by Chris Duthie | May 01, 2017

Tampa, Fla.
Florida's third-largest metropolis has evolved into a laid-back but increasingly popular beach destination jammed with effervescent experiences and some 21,400 hotel guest rooms.

Access is better than ever following a just-completed, $1 billion expansion of Tampa International Airport. Nearby attractions include the Tampa Riverwalk, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Busch Gardens amusement park. The popular WestShore District is pulsating with restaurants, taverns and shops. Also near to the airport is the 600,000-square-foot Tampa Convention Center on the waterfront, with 200,000 square feet of exhibition space and a 36,000-square-foot ballroom.

On the hotel scene, a new 175-room AC Hotel by Marriott Tampa/Airport will open in December. Undergoing revamps are the 160-room Residence Inn Tampa WestShore Airport, the 243-room Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa Airport/WestShore and the 719-room Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. In nearby Clearwater Beach, the 230-room Opal Sands Resort has debuted with a 7,650-square-foot ballroom and 17,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space.

In their free time, attendees can wander the brick-lined walkways of the historic, Cuban-influenced Ybor City, celebrated for hand-rolled cigars, shopping, coffee shops and cafés, including Florida's original family-owned Columbia Restaurant, which opened in 1905. For other scrumptious fare, search out Bern's Steak House, Restaurant BT, Kojak's House of Ribs and the Byblos Café.

Special meeting venue: District 3 is a historic warehouse transformed into 22,000 square feet of airy, high-tech event space with flexible staging and capacity for 2,800 guests.

Virginia Beach, Va.

A rising star among savvy planners, Virginia Beach has a pretty Chesapeake Bay setting and a location easily reached by car, plane or train by two-thirds of the nation's population. But there's a lot more to "ViBe," as the city is nicknamed. For one thing, the storied beachfront, with its 59-block, immaculately landscaped boardwalk, is upping its snazz quotient. Anchoring the effort is the Virginia Beach Convention Center, a LEED Gold facility with 150,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space, 26 breakout areas, 31,000 square feet of ballroom space, and a tower with an observation deck and a 1,077-square-foot VIP room, all within three miles of more than half of the area's 12,000 guest rooms.

Among posh hotel options, the 85-room Cavalier Virginia Beach has reopened after a $70 million makeover added a spa, fine-dining, an indoor saltwater pool and a bourbon distillery to complement a 2,490-square-foot ballroom and three meeting rooms. This spring the 19-story, 156-room Hyatt House Virginia Beach/Oceanfront will debut with a fitness center, an indoor pool and 1,943 square feet for meetings.

Taking wing: Virginia Beach's
Military Aviation Museum

While jet-skiing, kayaking, surfing, sport-fishing, scuba-diving, parasailing and dolphin-spying have unmistakable appeal, the city ups the ante with attractions like the 9,250-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the 1,300-seat Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Adventure Park's myriad obstacle courses and zip-lining, and the restored aircraft at the Military Aviation Museum.

Add some great dining to the mix, including fresh seafood at Citrus, Mahi Mah's and Big Sam's Inlet Café & Raw Bar, and the new Commune, a farmer-owned eatery that crafts its menu with an on-site herb and vegetable garden, henhouse-fresh eggs and homemade baked goods.

Special meeting venue: For extra-special gatherings, reserve the transcending and breath-stealing Sky Bar on the 21st floor of the 289-room Hilton Virginia Beach Waterfront.