Whatever views inspire meeting attendees-whether they involve golf greens, white-sand beaches or sweeping cityscapes-planners can capitalize on the surroundings through the variety of facilities offered in Central and South Florida.
Steve Koski of the Florida Anthropological Society described his group's opening-night reception in Punta Gorda-an event held on the rooftop of the Wyvern Hotel, with views of the Peace River-as "spectacular." It's a sentiment heard often.
Greater Tampa Bay: Building Upon Success
Waterfront sites and scenery are the big enticement in Tampa, a city dominating the northern end of its eponymous bay. Groups who have recently chosen to meet at venues and hotels on this corner of the Gulf Coast include the Association of Marina Industries, the Association of American Geographers and the American Probation & Parole Association.
Most visiting delegates will at some point find themselves at downtown's expanding Tampa Riverwalk, a pedestrian and cycling pathway that runs along the Hillsborough River and is lined with restaurants, attractions and meeting venues. The 1.8-mile Kennedy Boulevard Plaza segment opened in March, so the Riverwalk now stretches north more than two miles from the Garrison Channel and nearby Amelie Arena (which hosts more than 150 events each year), past the 600,000-square-foot Tampa Convention Center and up to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, whose Great Lawn is used for events such as the Tampa Bay Margarita Festival. Next to the park is the Tampa Museum of Art, which has meeting rooms, an atrium and covered terrace space for events, and just across the river is the University of Tampa, whose Moorish-style Henry B. Plant Museum can accommodate groups of up to 2,000. Near the southern tip of the Riverwalk, the Florida Aquarium has space for up to 1,500 guests.
Two activity operators have facilities just outside the convention center, making the transition from work to play a snap. The Tampa Bay Water Bike Company and the city's new bike-share program are perfect ways to explore the Riverwalk and Tampa's more than 60 miles of bike paths and trails.
One of the newer properties to open along the Riverwalk is the Aloft/Tampa Downtown, which has a small boardroom. A few blocks away is Le Méridien/Tampa, which opened last year in a former Federal courthouse building. In trendy Hyde Park, the year-old Epicurean Hotel works in conjunction with the adjacent Bern's Steak House.
In Ybor City, Tampa's historic Latin quarter, the Cuban Club can serve as a site for gatherings of up to 4,000, while farther north, the Busch Gardens theme park offers an event pavilion. Northwest of the city center, at Tampa International Airport, a $1 billion expansion and renovation is underway. The improvements are expected to be completed by 2018.
Lakes populated by pink spoonbills and herons set a soothing scene at the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, about 25 miles north of Tampa. With 480 acres, Saddlebrook's amenities include 45 tennis courts, two Arnold Palmer-designed courses and a golf school.
To the west of Tampa, in Clearwater, venues include Bright House Field, a minor league ballpark with 7,000 seats. Farther south, St. Petersburg attracts groups with historic properties like the Vinoy Renaissance Resort and cultural highlights such as the Dali Museum, which features event space for up to 650. Also notable is the 10,000-square-foot Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center, which is available for group use. In St. Pete Beach, the pink Loews Don CeSar Hotel welcomes the crowds or, conversely, attendees can escape for the day to Shell Key, an uninhabited nearby barrier island.
Inland, in the city of Lakeland, the 100,000-square-foot Lakeland Center includes a 2,296-seat theater. The Fantasy of Flight aviation museum in Polk City, to the northeast, has 54,000 square feet of event space. Or an hour southeast of Lakeland, in River Ranch, the renovated, 1,700-acre Westgate River Ranch Resort has multiple meeting spaces, including a 1,200-seat arena.
Bradenton, Sarasota & Punta Gorda: Waterfront Welcomes
At the southern end of Tampa Bay, the Historic District of Bradenton as well as the South Florida Museum and 1.5-mile Riverwalk are within walking distance to each other and accessible to the restored Hampton Inn & Suites, which has 2,400 square feet of meeting space.
A more modern option is the Bradenton Area Convention Center, which overlooks the Manatee River in Palmetto. It offers space for up to 4,000 people or up to 180 exhibit booths, with an adjacent hotel in the works, according to the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. The center has recently hosted the Condo & HOA Expo and the annual banquet and auction of Coastal Conservation Association Florida.
To the southwest, in Longboat Key, the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort is closed to undergo a significant redevelopment and expansion. Plans include doubling the meeting space to 3,000 square feet.
In the 19th century, the natural beauty of Sarasota attracted the rich and famous, who built palatial estates along the shore. Today, visitors can reap the benefits of their grand lifestyle with events at many of these once-private hideaways. Two popular venues are the Powel Crosley Estate on Sarasota Bay, a Mediterranean Revival-style mansion whose gathering space includes 21 rooms, and the 60-acre John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which can accommodate garden parties of up to 2,330. Additional event options are the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, with space for up to 500, and the 1,736-seat Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Fifty miles south, in Punta Gorda, the 26,000-square-foot Charlotte Harbor Event & Conference Center is close to the Charlotte County Airport. Planners can also organize guided walks and pontoon trips through the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park with the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center.
When the Florida Anthropological Society met in Punta Gorda in 2014, the area offered everything the group needed, said organizer Steve Koski. "All the venues were pretty spectacular." The group held events at the convention center, the Wyvern Hotel and the nearby Laishley Crab House, which can host up to 150. Attendees stayed at the Punta Gorda Waterfront Hotel & Suites, the Wyvern and the Four Points Sheraton.
Fishermen's Village offers options for small to mid-sized groups: a stage and courtyard space for up to 250 and five restaurants. And in development is Florida Tracks & Trails, a 1,000-acre park, which is expected to open in stages and be fully operational by this winter. It also plans to offer a 40,000-square-foot indoor venue and a 30-acre outdoor event lawn. Ten miles north, in Port Charlotte, sports fans can applaud conference events at the Charlotte Sports Park.
From Fort Myers to Marco Island: Grand Gulf Estates & Relaxing Retreats
With historic estates, a growing annual film festival, an increasing number of shops and restaurants, a big-time ballpark and boat tours of the Caloosahatchee River, there's something of interest for every attendee in Fort Myers.
Groups of up to 300 can host their events at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, the side-by-side former winter retreat homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Just steps away from the property is the Marina at Edison Ford, with function space for up to 150.
Also on the river is the 42,000-square-foot Harborside Event Center. Or head inland to the 10,823-seat JetBlue Park. The Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa boasts scenic views of Sanibel Island. Larger groups may want to consider the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa, which is about 20 miles farther south in Bonita Springs.
In Naples, LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort offers newly redesigned meeting space, pool cabanas, the David Leadbetter Golf Academy and a new tiki bar. Attendees who prefer a more cosmopolitan lifestyle will enjoy the newly expanded Inn on Fifth, located in the heart of the posh Fifth Avenue shopping and dining area. Larger meeting hotels include the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club and the Ritz-Carlton/Naples, with a 3,000-square-foot Beach House.
Views of the gulf and endless mangrove islands welcome attendees to Marco Island and the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, which will close May 3 for an expansion project scheduled to be completed by August 1. This is part of a larger transformation, and in January 2017 it will debut as the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort. Plans include 100,000 square feet of new event space.
The Florida Keys: Resort Ready
Ocean vistas simply don't get any better than those in the Florida Keys. Whether attendees arrive via the long, curving Seven Mile Bridge, take the ferry from Fort Myers Key or fly into Key West International, the seascapes make for a unique and unforgettable entry to this southern corner of the state.
Set to open in December on Key Largo is the Playa Largo Resort & Spa. Plans include 144 guest rooms and suites, more than 45,000 square feet of meeting space, a private beach house, a white-sand beach and a formal lawn.
Farther down the Keys, on Islamorada, is the Amara Cay Resort whose meeting spaces include the Glass Bowl Room for up to 60. The Pelican Cove Resort & Marina completed a property-wide renovation in January that included two new event spaces: a 7,000-square-foot event lawn and a 12-seat boardroom.
Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key is scheduled to wrap up a year-long renovation in June with the opening of Marina Walk, a promenade with shops, art galleries and a new restaurant.
On Marathon, the Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club opened in January. It features a 125-room Hyatt Place, a 74-slip marina and a private dining room for up to 14 people in its yacht club restaurant.
And at the end of U.S. Route 1 is Key West, with numerous venues welcoming groups to the "Conch Republic." New properties include the 96-room Marker Waterfront Hotel and the 100-room Gates Hotel. And the Saint Hotel Key West has undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation. Its event space includes a 75-person balcony.
Greater Miami & the Beaches: Still Turning Heads
In March, Miami Beach celebrated its centennial birthday with, appropriately, a 100-hour party. But even without the festivities, good times and sunny weather keep attendees pouring into town to enjoy the South Florida scene.
The hub for many major events, including the annual Art Basel show, is the Miami Beach Convention Center, which features more than 1 million square feet of space. Following this year's Art Basel in December, the center is expected to commence a $500 million renovation and expansion project. Also recently in the news are new hotels with event space: the Thompson/Miami Beach, which opened in November with two restaurants; the 1 Hotel South Beach, with 426 guest rooms and space for up to 1,000; the Art Deco-style Hall Hotel, a Joie de Vivre property expected to open this summer; and the historic Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach, which reopened last fall after a $90 million transformation. Also worth noting is the Fontainebleau/Miami Beach, which recently finished the redesign of four specialty guest suites within its Chateau tower.
For off-site events, Jungle Island has a ballroom with skyline views, a private beach and a 1,200-seat amphitheater. And next to the convention center, the Fillmore Miami Beach at Jackie Gleason Theater seats up to 2,462.
In downtown Miami, the Miami Convention Center is part of the James L. Knight International Center, whose spaces include the 4,569-seat James L. Knight Center, the 28,000-square-foot Riverfront Hall and 17 additional meeting rooms and lecture halls. Or close to Miami International Airport, groups can meet at the Miami Airport Convention Center, which is connected to a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.
Views of the Miami Beach skyline add to the ambiance of Key Biscayne, a chic barrier island southeast of downtown. Among its many resorts is the newly redesigned Ritz-Carlton/Key Biscayne-Miami, whose offerings include a new marketplace cafe and Rumbar, a 1940s Havana-style setting with live music. Twelve miles west, in Coral Gables, is the landmark Biltmore Hotel.
About 15 miles northeast of downtown, in Bal Harbour, the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort features both indoor and outdoor function spaces. Across the street is Bal Harbour Shops, the region's premier destination for designer labels.
Farther north, in Sunny Isle Beach, Acqualina Resort & Spa has meeting space for up to 175 and in adjacent Aventura, the Turnberry Isle Resort beckons with two championship golf courses.
Greater Fort Lauderdale: Full Speed Ahead
Yachting is one of the great pastimes of any visit to Fort Lauderdale, a destination that takes fun in the sun to new levels. Planners head to the area with the promise of luxury resorts and the expertise of the 600,000-square-foot Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center. Recent groups that have gathered there include the American Public Works Association of Florida, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Florida Dietetic Association, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers and the American Association of Cosmetology Schools.
Even groups that gather there annually will always find new opportunities. The Sonesta/Fort Lauderdale has penthouse-level function space with floor-to-ceiling windows that face the ocean, while the new B Ocean/Fort Lauderdale plans a six-month revitalization beginning mid-summer that is expected to include the addition of more meeting space and a beachfront terrace.
Old favorites aren't resting on their laurels, either. This month, the Pelican Grand Beach Resort is expected to debut its expansion and renovation project that has doubled its event space to nearly 8,000 square feet. New features include the 2,055-square-foot Ocean View Ballroom & Terrace and an eco-friendly spa. The Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa recently refreshed its event space. The Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort unveiled a new oceanfront event terrace, and the Hyatt Regency/Pier 66 has also been renovated.
Looking toward future events, the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Resort & Residences is scheduled to open this fall following the completion of a $34 million revamp. Plans include 290 guest rooms, 15,000 square feet of indoor event space and 20,000 square feet of outdoor space. And the Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences is expected to open in 2018 with 150 guest rooms, a ballroom and smaller meeting space.
Down the coast, in Hollywood, the $147 million Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort is projected to open this fall with 349 guest rooms and some 30,000 square feet of event space. And the Diplomat Resort & Spa has switched flags and is now part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, with a $100 million enhancement scheduled to begin later this year. "For so many, the Diplomat's unique, storied history is a reflection of its authenticity and romanticism," said Lee Pillsbury, co-chairman of Thayer Lodging Group, which purchased the Diplomat earlier this year. "This new phase, complemented by Curio and Hilton Worldwide and boosted with a major renovation, will significantly enrich an already dynamic destination."
To the west, in Weston, the North American Association of Commencement Officers chose the newly renovated, 23-acre Bonaventure Resort & Spa for its 15th annual conference.
Palm Beach County: Sunny Sophistication
Tropical chic is the natural theme for gatherings held in Palm Beach. One of the better places to put a lavish spin on events is the Breakers Resort, with ornate function space for groups of up to 1,000. Or off-site functions can be arranged at the sumptuous gardens of the Flagler Mansion, the former winter mansion of Henry Flagler. For something more playful, Kimpton's new Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa features 6,000 square feet of oceanfront event space.
Across the Intracoastal Waterway, in West Palm Beach, is the 300,000-square-foot Palm Beach County Convention Center. The 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach is set to open adjacent to the property in spring 2016. In nearby Palm Beach Gardens, the newly renovated PGA National Resort & Spa is a hit with active attendees.
Thirty miles south of West Palm Beach, Boca Raton offers a range of options, from the Waterstone Resort & Marina (a DoubleTree by Hilton) to the legendary Boca Raton Resort & Club (a Waldorf Astoria Resort). In nearby Highland Beach, the Delray Sands Resort has been transformed into a luxury property with a new oceanfront restaurant that includes two private dining rooms and meeting space for up to 100. Larger groups can easily be accommodated at the Delray Beach Marriott.
North up the coast from Palm Beach, in Jupiter, the new Wyndham Grand/Jupiter at Harbourside Place features a rooftop pool overlooking the water and direct access to the outdoor Mangrove Deck. And in Port St. Lucie, golfers can test their skills on the newly public, Tom Fazio-designed St. Lucie Trail Golf Club.
The Space Coast: Ready for Takeoff
The can-do attitude of rocket scientists will pump up gatherings along the Space Coast, home to the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island. Options for events include the 100,000-square-foot Apollo/Saturn V Center; a 5,765-square-foot conference center for up to 250; and two back-to-back IMAX theaters, each with seating for nearly 400 people.
New attractions include the Exploration Tower at Port Canaveral, which features a 72-seat auditorium suitable for training sessions and seminars and some 5,500 square feet of exhibit space, and the revamped Brevard Museum in Cocoa. Another unique free-time activity is the Space Coast Brews Cruise, a guided tour of three local microbreweries.
Ten miles east, in Cocoa Beach, numerous meeting hotels have been busy reinventing themselves. The Hilton/Cocoa Beach Oceanfront and the DoubleTree by Hilton/Cocoa Beach both recently completed renovations. The Hampton Inn is also newly updated. The area's largest meeting property, however, is the Radisson Resort at the Port in Cape Canaveral.
The Scenery Says it All
With the views in Central and South Florida guaranteed to be breathtaking, planners can breathe easier knowing delegates will enjoy themselves during their free time and come into the meeting rooms ready to work. And with so many venues designed with floor-to-ceiling windows, sights that are easy on the eyes are just a glance away.