Central and North Florida

Always Exceeding Expectations

When attendees hear the words “meeting in Florida,” world-class beaches, theme parks, resorts and convention facilities come to mind. And while these attributes make Central and North Florida popular meeting destinations, the region also offers many unexpected attractions.

Cowboy cattle drives, a flourishing micro-brew scene and antebellum plantations are just some of the lesser-known sides of Florida that can be incorporated into an agenda that will surprise and please attendees.

Orlando: Never the Same Twice

The meeting planner’s checklist of Orlando doesn’t usually include food. But perhaps it should. Following last year’s first “Zagat Survey: Orlando City Guide,” Visit Orlando proclaimed the city an “emerging dining destination.” Top chefs including Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck have restaurants in Orlando, and fresh, locally sourced ingredients are the norm. Properties like Grande Lakes Orlando, home to the recently renovated Ritz-Carlton and the JW Marriott, are making an effort to up the ante when it comes to group dining options, this one with its own produce farm and organic gardens.

Craft beverages are also on the rise. Orlando Brewing is Florida’s only U.S.D.A.-certified organic brewery; liquors from the artisan Winter Park Distilling Company are poured at many local restaurants and bars; and speakeasies like The Pharmacy along Orlando’s “restaurant row” serve house-made bitters and other concoctions.

Frank Rudd, president and CEO of the Florida Society of Association Executives, said that “all the wonderful places to eat” impressed members at the group’s recent gathering. But that’s not the only reason to visit the city on a regular basis. “If you don’t go to Orlando every few years, you’re missing a whole lot,” he said. “The city is constantly updating and building new attractions and venues. We can’t wait to go back.”

The five-year expansion at the 2 million-square-foot Orange County Convention Center is continuing on track. Already in the Westwood Lobby are the Vision Gardens—tall PVC pipes sprouting edible herbs, veggies and greens that will be used in its restaurants. The west halls E and F are being transformed into a 50,000-square-foot ballroom and four signature boardrooms, a project that is expected to finish by August 2015. And a pedestrian bridge connecting the convention center and newly refurbished Hyatt Regency/Orlando is expected to be ready in late 2016.

I-Drive 360, the $200 million development that is turning a portion of International Drive into an entertainment center, is slated to open this spring. Plans include the Orlando Eye (a 400-foot observation wheel similar to the London Eye), with event space for up to 80, as well as a Madame Tussauds wax museum and Sea Life Aquarium.

Orlando’s resort scene is buzzing with action. The new Four Seasons Resort/Orlando at Walt Disney World opened in August. Near Downtown Disney, the new B Resort & Spa (formerly the Royal Plaza Hotel) recently opened and the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort is adding new meeting space as part of a $25 million renovation. And the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin recently announced a $125 million redesign of its guest rooms.

At the Universal Orlando Resort, the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is scheduled to open in the summer of 2016 with 1,000 rooms and 131,000 square feet of event space. It will be connected to the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which plans to expand its current function space to 141,330 square feet by next fall.

The newly revamped Wyndham Orlando Resort International Drive, situated along the new I-Drive 360, has expanded its convention space to 60,000 square feet. The Hilton/Orlando recently opened The Promenade, a 50,000-square-foot outdoor space with four multi-use areas and lawns that can be used for gatherings of up to 3,000. And the redesigned Orlando World Center Marriott recently finished an expansion.

Orlando’s array of attractions and off-site venues continues to grow as well. Downtown, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open this month as one of the new sites for Broadway plays and concerts and as the new home of the Orlando Ballet. It welcomes events with a plaza for up to 3,000 and 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

Of course, theme parks remain a top draw. At the Walt Disney World Resort, events can be held at its Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot. The Universal Orlando Resort offers customizable event space within its Universal Studios/Florida and Islands of Adventure theme parks. SeaWorld/Orlando welcomes up to 4,000 for events.

Winter Park, seven miles north of Orlando, is home to the year-old Alfond Inn near Rollins College, which offers 10,000 square feet of meeting space and is within walking distance of Park Avenue and its charming restaurants and shops. About 35 miles northwest of Orlando, lakes and rolling hills offer a pastoral setting at the revitalized Mission Inn Resort & Club, set on 1,100 acres in Howey-in-the-Hills. Groups can take advantage of its 36 holes of championship golf, tennis, biking trails, and more than 30,000 square feet of event space.

Greater Kissimmee: Hospitality Plus

Resorts in Kissimmee, south of Orlando, are keeping things new for meeting planners. The Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate has added a 55,000-square-foot conference center, and the Radisson Resort/Orlando–Celebration recently completed a year-long enhancement. The Park Inn by Radisson Resort & Conference Center Orlando (formerly the Worldgate Resort) is rejuvenating its meeting space. And as one of Central Florida’s largest meeting resorts, the Gaylord Palms Resort & Conference Center remains a group favorite.

At Kissimmee Gateway Airport, hangars and the Kissimmee Air Museum offer event spaces ranging from 12,000 to 30,000 square feet. For a more conventional setting, the Osceola Performing Arts Center features a 2,000-seat theater and a 23,600-square-foot exhibit hall.

With hospitality options and its convenient central location, Kissimmee attracts groups from around the region and nation including, recently, the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, the Retail Solutions Providers Association and the Association of School Business Officials International.

A cattle drive requires the efforts of everyone for success, which makes it an exciting team-building adventure. About 80 miles south of Kissimmee, in River Ranch, the Westgate River Ranch organizes guided drives with experienced Florida cowboys. The full-service dude ranch also offers 4,500 square feet of outdoor event space and 10 meeting rooms, overnight accommodations and activities such as hayrides and a rodeo. Other outdoor options include Forever Florida Ziplines & Adventures in the Wild, located in St. Cloud, where groups can enjoy a pedal ride through the trees, or Orlando Balloon Rides in Kissimmee, for a sail in the world’s largest hot air balloon, capable of holding up to 24 guests.

The Nature Coast: Manatees and Mermaids

Snorkeling with manatees is a memory that will live forever with delegates, and groups have the option to do so at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge when they meet in Crystal River, located northwest of Orlando along an unspoiled stretch of Gulf Coast nicknamed the Nature Coast.

Nature-loving associations can enjoy birding, snorkeling, diving, fishing, scalloping, kayaking and cycling in an unspoiled environment. The Plantation on Crystal River can organize and charter all of these and more, and groups can meet in its 13,000 square feet of indoor event space.

Just down the coast, in Homosassa, the Homosassa Riverside Resort features a restaurant that serves local crab and offers 36-passenger pontoon tours. Another 30 miles south, in Spring Hill, groups of several hundred can gather at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, where girls in beautiful mermaid costumes have been wowing the crowds with underwater shows since 1947. And in New Port Richey, the restyled Magnuson Hotel & Marina (formerly a Ramada) has meeting space for up to 200 people.

Gainesville to Pensacola: Winning Beaches

In northwest Florida, antebellum mansions mix with collegiate fun and beaches that are so beautiful they win awards. As home to the University of Florida, Gainesville is a lively meeting destination, especially if delegates happen to be Gator alumni. Groups can stay and meet on campus at the Hilton or try the Reitz Union Hotel atop the student union. Off campus is the Paramount Plaza Hotel & Conference Center and the Best Western Plus Gateway Grand. Other choices for events include the University Air Center, which welcomes groups of up to 400; the historic Thomas Center, a Mediterranean Revival-style building for up to 120; and the 268-seat Hippodrome Theatre.

The Southern vibe often surprises and delights first-time visitors to Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital. Numerous plantations now welcome special events including the Goodwood Museum & Gardens, which has hosted high-society gatherings since the 1850s and today welcomes groups on its extensive grounds or within its Carriage House, which can seat up to 200. Other historic choices are the 52-acre Tallahassee Museum near Lake Bradford, with various indoor and outdoor spaces including an 8,000-square-foot event lawn and an amphitheater with a covered stage, and the Florida Historic Capitol Museum, where groups of up to 100 can hold events beneath the stained-glass dome of what was the former Capitol Building.

Florida State University is home to the city’s largest meeting spaces. The Civic Center, which it now runs, recently benefited from a $16 million makeover; it currently offers 51,000 square feet of renovated meeting and exhibition space and an arena that can seat approximately 12,000. Other FSU sites open to association groups include the 82,300-seat Doak S. Campbell Stadium; the University Center Club, with 64,000 square feet of space and beautiful outdoor decks overlooking downtown; and the Florida State Conference Center, with 47,000 square feet of conference space and a 400-seat auditorium.

Tallahassee’s largest meeting hotels are the historic Hotel Duval, with renovated function space, and the Four Points by Sheraton/Tallahassee Downtown. Or head 45 miles east of town to Greenville, where your group can really spread out at the 4,800-acre Honey Lake Plantation Resort & Spa. The hotel offers a team-building program that incorporates hunting, fishing, skeet shooting and other activities on the plantation.

For many attendees, a visit to Florida wouldn’t be complete without a sandy beach, and the Gulf Coast area of South Walton is most definitely a choice that will win over sun-seekers—its 26 miles of white sand waterfront, turquoise waters and beautiful resorts draw all kinds of groups each year including regional associations such as the Mississippi Society of Certified Public Accountants, the Louisiana State Bar Association and Alabama Association of Housing & Redevelopment.

At the year-old Pearl Hotel, meeting space awaits groups on Rosemary Beach, as does a Cuban-style restaurant with a hand-carved mahogany bar and various recreational options. In Sandestin, the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort recently introduced a welcome center with touch stations so that attendees can book tee times, restaurant reservations, beach chairs and more. And the nearby Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa offers planners a new private dining room and renovated meeting space and recently announced it will add 7,500 square feet of additional meeting space and renovate its Serenity by the Sea Spa.

For off-site events, the 35,000-square-foot Emerald Coast Convention Center in Fort Walton Beach is popular; it’s just a short stroll from glittering quartz-sand beaches, and in June it unveiled the new, 30,000-square-foot Bayview Plaza for outdoor events.

Farther west, in Pensacola, major meeting properties include the Hilton/Pensacola Beach Gulf Front and the adjacent Holiday Inn Resort. Planners can also organize events in the renowned National Naval Aviation Museum, which has 10,000 square feet of event space, or the 100,000-square-foot National Flight Academy next door, which resembles an aircraft carrier and includes overnight accommodations. Downtown, the Pensacola Bay Center offers 33,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space and a 10,000-seat arena.

Jacksonville & Environs: Toasting to Success

Jacksonville is leading the way in Florida’s artisan ale industry with enough award-winning breweries to merit the recent creation of the “Jax Ale Trail,” a self-guided tour to sample the suds at places like Engine 15 Brewing, Intuition Ale Works, Aardwolf Brewing, Pinglehead Brewing, the Veterans United Craft Brewery and others.

Jacksonville’s micro-brewery scene has caught the eye of that industry, and next October the city is scheduled to host the annual conference of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas at the Hyatt Regency/Jacksonville Riverfront—the city’s largest meeting property. “Jacksonville is a perfect fit to host a brewing meeting of this scale,” said Tressa Patrias, the group’s senior meeting manager.

Jacksonville’s largest venue is the 275,000-square-foot Prime F. Osborn Convention Center, re-purposed from the 1919 Union Station. Other choices include the 76,000-seat EverBank Field stadium complex, with an additional 120,000 square feet of event space; the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, with 22,000 square feet of meeting space, two theaters and a symphony hall; and the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, which can seat up to 15,000 and has 27,000 square feet of event space. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens offers event spaces, and the Schultz Center for Teaching & Leadership has 50,000 square feet of convention space.

For seaside retreats, Atlantic Beach is just a 30-minute drive from downtown. Choices include the One Ocean Resort & Spa and the Dolphin Plaza at Hanna Park, with space for up to 125 people.

Farther north, on Amelia Island, are the Ritz-Carlton and the recently expanded Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, which features a new 16,825-square-foot ballroom.

If golf is your association’s game, the 63-acre Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra Beach, 25 miles southeast of Jacksonville, is your best choice. Located adjacent to the famed TPC Sawgrass Course and World Golf Hall of Fame, golfers are cheering a new golf-cart path that directly connects the resort to the TPC. The path was part of last year’s resort makeover, which included the redo of its meeting space. For beachfront gatherings, the elegant Ponte Vedra Inn & Club has two links-style golf courses.

St. Augustine: A Florida First

Historic wonders top the reasons to visit St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, celebrating its 450th anniversary in September 2015. Meetings here can take a step back in time, too. Historic settings include the Colonial Quarter, where groups of up to 200 are welcomed for functions and can watch blacksmiths and sip ale at a 17th-century pub, and the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park—you never know, the legends might be true—which can accommodate up to 1,000 people. Costumed characters depicting Ponce de León or pirates or 17th-century British settlers can be hired to mingle with guests at either site, enlivening special events.

Fast-forwarding to the 19th century is the beautifully updated Casa Monica Hotel, built downtown in 1888, convenient to major city sites and offering 12,000 square feet of meeting space. Another treasure is the Lightner Museum, which features a collection of 19th-century objects and art and can host gatherings of up to 400. On the nearby Flagler College campus, the historic Hotel Ponce de León (now called Ponce de León Hall) has only recently begun hosting private events; its 8,990-square-foot ballroom features Tiffany stained-glass windows and is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture.

Contemporary settings include the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, 15 miles north of downtown, with 101,000 square feet of function space, and the Hammock Beach Resort, about 20 miles south of St. Augustine in Palm Coast, with more than 80,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor meeting space and an event yacht.

Daytona Beach: The Fast Track to Success

With 23 miles of sunny beaches, the Daytona International Speedway and top convention facilities, Daytona Beach is a perennial crowd-pleaser. The speedway makes a fabulous gathering and activity site for visiting groups; attendees can race around the track with a professional driver and enjoy events in a number of dedicated function spaces. And a dedicated option for meetings, exhibits and trade shows is the Ocean Center, the city’s convention complex, which features 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 Hilton Daytona Beach Resort/Ocean Walk Village, just across the street. Additional meeting hotels include the recently redone El Caribe Resort & Convention Center, with 12,000 square feet of meeting space. Picturesque off-site venues range from the historic, oceanfront Daytona Beach Bandshell & Oceanfront Park, which can accommodate up to 5,000 people, to the Sunset Harbor Yacht Club & Conference Center on the Intracoastal Waterway, able to host up to 100 people.

Surprises in Store

Proven leaders when it comes to meetings and conventions, Central and Northern Florida are more than able to guarantee gatherings that are both effective and enjoyable. But when planners add an element of surprise—and destinations in these areas of the state are full of hidden gems—attendees will be all the more energized, inspired and eager to return again and again.