by Barbara Beckley | May 01, 2017

Sunny weather and good airlift. That’s what associations are looking for in a meeting destination, said Tanya Baker of HelmsBriscoe, who selects meeting sites for 34 associations. To keep all of her association clients pleased, Baker regularly sends them to the Sunshine State.

“Central and South Florida are the only places I know that guarantee good weather—even in winter,” Baker said. Rebecca Kane, meeting manager for the U.S. Grains Council can second that. “Just about all of our attendees at our February meeting in Sarasota came from snowy areas,” Kane said. “Just being able to be outside was a ‘wow’ moment.”

The weather encourages everyone to discover all the region has to offer. “The abundance of quality properties, world-class dining, shopping and spectacular beaches in South and Central Florida always boost attendance,” said Richard Miseyko, president of Site Search, Inc.

Greater Tampa Bay: Time Tested

Surrounded by the glistening waters of the Tampa Bay, Tampa continues to be a favorite group destination. The Florida State Thespians have met in Tampa for the past 27 years, and the Florida Music Education Association has held events in town for more than 60 years. A top reason these and other groups return year after year is the proximity of the 600,000-square-foot, waterfront Tampa Convention Center to major cultural venues like the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the Tampa Theater.

Just southwest of downtown, in the trendy Hyde Park neighborhood, the Epicurean Theatre’s kitchen features tiered seating for up to 38 people. The theater is just one of several spaces within the Epicurean Hotel, which can host outdoor receptions and banquets.

West of the city, in Clearwater, the Wyndham Grand/Clearwater Beach opened early this year with 343 guest rooms and function space for up to 1,180 people. Amenities include a spa, a heated outdoor pool and a sundeck.

Bradenton, Sarasota & Punta Gorda: Gathering on the Gulf

At the southern end of Tampa Bay, in Bradenton, the Bradenton Area Convention Center features space for up to 4,000 people. And a 250-room Sheraton Hotel is expected to open near the center in 2019. To the southwest, on Longboat Key, the 187-room Zota Beach Resort is scheduled to open this summer with 2,700 square feet of meeting space.

The combination of culture, white-sand beaches and new hotels appeals to many groups, which is why attendees continue to rave about Sarasota. The U.S. Grains Council, the Florida Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the National Association of Fire Investigators are among the most recent organizations to have visited the city.

The U.S. Grains Council meeting at the Hyatt Regency/Sarasota proved so popular that Kane had to seek an overflow property. “We booked the Aloft/Sarasota before they even opened their doors,” said Kane. The Aloft opened in February 2016, and other meeting hotels are on the way: the 255-room Westin/Sarasota, on track to open June 30 with function space for up to 670 people; the 188-room Embassy Suites/Sarasota, to open this fall with meeting space for up to 250; the 163-room Hotel Sarasota, a Curio by Hilton property expected to open this year; and the 81-room Sarasota Modern, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel scheduled to open in March 2018.

Fifty miles south, Punta Gorda and the nine communities that make up the newly named Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach region are fast becoming the destination for many associations. Anchored by the 43,500-square-foot Charlotte Harbor Event & Conference Center, the area is one of Florida’s premier ecotourism destinations.

Punta Gorda proved to be an ideal choice for the District 22 U.S. Power Squadrons’ fall 2016 conference, according to the group’s Myles Gee. “Punta Gorda is central to the power squadrons within our district, the Charlotte Harbor Event Center fits our needs, and it’s a great area to bring out boats,” he said. The organization rebooked the center for its spring and fall conferences this year.

Gee’s group used three hotels: the Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel & Suites, the Four Points by Sheraton and the Wyvern Hotel, which is currently renovating its restaurant and lobby.

From Fort Myers to Marco Island: Beauty & Bounty

The southwest coast of Florida has impressed attendees of the American Holistic Nurses Association, the Aerospace Industries Association, the Florida Propane Gas Association, the Power-Motion Technologies Representatives Association and many other groups.

“The Fort Myers area had everything we wanted in a destination—it was beautiful and fairly priced. The sunny, warm weather and the surrounding natural environment made the perfect backdrop for our conference,” said Nicole Malcom, director of operations for the American Holistic Nurses Association.

In Fort Myers, the Fort Myers Harborside Hotel, the first property with connection to the 42,000-square-foot Harborside Event Center, is sure to spark even more interest in the area. The 225-room hotel is set to open in fall 2018 with 22,000 square feet of function space, a rooftop bar and a culinary theater. Thirteen miles southwest, in Cape Coral, the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village is scheduled to add 30,000 square feet of meeting space in early 2018.

Farther south, in Bonita Springs, the Association of Workers’ Compensation Professionals has been holding its leadership program at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa for years. “We have been so happy with the service and attention we receive from the entire staff taking into consideration our needs,” said Stacy Hosman, the group’s planner. Hosman also applauded the resort’s new lazy river and waterslides. “It’s wonderful to be able to offer our attendees the perfect blend of business and pleasure.”

The Florida Society of Association Executives also praised the resort. “We were delighted to return to the property for our annual conference and would be happy to bring another event there anytime,” said Kathy Bradley Sheldrake, its education and events manager.

Malcom’s group was also impressed. “The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point was immaculate and the setting couldn’t have been more perfect to host our nurses,” she said.

“Naples, quite simply, boosts attendance,” said Miseyko of Site Search, which is based in St. Petersburg, Florida. The city “provides a unique concentration of high-end properties, world-class dining, shopping and spectacular beaches. And the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB staff is incredibly attentive.”

HelmsBriscoe’s Baker booked 20 rooms at the Ritz-Carlton/Naples for a gathering of the Insulation Contractors Association. “Everyone raved about the hotel’s fine service,” she recalled.

In August 2016, Miseyko organized the XSITE trade show at the Naples Grande Beach Resort, which recently completed a $2 million renovation project. The event had the highest attendee-satisfaction rating of all previous shows and was held entirely on-site, he said. “The resort delivered above and beyond our highest expectations.”

There are also outstanding off-site properties in the area. Miseyko recommends NGALA, a private African-themed wildlife preserve east of Naples that offers event space for up to 1,000 people. Also available is a chance to pet its newest arrival—Walter, a rare and endangered white rhino.

For groups seeking a value-priced hotel and large function space, the New Hope Event Center is a great option, said JoNell Modys, public relations and communications manager of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Twenty miles south, Marco Island is home to the first JW Marriott Beach Resort in the continental United States. The property made its debut in January after a $320 million transformation. New features include added meeting space, two signature restaurants and a tiki bar, and an adults-only tower scheduled to open this fall with a rooftop pool and a 12,000-square-foot entertainment center. Upon completion of the new tower, the resort will offer 810 guest rooms and some 100,000 square feet of event space.

In January, the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa completed a $40 million transformation, which included new suites, a new restaurant, a redesigned lobby and enhanced meeting spaces. Also newly renovated is the Marco Beach Ocean Resort; updates were made to its suites and its Gulf Ballroom.

The Florida Keys: Radiant Southern Outposts

In downtown Key West, the Westin Resort & Marina has been reflagged the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina. The property now offers meeting space for up to 480 people.

Planners looking for a completely new property might check out the Playa Largo Resort & Spa, the first resort to be built on Key Largo in more than two decades. It opened last fall with 144 guest rooms, 10 bungalows and a private beach house, several restaurants and event space for up to 600 people.

New event space is also available at Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key. Its new Angler & Ale restaurant has two dining areas for 66 and 22 people, respectively.

Greater Miami & the Beaches: Still Sizzlin’

In Miami Beach, work continues on the $615 million renovation and expansion of the Miami Beach Convention Center, which will eventually boast 1.4 million square feet of space that includes more than 500,000 square feet of exhibit space. “Substantial completion” is set for December, according to the Miami Beach Visitor & Convention Authority.

In hotel news, the 63-year-old Fontainebleau emerged from its latest renovation in February. This included the creation of two new categories of one-bedroom suites in the historic Versailles Tower, where junior suites were also improved. Also updated were poolside cabanas. The Nobu Hotel Eden Roc opened last year with an exclusive pool, a spa and the world’s largest Nobu restaurant. Additionally, the beachfront farm-to-fork Malibu Farm restaurant is expected to open on-site this spring. The hotel has already hosted events for the Cuban American CPA Association, the National Bar Association and the Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Awards gala.

“The Nobu Eden Roc team did an incredible job,” wrote Jen Cortellini, Wine Enthusiast’s manager of special projects and events, of the January gala. “With an event as complex as this one is, a strict attention to detail from all persons involved was critical in ensuring everything ran smoothly. That an event to this magnitude was described as ‘flawless’ by our attendees is something we can all be proud of.”

For the sizzle of South Beach, the W/South Beach offers meeting space for up to 400 in the Great Room and outdoor space for up to 2,000. The Marriott Stanton South Beach is undergoing a $15 million renovation that is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year. Plans call for a spa and two new restaurants.

In downtown Miami, the James L. Knight Center is home to several venues including the Miami Convention Center, the Miami Conference Center and the Ashe Auditorium. The SLS/Brickell opened in November and the EAST, Miami opened in March as part of the mixed-use Brickell City Centre. And a 21c Museum Hotel is planned for downtown’s burgeoning Design District at Helm Miami, a mixed-use development; hotel plans include 135 guest rooms, a rooftop terrace and art-filled meeting spaces. In Coral Gables, the Hyatt Regency/Coral Gables sports newly revamped guest rooms, ballrooms, boardrooms and a restaurant.

And chic hotels with meeting space near Miami International Airport are drawing groups. The Aloft/Miami Airport made its debut in February with 125 guest rooms and 1,000 square feet of meeting space. The year-old Pullman/Miami Airport has 13 meeting rooms. And the Sheraton Miami Airport Hotel & Executive Meeting Center completed a $10 million transformation in March.

Greater Fort Lauderdale: The Star of the Sea

There’s a relaxed, beachy vibe to Fort Lauderdale, home to yacht slips and waterfront hotels, shops and restaurants. Event venues include the 600,000-square-foot Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

New hotels include the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort, with event space for up to 400 people. Under construction downtown is a dual-branded hotel—The Dalmar (a Tribute Hotel) and an Element by Westin—expected to open in mid-2018. The Four Seasons/Fort Lauderdale is also in the works with plans for 130 guest rooms. Among the newly renovated options are the Diplomat Beach Resort and the Pelican Grand Beach Resort.

Palm Beach County: Onward & Upward

Thrust into the world spotlight as home to the Mar-a-Lago Club, the presidential getaway in Palm Beach has turned more than a few heads. (It can be booked for events of up to 800). The county is also making headlines on the meetings scene. Since 2014, it has added 635 new hotel rooms and another 708 are scheduled for completion this year.

A popular pick in Palm Beach is the two-year-old Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa, a Kimpton Hotel that offers meeting space for up to 300. In West Palm Beach, the 350,000-square-foot Palm Beach County Convention Center welcomes groups, and next door, the year-old Hilton offers indoor meeting space for up to 1,200 and two outdoor event lawns.

About seven miles north, in Riviera Beach, the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Resort & Spa was recently renovated. And in Jupiter, the Roger Dean Stadium complex houses several event spaces. The Bluegill Trail debuted its new extension in November.

Delray Beach, south of Palm Beach, expects to welcome a 130-room Hilton Canopy hotel in 2018 and an Aloft Hotel in 2019. In nearby Boca Raton, planners may soon be able to arrange “citywide” conventions of up to 1,500 nightly bookings thanks to the new, 200-room Hyatt Place/Boca Raton, which opened in December, and a 158-room Mandarin Oriental, projected to open next year. Both are near the Boca Raton Resort & Club. The trio of properties and their combined function space will allow hoteliers “to attract the larger conventions we’ve had to turn down in the past,” said John Tolbert, president of the resort.

Not to mention a new transportation option is making the region even more visitor-friendly: An express intercity passenger rail service called Brightline is expected to begin this summer.

Solid Choices

Great weather. Abundant hotel and resort properties. World-class meeting facilities. Spectacular beaches. When you want well-attended, productive and pleasing meetings, you can’t go wrong with Central and South Florida.