by Barbara Beckley | May 01, 2016

Sunny weather may be what attracts association groups to the central and southern regions of Florida, but it’s far from the only benefit. For starters, Valeria Anderson of the Florida Music Education Association found the meeting space to be “marvelous.”

Anderson said she also found that “the staff at the convention centers and hotels are wonderful to work with. If there is a need, they will try their best to accommodate it, no matter what it takes.” For Suzanne Arteaga of the National Fisheries Institute, it’s the wide variety of cuisines and activities for all ages that ensure a “great turnout” for meetings in the Sunshine State. But beyond fulfilling objectives and completing agendas, these regions have a number of surprises in store for returning and first-time groups alike.

Greater Tampa Bay: Bells & Whistles

Unexpected amenities can help make meeting in Tampa a success. The proximity of the Tampa Convention Center to major cultural venues, attractions and accommodations is of great appeal to the many groups that meet downtown each year.

The Florida State Thespians have met in Tampa for the past 26 years, in large part for this reason. “It’s the best city in the state to meet our needs of multiple theatrical venues, convention center and hotels within walking distance,” said Lindsay M. Warfield, its director. Warfield said that in addition to using the 600,000-square-foot convention center, her conference also uses theaters, classrooms and rehearsal halls within the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the 1,410-seat Tampa Theater. For movement between venues, she charters eight trolleys from Jolley Trolley.

The Florida Music Education Association has been meeting in Tampa for more than 60 years. “Tampa is the only city that can accommodate the scope of our annual conference. We have more than 22 all-state groups that need rehearsal space,” said Anderson, the association’s director of operations. She also noted that there are plenty of activities for families of the student participants.

In Clearwater, just west of Tampa, the new, beachfront Opal Sands Resort opened in February with meeting space, a spa and a restaurant. Group perks include sunset cruises and guided tours of the Salvador Dalí Museum in nearby St. Petersburg. In development is the Wyndham Grand Resort Clearwater Beach, expected to open in early 2017.

About 47 miles southeast of Tampa, the Streamsong Resort in Streamsong offers award-winning golf.

Bradenton, Sarasota & Punta Gorda: Gung-ho for the Gulf

At the southern end of Tampa Bay, the Historic District of Bradenton is home to the Hampton Inn & Suites, which offers meeting space for up to 130. A more contemporary venue is the Bradenton Area Convention Center, which overlooks the Manatee River in Palmetto, and offers space for up to 4,000.

On Anna Maria Island, to the west, the new Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club is scheduled to open this fall as the island’s only full-service property. “Visitors can expect the best of both the island’s Old Florida charm and new experiences and modern coastal design and luxury,” said Joe Collier, president of Mainsail Lodging & Development. Planned features include 37 suites, a 50-slip marina, 2,000 square feet of event space, a restaurant and bar, a swimming pool and a separate beach club.

The 187-room Zota Beach Resort (formerly the Longboat Key Hilton) on Longboat Key is on track to open later this year with 2,520 square feet of event space. Groups seeking more space can turn to the Resort at Longboat Key Club.

Gatherings in downtown Sarasota have been enhanced by a new property, the 139-room Aloft/Sarasota, which has 550 square feet of meeting space, and the 255-room Westin/Sarasota is scheduled to open in February 2017 with 14,000 square feet of meeting space. In May, the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art’s new, 25,000-square-foot Center for Asian Art will open with a 125-seat lecture hall.

Events such as the Florida Winter National Wood Art Expo & Competition draw a sizeable crowd each year to Punta Gorda. For the last three years, the 44,000-square-foot Charlotte Harbor Event & Conference Center has welcomed more than 2,000 show attendees.

Other options include the year-old Florida Tracks & Trails with a 30-acre event lawn; and on the waterfront is the renovated Fisherman’s Village. The 27-acre Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Garden is set to open in September 2016. Ten miles north, in Port Charlotte, is the 5,400-seat Charlotte Sports Park.

From Fort Myers to Marco Island: Beyond Beach Towns

Meet in the rooms that inspired the inventor Thomas Edison, gather amid a luxury African safari-style camp in the Everglades, or head to the beach with a “shelling concierge.” All three are just a few of the surprises this corner of southwestern Florida has in store for groups.

In Fort Myers, unique event venues include the Edison & Ford Winter Estates (the former homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford) and the Shell Factory & Nature Park. In downtown, the Harborside Event Center has nearly 42,000 square feet of convention space.

Other meeting properties include the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa, which has updated its event space, and a 180-room Drury Inn & Suites with 3,000 square feet of function space is scheduled to debut next year. In Cape Coral, the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village is doubling its event space to 35,000 square feet. The multimillion-dollar project will introduce a new conference center with a ballroom in late 2017.

Captiva Island is famous for shelling, and as such, many guests of the South Seas Island Resort take advantage of its “shelling concierge,” who can lead groups of up to 30.

Stacy Vail, executive operations director for the Construction Specifications Institute, said one of the most appealing attributes of this region is the relaxed atmosphere, and yet she encountered a high level of professionalism everywhere when organizing an event for her group. “The level of hospitality—from our host hotel and every vendor we partnered with—was superb,” she said.

Her group stayed in Bonita Springs and used the 26-acre Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa, which recently finished a large-scale renovation of its indoor meeting space. “It offered the best venue for a business meeting in a luxury setting,” Vail said of the resort. “We really enjoyed our meeting, and in terms of meeting logistics, it’s one of the best events I have ever worked on thanks to the excellent staff.”

Continuing south to Naples, the Hyatt House/Naples-Fifth Avenue opened on the Gordon River in March. A half-mile away, the Inn on Fifth has upgraded its boardroom, redesigned its rooftop pool deck and enhanced the spa. Not to be outdone, the landmark Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club has added glass balconies to its rooms in its Tower Building. At the Ritz-Carlton/Naples, the new, on-site Grow House supplies the resort with fresh produce items.

About 20 miles south of Naples, on Marco Island, the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa is undergoing a $300 million renovation and expansion in preparation of becoming the first JW Marriott Beach Resort in the continental United States on January 1. It will boast 810 guest rooms and some 100,000 square feet of event space.

The Florida Keys: prime Island Time

For gatherings with a truly tropical island feel, it’s hard to beat the Florida Keys. Groups heading to the keys have more resort choices than ever thanks to eight new or improved resorts. Among those catering to meetings are the Playa Largo Resort & Spa on Key Largo, a member of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, scheduled to open in July with 144 guest rooms and suites, 10 bungalows and more than 40,000 square feet of meeting space; the 141-room Hilton Garden Inn, scheduled to open May 1 in Key West with event space for up to 250; the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club on Marathon, with an on-site Hyatt Place hotel and gathering space for up to 75; and the Pelican Cove Resort & Marina on Islamorada, which benefited from a multimillion-dollar renovation last year.

Greater Miami & the Beaches: Finding Your Happy Place

It may take effort to wade through all of the options in greater Miami, but the metro area is nothing if not accommodating to every age group, which is what appeals to Suzanne Arteaga, manager of meetings and marketing for the National Fisheries Institute. “We always have a great turnout in Miami,” she said. Her group is scheduled to return in 2018.

Arteaga recommended the InterContinental/Miami, located at the crossroads of downtown Miami’s Business and Arts and Entertainment districts. She praised it as “a perfect location for off-site dining—as well as fine dining at the hotel; close enough to the beach; within walking distance to the AmericanAirlines Arena; and a short Uber ride to different neighborhoods.” Attendees also enjoyed excursions to the Everglades and Little Havana, and the group participated in a community service project for the Overtown Youth Center.

Jack & Jill of America is another group that has plans to return in 2019 following a successful recent gathering. “Miami is awesome,” said Gail Ash Dotson, its southeastern regional director. “The Hilton was very accommodating and helpful throughout the entire process. Our planner was wonderful.” The organization used the Hilton/Miami Downtown and the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay as a secondary venue.

Other downtown hotels include the new 126-room Langford Hotel, located within the 1925 Miami National Bank building and offering meeting space for up to 110; and the year-old YVE Hotel Miami, which now offers more than 3,000 square feet of meeting space.

Major off-site venues include the James L. Knight Center, the Miami Convention Center and the Miami Conference Center. Other notable options include the Ice Palace Film Studios and the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Near Miami International Airport is the Pullman/Miami Airport (formerly the Sofitel/Miami). Just a few miles west of the airport, in Doral, the Trump National Doral Miami recently completed a $250 million transformation that has introduced new restaurants and enhanced its four championship golf courses and meeting space.

In Miami Beach, a $515 million expansion is underway at the Miami Beach Convention Center that will add 150,000 square feet to the 1.4 million-square-foot facility. Completion is expected in 2018 but the facility will remain open and is scheduled to host such events as the South Florida Boat Show, the World Vapor Expo and the Americas Food & Beverage Show.

The new Faena Hotel Miami Beach (formerly the Saxony Hotel) debuted in late 2015, marking the first opening of the city’s Faena District, a developing art- and culture-focused neighborhood between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Creek. The property offers a theater and another five event spaces. Planners may also be interested in the drum-shaped Faena Forum, a 42,500-square-foot building set to open this fall. The Nobu Hotel at Eden Roc/Miami Beach, a hotel within a hotel, is also set to open this fall with 350 guest rooms. The year-old Miami Beach Edition Hotel features meeting space for up to 928, a bowling alley, an ice-skating rink and a night club.

South of the convention center, in South Beach, the Thompson/Miami Beach will be rebranded in May as a new Hyatt Unbound Collection property called the Confidante. Debuting last fall was The Hall, a Joie de Vivre property with event space that includes Campton Yard, an outdoor space that opened earlier this year. And in Bal Harbour, the St. Regis Bal Harbor recently expanded its meeting space and can now accommodate up to 500 people.

Greater Fort Lauderdale: Waterfront Sophistication

The American Society of Association Executives and the National Urban League are among the hundreds of groups that gravitate to Fort Lauderdale, an hour north of Miami. The alluring Las Olas Boulevard isn’t far from the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center or the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, two of the city’s major venues. Among the newer attractions is FATVillage, a downtown creative and artistic hub. Planners can host an event in a contemporary space called The Projects, a 10,000-square-foot warehouse setting.

On the hotel scene, the B Ocean Resort (once the Yankee Clipper and then a Sheraton) is finishing a redesign. Features include a new spa, refreshed guest rooms and twice as much meeting space: some 14,000 square feet.

The Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort is scheduled to open this summer with event space for up to 500, and in December, the local Comfort Suites Airport & Cruise Port Hotel will become a Four Points by Sheraton. The Pelican Grand Beach Resort has introduced two new ballrooms with oceanfront terraces, as well as a new oceanfront spa and penthouse suite. The Ritz-Carlton/Fort Lauderdale is also newly enhanced. And looking ahead, a dual-hotel featuring a 209-room Starwood Tribute Portfolio and a 114-room Element by Westin Hotel is expected to open in spring 2017 with a rooftop bar and pool and 12,000 square feet of meeting space. To the south, in Hollywood, the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort opened last fall.

Palm Beach County: Ready to Impress

Just up the coast, in West Palm Beach, the big news for groups is the recent opening of the Hilton/West Palm Beach. Adjacent to the 300,000-square-foot Palm Beach County Convention Center, the hotel is the only one in South Florida to be directly connected via an enclosed walkway to a convention center. The property has some 24,000 square feet of its own meeting space, which includes two green outdoor spaces.

The new hotel and the convention center anchor the city’s cultural triangle, which includes the nearby Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the Norton Museum of Art, Clematis Street and the year-old Arts & Entertainment District— all of which are within walking distance and available for special events.

The county remains famous for posh places like The Breakers Resort in Palm Beach and the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Boca Raton (a favorite with the Florida Bar Association, the American Association for Justice and the Florida College of Emergency Physicians), though they are far from the only choices. Consider the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan or the newly enhanced Delray Sands Resort in Highland Beach.

Never a Dull Moment

Delegates can always find something new and exciting to remember about meetings held in central and south Florida. As Arteaga said about her group’s experience in Miami, “Just within two years there were so many more options!” Rest assured, these parts of the state have hundreds of pleasing surprises in store.