Chef James Petrakis operates The Ravenous Pig a critically acclaimed gastropub in Winter Park, Orlando. The James Beard semi-finalist grew up in Central Florida and he’s seen firsthand the evolution of the state’s culinary scene. Petrakis was featured on Emeril’s Florida on the Cooking Channel. VISIT FLORIDA was a co-sponsor of the televised traveling feast, part of an amped up effort at wining, dining and mining the influx of amateur food critics fueling a $71.8 billion hospitality industry.
Petrakis is also seeing an influx of meeting and conference planners in his upscale Winter Park neighborhood, just a couple miles north of downtown Orlando, who are seeking more local cultural experiences.
“Groups are more educated, and the food movement has really pushed meeting planners to seek different experiences to interest their clients,” he says. “For Florida, gaining celebrity chefs shows that we are experiencing a culinary renaissance. It gives us more attention and credibility as a serious dining destination.”
Petrakis urges meeting planners to look beyond the major tourist hubs to offer food-savvy travelers a unique, destination-specific takeaway.
“Outside of the hotels, resorts and theme parks, there are neighborhoods that have great restaurants with talented chefs highlighting our local farms and seafood,” he says. “People have a great interest in knowing where their food comes from. They also are looking for innovation and twists on a classic.” Seating capacity is 132.
Representing some 1,100 local businesses, Visit Orlando maintains a searchable database of the area’s restaurants within its extensive online meeting planner’s toolkit. It’s organized not only by dining category, but also by banquet, reception and seating capacity.
Also, Tantalizing Tastes & Tours offers two dine-around itineraries, as well as an “around-the-world” pub crawl featuring samplings of ales, lagers and classic tavern food at five popular beer spots. Private drivers shuttle groups up to eight between the host venues. Or, those interested in walking off the local libations can join guided walks around the area.
French chef Daniel Boulud took advantage of a loyal Florida following when he set out to parlay the three Michelin stars of his Manhattan restaurant into a global empire. Enjoying resounding success, Boulud operates his charming Café Boulud inside The Brazilian Court hotel.
“When Daniel came to town, there was an existing clientele, mainly northerners with winter homes here, who already knew him well,” says Andrew Burns, general manager. With only 88 rooms and rental condos, the property and celebrated chef cater to a notoriously demanding clientele.
Things haven’t changed much in this enclave of exclusivity since the society matrons of the Jazz Age referred their guest overflow to the chic hotel. A tough negotiator, Rose Kennedy invented the group rate concept here.
“It’s not just the storied background or the intimate size, but the specificity of the setting that makes dining here as special as staying here,” says Burns.
Declining to reveal a shortlist of elite corporate and social groups devoted to the property, Burns explains the takeaway.
“You can put together a more generic gathering that really doesn’t relate to the locale, but the great thing about Florida is that it’s always going to be fresh and local,” he says. “All of that is close to Daniel’s heart, and it’s why we’re such a good fit for a very particular guest profile.”
Total seating capacity is 150.
Exhibiting a spectacular investment in the growing foodie market, the 137-room Epicurean Hotel in Tampa is scheduled to open this fall. The hotel includes the Bern Laxer School of Food & Wine with a permanent demonstration kitchen and 32-seat culinary theater fully equipped to produce professional sales and digital training videos.
There’s also a French bakery, international wine shop and tasting room onsite. With an outcome groups can literally chew on, an Iron Chef-style competition presents the ultimate teambuilding opportunity.
“It used to be that the big reward for a meeting in Florida was bringing the family along for the vacation afterwards,” says Brandon Marshall, director of sales/marketing. “Now we’re combining interactivity, education and entertainment in a whole new way, so that business and leisure travel don’t have to be two separate things. Meeting planners have to get smart about these kinds of opportunities.”
Marshall says that social media is helping fuel the Florida feeding frenzy, demanding that every moment become something larger to share with friends.
“The socially active crowd is our target market,” he says. “That means making an emotional connection that’s highly personalized but also universal, and most of all memorable. Isn’t that what we love about good food?”
Hip New York restaurateur Scott Conant has also made a distinct mark on South Florida. Cohost of Chopped, he installed an outpost of his Italian gourmet eatery Scarpetta inside the landmark 1,504-room Fontainebleau Miami Beach.
“In and of itself, Miami has such a sense of place,” Conant says of the strategic alignment of his brand with the vibrant local scene. “The food combined with the ambiance and the cosmopolitan culture make Miami feel like an international destination without having to leave the U.S., and I think the event planning industry can use this to its advantage.”
As for how to sell the Facebook generation on America’s traditional vacation spot, Conant suggests its exotic, post-modern cache has already gone viral. “Miami has such a sense of place,” he says. “The food scene has been growing leaps and bounds over the past five years in unparalleled ways.”
Catering to groups with 3, 4 and 5-course prix fixe menus served family style, Conant is known for his unfussy presentation of the classics and a perfect bowl of spaghetti. Ocean and poolside seating, a wraparound veranda and cocktail lounge accommodate up to 225 for sit-down affairs.