Then there’s the pull of new and improved resorts and attractions, which quickly pique the interest of attendees. The Florida Vascular Society is just one group that recently hosted an event at the Four Seasons Resort/Orlando at Walt Disney World, which opened in 2014. “Our attendees and staff want to be there,” said Kathy Abney, the group’s planner. “I have never had so many attendees comment on the hotel! We heard over and over how impressed they were with this venue. Being at the Walt Disney World Resort was wonderful, too.”

New group options and amenities keep improving area resorts. The Rosen Plaza Hotel recently launched a kosher catering service that serves all seven Rosen hotels in greater Orlando. Its new, 5,000-square-foot kosher kitchen is under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Florida. At the nearby Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa, a new seven-story building features 20,000 square feet of rooftop event space with 360-degree views of Orlando. And the Hilton Orlando has added eight new meeting rooms. To the west, the Villas of Grand Cypress Orlando has revamped its guest rooms and redesigned its Executive Meeting Center, which has 7,200 square feet of space and is within walking distance of the villas’ Jack Nicklaus–designed golf courses. Three miles south, in the Disney Springs area, the former Buena Vista Palace Resort & Spa has been reflagged the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace following a multimillion-dollar renovation, which included a new recreation area with a lazy river, new pools and cabanas and a poolside restaurant. The Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek is also newly refreshed after a $5 million renovation and expansion; additions include a 3,500-square-foot ballroom that can accommodate up to 360 people, a 2,155-square-foot meeting room, a wraparound balcony and terrace and a sushi bar.

Some resorts are catering to association groups in other ways. The Waldorf Astoria/Orlando and adjacent Hilton/Orlando-Bonnet Creek now work together to offer groups the choice of accommodations at either property, both within the same complex. And the newly renovated Orlando World Center Marriott recently launched an online “Meetings Imagined” platform that provides planners with expert tips.

When it comes to creative venues, Orlando’s theme parks always offer something interesting and new. At the Walt Disney World Resort, the new Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) is now complete. It features seven hotels and more than 150 themed shopping, dining and entertainment venues. This spring, a 1920s electric company–themed restaurant called the Edison is scheduled to open. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a new Avatar-inspired set, Pandora, is also expected to open next year. And following its own renovation, the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin has updated its Wi-Fi capabilities.

The Universal Orlando Resort is taking event bookings for its new 28-acre Volcano Bay water theme park, which is set to open in 2017 and can accommodate up to 20,000 people. And at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the newest attraction area is Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which can also be used for events.

The Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando opened this summer with 1,000 guest rooms and 115,000 square feet of meeting space as well as 16,000 square feet of outdoor space. With the adjoining Loews Royal Pacific Resort, the Loews Meeting Complex now offers 247,000 square feet of function space.

SeaWorld/Orlando recently debuted the Mako roller coaster, the centerpiece of a new 2-acre, shark-themed plaza that provides event space. And the DoubleTree by Hilton/Orlando at SeaWorld is expanding its meeting space; upon completion in 2017, the property will feature 100,000 square feet of event space including a new 20,000-square-foot ballroom.

Larger downtown venues include Camping World Stadium (formerly the Citrus Bowl), which wrapped up a major construction project last year. And the 25,500-seat stadium for the Orlando City Soccer Club is expected to open in 2017.

Just north of Orlando, Seminole County is worth considering for events. In all, the county offers 5,000 guest rooms and 100,000 square feet of meeting space.

A little more than 80 miles west of Orlando, in Crystal River, the Plantation on Crystal River is a popular meeting option. Groups that have met in town this year include the Florida Association for Food Protection and the Builders Association of North Central Florida, and the Florida Groundwater Association has plans to meet here in 2017.

Greater Kissimmee: Recreate or Relax

South of Orlando, the Kissimmee area is packed with popular convention resorts and unique attractions. Top resort choices include the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, a favorite destination of the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate in the community of ChampionsGate, enjoyed by the Florida Municipal Electric Association. The Omni plans to add 100,000 square feet of function space by next fall, and the new Margaritaville Resort/Orlando plans to open in late 2017 with 187 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space.

For medical sessions, the 54,000-square-foot Florida Hospital Nicholson Center in Celebration boasts the world’s largest robotics training lab along with a 500-seat conference center auditorium and 50 surgical skills stations. New entertainment, dining and event options have improved Old Town USA, or groups can head to the Docks at Shingle Creek, which has an outdoor deck for events. Events can also be held in Kenansville, home to Wild Florida Airboats & Gator Park.

Gainesville and the Panhandle: Southern Spirit

If your attendees are Gator fans—as in the University of Florida in Gainesville—heading to campus for an event is sure to draw a crowd. Options include the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Hotel, the Reitz Union Hotel and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Newly renovated off-campus selections include the Wyndham Garden/Gainesville (formerly the Paramount Plaza Hotel & Conference Center) and the DoubleTree by Hilton/Gainesville (formerly the Lodge at Gainesville).

Organizations that have experienced the best Gainesville has to offer recently include the Florida Association of Veterans Education Specialists, the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the American Forensics Association.

Tallahassee, the state capital, is just 20 miles from the Georgia border and offers impressive sites including the Florida Historic Capitol Museum, restored to its 1902 appearance and available for receptions of up to several hundred. The city’s large venues include the 54,000-square-foot Donald L. Tucker Civic Center and Florida State University’s newly renovated Doak S. Campbell Stadium.

To the west, whiter-than-white sands welcome delegates to Destin and the Emerald Coast along Florida’s panhandle. “There is no comparison to other beaches,” said Janice Cox, senior vice-president of the Alabama Bankers Association, after returning from a meeting at the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort in Miramar Beach. “These are the best beaches in the world—and I’ve been to beaches around the globe.” Her group’s young-bankers affiliate met at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa and were equally dazzled.

Also in Destin, the Henderson hotel, a Salamander Beach & Spa Resort, is scheduled to open this month with a 10,000-square-foot meetings wing and 30,000 square feet of outdoor space.

The Emerald Coast Convention Center in Fort Walton Beach is one of the reasons the Special Operations Research Association chose the region. “The center’s different types of rooms met our needs perfectly as a small organization,” said Christopher Marsh, the group’s president and founder. It was also convenient to the special operations facility at Eglin Air Force Base.

Pat Swartz, who plans the annual gathering of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association, was equally complimentary. “The Emerald Coast has the most beautiful water! And the Emerald Coast CVB and the Emerald Coast Convention Center staff are very easy to do business with. They are customer service-oriented and do an excellent job of anticipating our needs,” she said.

On the hotel front, a new, 175-room Hilton Garden Inn is set to open in Fort Walton Beach this spring with a 5,500-square-foot ballroom.

About 50 miles from Destin, in Panama City Beach, the newly rebranded and revamped Sheraton Bay Point Resort is scheduled to reopen in November with 319 guest rooms and 40,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor event space.

Greater Jacksonville: Skyscrapers & Sea Breezes

Growing craft-beer and music scenes add to the appeal of gathering in Jacksonville, northern Florida’s largest metropolis, set on the St. Johns River. Look for two new alehouses—the Hyperion Brewing Company and a second downtown location of Bold City Brewery—which will make for nine tasting spots along the Jax Ale Trail in early 2017. At Jacksonville Landing, an entertainment district, the newly renovated and renamed Mavericks Live now offers its 21,000-square-foot building for private events of up to 1,500.

Golfers might enjoy a gathering at Topgolf, a new 65,000-square-foot golf entertainment center near the St. Johns Town Center. And soon groups will be able to stage a downtown event on the St. Johns River. The Barge, the region’s first floating party barge, is expected to gain approval shortly to “dock” with 6,000 square feet of space.

The city’s largest event venue is the 275,000-square-foot Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center. Jacksonville is also ushering in a new era of hospitality with the completion of modernization projects at its major city-center hotels: the Sheraton/Jacksonville, the Hyatt Regency/Jacksonville Riverfront, the Omni/Jacksonville, the Embassy Suites/Jacksonville-Baymeadows and the Lexington Hotel & Conference Center (formerly a Wyndham).

Thirty miles northeast, on Amelia Island, the Ritz-Carlton and the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort can welcome groups of up to 1,430 and 1,000, respectively. Another oceanfront getaway is Ponte Vedra Beach, home to the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club and the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, which recently completed a $25 million renovation. Each guest room has been expanded by 30 feet and groups can utilize a second presidential suite or its new butler-serviced guest wing. Additionally, the new American Gator Club restaurant was unveiled and the oceanfront Cabana Club was upgraded.

St. Augustine: Historic Happenings

Golf enthusiasts gravitate to the World Golf Village Renaissance St. Augustine Resort, located about 15 miles north of the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine, where Old Florida and Old World come together. Popular meeting sites include the Colonial Quarter, the Casa Monica Hotel, the Treasury on the Plaza and Flagler College. And inside Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is a 3,000-square-foot Events Pavilion.

In St. Augustine Beach, the new Courtyard by Marriott has 4,800 square feet of meeting space, and a 180-room Embassy Suites is set to open in 2017.

Daytona Beach: Grand & Glamorous

With nearly $2 billion poured into new construction and renovations over the past few years, Daytona Beach is sporting a new look. Daytona’s best-known venue continues to be the Daytona International Speedway, which houses the newly relocated Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (formerly in Michigan). In 2017, the first phase of One Daytona, a premier mixed-use retail, dining and entertainment destination opposite the speedway, is scheduled to open. Plans include an exclusive, 144-room Marriott Autograph Collection hotel called The Daytona and a 105-room Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.

What do attendees like most about Daytona Beach? Maryann Krisovitch, who organized the 2013 and 2016 meetings of the Florida Lake Management Society in Daytona Beach, said it’s how easy it is to drive or fly into, properties with comfortable guest rooms and quick access to conference rooms, reasonable prices and lots to see and do. “In addition to being right on the beach, there is a huge assortment of off-property dining and family-oriented activities,” she said.

Both times, the society stayed at The Shores Resort & Spa. The group likes its oceanfront location, meeting spaces and its staff. “Give them an idea of what you’d like to do and they will provide you with suggestions to make your event memorable,” Krisovitch said.

The Florida Public Defender Association chose the Plaza Resort & Spa for its recent gathering. “The Plaza was accommodating to our needs and our pricing, and the staff was friendly,” said Sheldon Gusky, its executive director.

Other groups that have held events in town include the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions, the Parachute Industry Association, the American Outdoors Association and the Association of Paroling Authorities International.

New hotels include the year-old Residence Inn/Daytona Beach Oceanfront, with event space for up to 200, and the Hilton Garden Inn/Daytona Beach Oceanfront, with meeting space for up to 80. Two new properties are expected to open in 2017: the Westin Daytona Beach Resort & Spa, with event space for up to 290, and the Streamline Hotel, which is undergoing a $6 million restoration.

More than 1,200 guest rooms are within walking distance of Ocean Center, Daytona Beach’s convention complex, including the adjacent Hilton Daytona Beach Resort Ocean Walk Village. Other event venues in town include the newly expanded Museum of Arts & Sciences, with event space for up to 700. In their free time, attendees can visit the new Daytona Beach Ale Trail.

Thirty miles north, along the Palm Coast, the Hammock Beach Resort offers both indoor and outdoor event space.

Miles of Smiles

With so many creative opportunities, and new resorts on the agenda—as well as countless proven favorites—attendees always look forward to meeting in central and northern Florida. Planners who choose a destination in these two regions can rest assured that everyone will be smiling from arrival to departure.