Central South Florida

A Warm Welcome In The Sunshine State

“Easy” is the word most often used by meeting planners when describing their experiences in central and south Florida. With a wide range of destinations that are easy on the eyes—and the wallet­—at their fingertips, associations can look to attract the maximum number of attendees to their gatherings.

“There are so many properties, it’s easy to find one that fits any size group,” said Carol Cazessus, who specializes in association gatherings. And it’s easy to implement your programs; according to Ben Lewis, a technician at the Florida Rural Water Association, the convention and visitors bureaus and accommodating convention center staff members make it easy for groups to arrange special logistical needs and program requests.

Tampa, Clearwater &St. Petersburg: On the Move

In Tampa, visitors and residents alike cherish the near-constant sun, the variety of sports and, more recently, the historic preservation efforts happening downtown, creating a richer meeting experience in this high-rise waterside city. Several landmark properties are being turned into boutique hotels: The Mercantile Bank building is being transformed into the new Aloft/Tampa Downtown and is scheduled to open in July with 130 guest rooms, a 685-square-foot boardroom and a 4,000-square-foot event terrace with views of the Hillsborough River and University of Tampa minarets; and the century-old Federal Courthouse will soon be Le Méridien/Tampa, expected to open in June, also with 130 guest rooms and 4,820 square feet of meeting space re-purposed from the original courtroom.

The Tampa Riverwalk, a 2.2-mile concourse that skirts the Hillsborough, connects several dedicated event venues including the 600,000-square-foot Tampa Convention Center and the adjacent Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, which has renovated its meeting space. The Healthcare Distribution Management Association is a frequent visitor, as is the National Association for Law Placement and the Biometric Consortium, which has held an annual conference and expo in Tampa since 2009.

The Riverwalk is also home to several independent meeting venues. The Tampa Bay Times Forum hosts more than 150 events annually—it can accommodate as many as 20,000—and the nearby Columbia Café, an offshoot of the famous and historic Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, is just the place to relax over sangria. Other attractions include the Tampa Bay Historic Center, which welcomes groups of up to 500, and the Florida Aquarium, which has event space for up to 1,500 guests.

The Moorish architecture of Tampa’s first hotel—now the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa—makes for an impressive venue and can accommodate upward of 2,000 people. A few miles south, on the edge of the historic Hyde Park neighborhood, foodies might enjoy a stay at the new Epicurean Hotel, which opened in December 2013.

When time is of the essence, the 35-acre Grand Hyatt/Tampa Bay overlooks the bay. Busch Gardens, northeast of town, welcomes groups of up to 4,000 for events. Farther north, the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel is a top choice for large and small groups looking for a retreat-like setting.

If your delegates appreciate culture, St. Petersburg, about 20 miles from Tampa, is a pleasing choice. The city’s Salvador Dalí Museum—showcasing the largest number of the painter’s works outside of his native Spain—the Museum of Fine Arts and the Morean Arts Center (with a 10,000-square-foot installation by artist Dale Chihuly) are just a few of the many cultural institutions that welcome group events.

Peter Green, vice-president of ConferenceDirect, has organized events downtown for the American Association of Community Colleges. “We met in St. Petersburg in 2010 and the delegates had such a positive experience, we returned in 2014,” Green said. “It was an ideal fit for the 400 attendees. We used the Hilton/Bayfront as the headquarters hotel, with overflow at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club and Courtyard/St. Petersburg Downtown, where delegates enjoyed easy access to all the restaurants.” Green also utilized the Dalí Museum for cocktails and the minor league ballpark Bright House Field in Clearwater. Other organizations that have recently chosen the area for their events include the Society for Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology and the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association.

The Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau has created several unique programs to entertain groups and expose them to various parts of the community. A dine-around with play money issued by the CVB encourages attendees to eat at participating restaurants in the downtown and waterfront communities, or the CVB can help planners set up a catered event with entertainment on Shell Island, an undeveloped barrier island famous for its beautiful shells.

An increasing number of associations, including the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, are meeting east of Tampa in Polk County, whose venues include the 100,000-square-foot Lakeland Center. Also in Polk County is the new Streamsong Resort, which offers two golf courses and meeting space for more than 600. The Fantasy of Flight aviation museum offers 54,000 square feet of event space. And the newly renovated Westgate River Ranch Resort recently hosted the Florida Airboat Association, Florida’s Prader-Willi Association and the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.

Bradenton, Sarasota & Punta Gorda: Centers of Attention

At the south end of Tampa Bay, centrally located Bradenton and its newly expanded meetings infrastructure make it a popular go-to destination, especially for state and regional organizations, including the Coastal Conservation Association. The 60,000-square-foot Bradenton Area Convention Center can host theater-style conferences of up to 4,000. And the Hampton Inn & Suites/Bradenton Downtown Historic District—a landmark property once fondly known as “The Pink Palace”—has undergone a $21 million renovation. Next door, the South Florida Museum has event space for up to 225 people.

Other options for events include the Manatee Performing Arts Center, with two theaters and additional classroom spaces, and Pirate City, the spring-training home of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, which welcomes association retreats with various event spaces, a 300-seat dining hall, on-site catering and 86 dorm-style accommodations. The waterfront Tarpon Pointe Grill & Tiki Bar now offers a 92-foot yacht for parties or sunset cruises. And on Longboat Key, the Hilton Longboat Key Beachfront Resort has closed to undergo a major face-lift. It is scheduled to reopen in the fall of 2015 with a new guest room tower and more meeting space.

Shopping, sightseeing and elegant events are at their finest in Sarasota, to the south. Must-see attractions well suited for private events include the Powel Crosley Estate, a Mediterranean Revival–style mansion overlooking Sarasota Bay with 11,000 square feet of event space, and the 60-acre Ringling Estate, now administered by Florida State University, which is home to two notable museums, the circus magnate’s former mansion, extensive gardens and several indoor and outdoor sites that can be used for events as large as 400 people.

Exploratory sailing tours with a sea life expert from the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium make for fun and informative day trips, or the aquarium itself can be used for functions of up to 500. The 1,736-seat theater at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is available for special events and is convenient to the Hyatt Regency, which offers 20,000 square feet of function space. Other meeting hotels include the Sandcastle Resort at Lido Beach (formerly the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel).

Punta Gorda, to the south, sparkles with outstanding waterfront venues, which include the 44,000-square-foot Charlotte Harbor Event & Conference Center. “We really like Punta Gorda, and the convention center has a great view of the Peace River,” said Lewis of the Florida Rural Water Association. “The staff bends over backwards to help, and its IT people are excellent.” Additional groups that have met in the area include the Eastern Outdoor Reps Association and the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation.

About 10 miles away, in Port Charlotte, groups can catch a game at Charlotte Sports Park, the spring-training home of the Tampa Bay Rays, which has a 5,400-seat stadium and a 19,000-square-foot waterfront boardwalk.

From Fort Myers to Marco Island: Southern Highlights

The tropical scenery that inspired Thomas Edison and Henry Ford can now set the scene for associations meeting in Fort Myers. Downtown, the leading attraction is the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, a 20-acre site filled with gardens, a museum and historic buildings that can host elegant events of up to 300. Adjacent, on the Caloosahatchee River, is the new Marina at Edison Ford, which has event space.

JetBlue Park, the 10,823-seat spring-training home of the Boston Red Sox, is another option for outings or events, and the Harborside Event Center has 42,000 square feet of meeting space on the river. Larger groups enjoy the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa.

In nearby Cape Coral, the Westin Cape Coral Resort at Marina Village is actively courting association groups of up to 500 with new amenities. These include four new breakout rooms, expanded broadband capabilities and new partnerships to provide customized tours and team-building events. Earlier this year, the American Association of Airport Executives held a leadership event in conjunction with the Aircraft Rescue Firefighters Working Group (ARFFWG) at the Westin and, according to Barbara Hass, ARFFWG executive administrator, attendees enjoyed the perks.

Farther south, in Estero, off-site events can be held at Germain Arena, which can be configured to seat up to 8,200, and in Bonita Springs, the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa offers indoor and outdoor event space as well as championship golf at the Raptor Bay Golf Club.

The upscale offerings of Naples make it a favorite destination of the American Bar Association, according to Debi DeBenedetto, sales manager at the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. Last year the organization held a forum at the Waldorf Astoria and, on the last day, attendees participated in a sandcastle contest designed to boost camaraderie and creativity. Another group that met in Naples in 2013 was the Florida Health Care Social Workers Association.

The bulk of groups that meet in the area do so at the numerous resorts and hotels with meeting space. In addition to the Waldorf, meeting properties include the Ritz-Carlton, which benefited from a major refurbishment project last year; the Inn on Fifth, located downtown; and the 125-acre Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, a landmark since 1946 that recently completed a $45 million transformation. On Marco Island, to the south, the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa welcomes associations. From both Naples and Marco Island, it’s a short trip east to the Everglades, a timeless wonder. Several area operators offer daily trips.

The Florida Keys: Call of the Conch

Meeting at the southernmost point of the United States adds an exotic aura to any gathering: It’s like being far, far away—but not really. Ernest Hemingway’s legacy is everlasting in Key West, where shops, pubs and sailing excursions exude an “Old Florida” vibe. Hemingway’s former house, Casa Antigua, is available for events of up to 200. Other popular meeting choices include the historic Waldorf Astoria’s Casa Marina Resort with its own private beach. For smaller gatherings, the Hyatt Key West Resort & Spa is perfectly positioned on Mallory Square, site of the nightly Sunset Ceremony festival, and offers 2,000 square feet of meeting space.

Island retreat–like settings include the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo. Under construction is the Playa Largo Resort & Spa, which is expected to open in 2015 with a 6,000-foot ballroom. The Hawks Cay Island Resort on Duck Key has six restaurants, including a “hook and cook” option for fishing enthusiasts, and a dolphin encounter program.

Greater Miami & the Beaches: New Opportunities

The sophisticated art scene and hot beaches of Miami attract delegates by the tens of thousands to this metropolitan area each year, making it one of Florida’s top convention cities. The Florida Division of the International Association for Identification, the American Association of Airport Executives and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons are just three of dozens of recent groups that have visited.

Miami is one of the few cities in the nation that has three dedicated convention centers. Planners can choose from the downtown Miami Convention & Conference Center, part of the James L. Knight International Center and attached Hyatt Regency/Miami, which cumulatively offer more than 100,000 square feet of event space as well as a 5,000-seat auditorium; the redesigned, 172,000-square-foot Miami Airport Convention Center, adjacent to Miami International Airport; and the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beach, with more than 1 million square feet of versatile space.

This plethora of convention space is complemented by hundreds of internationally known meeting hotels and constant new choices. Downtown, the Mandarin Oriental has event spaces for up to 880 overlooking Biscayne Bay, and in Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau is well regarded for its event space and world-class night club, BleauLive. Just south, the Courtyard Cadillac Miami Beach Oceanfront offers several new features as a result of a recent renovation.

On the southernmost part of Miami Beach, in what’s known as South Beach, several revamped hotels are located within walking distance of the Miami Beach Convention Center. The Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach has returned to its original Art Deco glamour following a $150 million renovation. Its amenities include redesigned function space, a night club and a spa. Nearby, the Raleigh Hotel has spiffed up its 6,000-square-foot penthouse, advertising it to planners as a unique event venue for up to 150 guests. And the SLS/South Beach has renovated its poolside function space, which is suitable for meetings of up to 100 or parties of up to 150 guests.

About two miles south of downtown, the waterfront Vizcaya Museum & Gardens in Coconut Grove can host events of up to 100 indoors or up to 300 on its terrace. Another five miles west, the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables features 75,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor meeting space, including a dedicated conference center.

Northwest of Miami International Airport, in Doral, the Trump National Doral Miami is undergoing a $250 million renovation project that includes the new Gary Player Villa and a transformation of its meeting spaces.

Greater Fort Lauderdale: Pleased to be of Service

When the Florida Association for Career & Technical Education needed a south Florida venue for a 3,200-attendee educational training conference, the 600,000-square-foot Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center was the perfect choice, said Cazessus, who organized the sessions. The group’s needs were specific, and the convention center and Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB staff were easy to work with, she said. “We needed power at every seat for every session, so the staff ran power strips throughout and brought in extra bandwidth so everyone could be online at once,” she explained. And to accommodate the association’s no-hosted-meals policy, the center arranged self-pay, fresh food stations and kiosks for breakfast and lunch. Cazessus also appreciated the CVB’s proactive help with room-block leads; its one-stop Lauderdale Convention Collection, available online, includes six area hotels and its more than 2,700 guest rooms.

Other groups that have recently held events in Fort Lauderdale include the Emergency Nurses Association and the International Association of Venue Managers. And getting to the area—and garnering record attendance—is even easier thanks to a new runway and new and enhanced terminals at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which sees more than 600 daily flights.

Sailing is a prime pastime in this water-centric city, and up to 400 attendees can board a chartered yacht dockside from many of the conference hotels for parties on the Intracoastal Waterway. Other unique options for events include the 18,000-square-foot Antique Car Museum and the New River Inn, which can accommodate up to 200 people and is part of the historical campus in Riverwalk Park maintained by the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society.

Eco-minded associations will appreciate the new wind turbines installed atop the roof of the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort to help reduce electricity costs. Also notable is the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa, which is renovating its meeting facilities. Just 10 miles southwest of downtown, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino offers meeting and exhibit space, 7,000 square feet of poolside event space and a 5,500-seat arena.

One of south Florida’s largest meeting properties is the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, located in the southern suburb of Hollywood. Features include a 209,000-square-foot convention center, an 18-hole championship golf course and two outdoor pools. And next year, the Margarita Hollywood Beach Resort is expected to open with 349 guest rooms, a spa, a restaurant and meeting space. Up the coast a few miles, in Pompano Beach, the new Fort Lauderdale Marriott Pompano Beach Resort & Spa is ideal for smaller groups, with 4,000 square feet of meeting space, a concierge level and a rooftop oceanfront terrace.

Palm Beach County: Stylish Settings

In West Palm Beach, construction has begun on a 403-room Hilton adjacent to the 300,000-square-foot Palm Beach County Convention Center. The project “represents a quantum leap” for the city, said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of Discover Palm Beach County. This allows West Palm Beach to host regional conventions that need large room blocks and significant meeting space, he said.

The property is also ideally located directly across from the Arts & Entertainment District and is within walking distance of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and CityPlace, both of which can host special events, and just a short drive from Waterfront Commons and Palm Beach International Airport. Another local site for functions is the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, which has gathering space for up to 175 people.

Additional new hotels, attractions and the 2015 debut of All Aboard Florida—a $1.5 billion train system linking Orlando and Miami, with planned stops in downtown West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale—are also putting Palm Beach County high on planners’ lists.

In Palm Beach, the Flagler Museum, which includes the grounds and opulent mansion of Henry Flagler, welcomes special events and is just a short, pleasant walk from the landmark Breakers Resort, which offers indoor-outdoor event space, a newly designed lobby bar and two championship golf courses.

If golf is a definite part of the agenda, planners can also look to the newly renovated PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, home to the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic. In addition to its 90 holes of championship golf on five courses, the property features refurnished guest rooms. A few miles north, the Wyndham Grand Jupiter Beach at Harbourside Place is expected to bring a new level of luxury to Jupiter when it opens later this year.

South of Palm Beach, the new Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa (formerly the Ritz-Carlton/Palm Beach) in Manalapan has a 9,680-square-foot ballroom and a 3,000-square-foot oceanfront terrace with fire pits. Twelve miles south, Delray Beach is the new go-to place for café society and nightlife. The Delray Beach Marriott is in the heart of all the high-end excitement with 1,600-square-foot guest villas, each with a boardroom.

A bit farther down the coast, Boca Raton is home to the new mid-priced Waterstone Resort & Marina Boca Raton, a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel set on the Intracoastal Waterway. It is scheduled to open in June with 139 guest rooms and 8,000 square feet of meeting space.

The Space Coast: The Sky’s the Limit

If you want your attendees to be over the moon with enthusiasm, Florida’s “Space Coast”—named for its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center—is an easy choice. The newest and most impressive venue is the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Merritt Island. The Atlantis is displayed as if flying, elevated and at a 43-degree angle, and sit-down dinners of up to 300 and receptions for up to 1,200 can be staged right underneath its wings. Two other space center areas are available for events: a conference center for up to 700 people overlooking vintage rockets and the 100,000-square-foot Apollo/Saturn V Center, which features the largest rocket ever built. For added excitement, astronauts can be invited to speak.

The surrounding area is inviting, with recreational options that include birding or air boating, and it’s just this atmosphere that has attracted the Florida Outdoor Writers Association several years in a row. Surfing is the best along Cocoa Beach, which also offers two excellent oceanfront meeting properties: the Hilton/Cocoa Beach Oceanfront and the DoubleTree by Hilton/Cocoa Beach. Five miles north is the Radisson Resort at the Port in Port Canaveral.

The Complete Package

The vacation vibe, laid-back beachfront venues and activities that draw attendees outdoors are a few perks that come with meetings held in central and south Florida. Groups can invite along family members or spouses to savor the sun as well and turn any event into an all-inclusive family affair that members will want to repeat year after year.