What Would Walt Do?

Universal Orlando’s harborfront designed like Portofino Italy
The camera is rolling. You and your colleagues are sipping bellinis around Universal Orlando’s harborfront designed like Portofino, Italy. Your senior management are dressed in bedsheets and vine wreath headpieces like the Roman Senate. Your CEO is Emperor, or Empress, who proclaims a competition. The group is to be divided into teams to write, produce and star in a 2-minute video re-enacting a Gladiator scene inside Hard Rock Live’s Roman amphitheater. At the closing banquet, everyone will vote for their favorite.

There’s only one rule: Every video must incorporate one scene with actors in costume building a commercial swing set to be donated to a local day care facility.

“CUT!” yells the guy from marketing behind the camera. He’s confident this will easily be as good as last year when the group took over Islands of Adventure to dress up like superheroes at Marvel Comics.

Universal’s “In-Production” corporate teambuilding experience gives groups access to all the sound stages, backlots, technical expertise and film equipment already on hand at the park. Groups can film inside Universal’s two theme parks and three theme properties: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Hotel and Hard Rock Hotel.

“We have a rich history with movies that meeting groups can easily tap into,” says Paul Rothenberg, Universal’s vp of national group/specialty sales. “We’ve had every Fortune 500 company you can think of, and all the major associations. Groups know they can let their imagination go wild here.”

Marvel Super Hero Island has a loyal fan in Bill Wulff, CMP, president of Above the Rim Events based in New Jersey. “I’ve used it twice for two different product launches,” he says. “It was great. We took over the entire comic book city. Costumed characters like The Hulk and Spiderman worked the crowd, and that’s the beauty of it. We didn’t have to do much dressing up.”

Orlando was built on the idea that creativity is the cornerstone of unlimited human endeavor, conceived as an “environmental prototype for the city of tomorrow” (EPCOT). But do the attractions ever infringe on business at hand?

“By now most planners know the theme parks are not a distraction. They’re an enhancement, an incredible amenity,” says Tammi Runzler, vp of sales/services with Orlando CVB. “We have such a creative infrastructure in place, planners don’t feel like they’re starting from scratch. Especially in this era of cost saving, they’re not staring at a blank canvas. We’re ready to go with so many exciting venues, planners almost have to do nothing except ask their group to show up.”

Mike Day, senior vp of dmc Convention Planning Services, adds, “We use these venues to build attendance by suggesting attendees bring their spouse and kids. So many people are cutting back these days so this is a great way to combine business and a vacation. It helps someone on the fence who’s not sure if they want to attend…. Also, companies can get heavily discounted tickets through us for half days that marry up with the time outside the meetings.”

Okay Mike. Let’s say I’m a planner with 2,000 attendees. What can you do for me?

“We bring more groups to Universal than anyone else like us…. We had one corporate group of around 2,500 do a block party and close out almost every club at CityWalk. That whole area is on a second raised level that’s very easy to isolate with foliage walls, curtains, or what have you. It’s extremely popular with groups because everybody gets 5 or 6 different experiences, and because it’s exclusive that makes it more special, almost like an evening reward event.”

What if there are children?

“Sure. We organized a user tech conference for 1,200 delegates with families. They took over Marvel and had exclusive use of Spiderman, Hulk, Dr Doom, and we set up a sidewalk hub for food and beverage.

Are the parks good venues for dine-arounds?

“Well it depends. In the last 4 years, we’ve seen what we call “restaurant row” develop on Sand Lake Road. There’s a ton of new restaurants there: Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, Samba Room, Vines, Ocean Prime. They’re more upscale and more convenient for groups, especially when you include the Pointe Orlando complex near the Orange County Convention Center. You know, organizing that used to be a very labor intensive, taxing experience but we’ve built a software system where we can set up 1,500 reservations within 30 days. It’s making dine-arounds attractive again.”

Another attractive component to meeting in Orlando is the diverse wealth of onsite creative talent, according to Josh Gair, president of ImpactEntertainment.

“Orlando’s vast entertainment sources give planners a huge array of professional local talent, from top jazz bands to world-class magicians,” he says. “Because they’re local, it really helps planners get the best possible value.” Gair has booked national acts too such as Jay Leno, Sheryl Crow and most recently Chris Gardner, the homeless father turned star stockbroker who inspired The Pursuit of Happyness.

Tiffany Hughes is associate director of professional development at University of Central Florida. She hosted a group of MBA students and their professors from Madrid University visiting on an international residency program, who booked Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando downtown. Hughes provides executive development classes on leadership and negotiation for local and visiting groups.

Bohemian is considered Orlando’s most cultured property with over 250 works of art and the Bosendorfer Lounge, voted “best place to sip a martini” by Orlando Business Journal. The adjacent Klimnt Rotunda has one of only a handful of Imperial Grand Bosendorfer pianos in the world.

“They liked the location and it’s a cultured boutique hotel with an appreciation of art that Europeans are very familiar with,” says Hughes. “Their program was tied in with using Orlando as a hub for international business, although I think their favorite event was the Backstage Magic tour at Walt Disney World. “They were fascinated by all the details and action behind the scenes.”

The technology and logistical orchestration behind the theme park attractions is high drama and space age stuff. And there are those attendees and planners who love cutting-edge gizmos. You know who you are.

“Most business people enjoy discovering how something comes to life, and Backstage Magic showcases how what we do backstage creates what the customer experiences on the grounds,” says Anne Hamilton, Disney’s vp of resort sales/services. “It’s a phenomenal study on phenomenal service, and it shows Walt Disney’s planning and vision was decades ahead of its time.”

Typically the tour is seven hours but Hamilton says that’s usually for hardcore “Disneyphiles.” Corporate groups book the 3.5-hr Innovation in Action tour to see firsthand the byzantine labyrinth of “ulitidors” (underground corridors), giant audio-animatronic mechanical lifts, and elaborate wardrobe/costuming department.

Above ground, Disney’s latest hi-tech plaything is the new American Idol venue available for groups up to 1,032. The entire experience follows the original, starting with interested contestants auditioning before judges selected by the group. Then the five finalists go backstage to work with a voice coach and stylist before hitting the stage and lettin’ her rip. After each performance, audience members make their reviews via buttons built into the auditorium chairs.

“This is all about creative discovery and it’s one of the most immersive experiences in the park. It brings groups together so well because it’s so interactive and fun,” says Hamilton. “You really get to see some people’s hidden talents.”

“Disney did the greatest theme event for us,” adds Amy Ledoux, CMP, vp of meetings/expositions for the American Society of Association Executives. “Our meeting theme was ‘Fresh Ideas,’ with a vegetable patch graphic, so Disney created a French provincial marketplace in the heart of Hollywood Studios for our closing reception and dinner.”

The streets were filled with veggie stands and flower stalls, with ‘Great Idea’ slogans in place of price tags. Carts offered beverages while guests were entertained by jugglers and street performers. “The setting made our theme come to life. The attendees loved it. The folksy marketplace feel made it easy for attendees to socialize and network like friends and neighbors,” enthuses Ledoux.

Amy Tynan is national sales manager for PRA Destination Management Orlando, who works heavily with all the major parks. One of her fave venues is Discovery Cove at SeaWorld Orlando, a marine park with a wide variety of animal interaction programs.

“It’s very secluded and feels like you’re in Hawaii with all the exotic birds and lagoons and tropical foliage,” says Tyan. “We’ll do a buyout for 300 and have banana flambe on the beach with a steel drum band to create a fun island feel. It’s totally unexpected for a lot of groups.”

Tynan says the trend today is for theme parties to be more educational, interactive and open to networking opportunities, versus setting up elaborate décor. She’ll organize Wii games or dancing lessons, anything to get people mingling.

So what better venue can you ask for with a built-in educational infrastructure? SeaWorld is loaded with conservation staff and animal trainers who can create customized, educational group functions behind the scenes. And décor seems somewhat extraneous around dolphins, stingrays and rare tropical birds who eat out of your hand.

Check out a private buffet dinner with Shamu, while trainers discuss the big fella’s eating habits and answer questions from the group. “Shamu Rocks” is arguably Orlando’s signature group event with killer whales leaping out of the water to the sounds of Coldplay and JLo. And try to find one attendee who won’t be moved at Dolphin Nursery where moms nudge noses with their new calves.

Here’s something that’ll freak out your kids at breakfast: What do you get when you blend up frozen peanut butter, herring fish, Fruit Loops, Cheerios and marshmallows? That’s a Polar Popsicle, which polar bears at Wild Arctic think are the bomb. Groups can make those if they want, and feed the bears. Nice way to break the ice.

The 750-room Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is presently undergoing a $65 million renovation that will affect almost every facet of the operation upon completion this winter. Beyond the newness, the bennies are private balconies, grown-up sophistication, and leafy location sprawling across 1,500 acres of woodlands just minutes from all three parks.

“Our setting provides a group or special event with a greater sense of privacy and exclusivity,” says Paul Tang, gm/managing director. “Our guests don’t feel like they’re locked in a traditional box, and that contributes to easier networking.”

Green meetings are huge in Orlando, but Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel, Rosen Centre Hotel and Rosen Plaza Hotel are the first regional properties to achieve the highly sought Two Palm status in Florida’s official Green Lodging Program. The three hotels are among only 11 Two Palm hotels in Florida. Learn more about saving the planet, a lot more, at Rosen’s dedicated Green Meetings page at rosengreenmeetings.com.

It’s been a long time coming, but the 1,000-room Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek and 497-room Waldorf Astoria Orlando are scheduled to open this fall. Everything to make a planner’s day: A whopping 150,000 sf of flexible function space and an 18-hole Rees Jones golf course, secluded on almost 500 acres near the parks and airport. The 24,000-sf spa with 23 indoor treatment rooms and six outdoor rooms will be operated by Guerlain.

The soon-to-open, 155-room Venturella Resort & Spa offers a fun Standing Ovation teambuilding package. Events are themed after spy movies, TV gameshows, the Olympics and Italian mobsters. Total meeting space is 6,800 sf.

Back at Universal, Hard Rock Hotel’s Jenn Palacio is dir. of conference management. “It’s great to work in a place where people can express their individuality,” she says. “We have staff members who volunteer to do memorabilia tours just because they’re so passionate about music. I’ve seen it so many times. All that energy and creativity surrounding music breaks down barriers and brings people together.”

Once a month, the hotel throws a Velvet Sessions concert in the lobby for up to 1,000. The band might be 10,000 Maniacs or Bret Michaels. “Sometimes, a corporate group might arrive a little stiff and uppity,” says Palacio. “By the next morning they’re loosening their ties and really getting into it. You see people completely change in less than a day here.”