The guide perched atop the speeding airboat spots a gator off the starboard bow. He swerves violently, skimming sideways over the swaying grass until the hull stops near the animal’s menacing eyes peeking above the surface. The gator doesn’t look too scared. Everyone in the group is holding on to something solid. Eventually the reptile tires of the meet ’n greet and slips silently into the murky depths of the Florida Everglades.
“I’ve done that airboat thing probably 200 times and I still think it’s a blast,” says Stuart Gardner, president of USA Hosts Florida DMC. “But groups today want enhanced excursions and they specifically want to know more about the culture; that’s why they’re coming here.”
Instead of the standard airboat ride, Gardner’s tour includes a member of the native Miccosukee tribe talking to the group before the outing. Likewise in Miami, attendees mingle with cigar rollers and musicians on his Cuban Heritage Tour in Little Havana. In Little Haiti, the Haitian Heritage Tour revolves around sampling Creole cuisine.
Attendees spend a lot of time on Florida’s coastal shores in flip flops and shorts. But that’s only half the story in the cosmopolitan cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville where barefoot bliss is infused with cultural tenor.
Miami on the Move
In the early 90s, a funky Absolut Vodka magazine ad shot in Miami sparked a flashpoint of global glamour. Seemingly overnight, the Art Deco District in South Beach grabbed the fashion world by the cojones, and two decades later Miami is recognized as an international arbiter of design and style. The large diversity of local Latin and European bobos (bourgeois bohemians) mixing with so many foreign visitors in a young, evolving city has unleashed an attitude of unlimited creative spirit. The annual Art Basel event is the top showcase for contemporary art in the hemisphere. Gay bowling league night? Check. Cocktails at Casa Casuarina, Versace’s old mansion? You bet. Bizet or Verdi on the beach? No sweat.
“The buzz of Miami is our art and culture, which has really exploded on the world scene,” says Lyan Tassler, associate vp of convention services for Greater Miami CVB. “Art Basel is the superbowl of the art world.” The CVB has launched a new “Express Yourself” campaign showcasing local creative talent to help communicate the city’s singular appeal. “It provides the planner with another ambience that might not appeal to a golfer or fisherman. We have amazing golfing and fishing, but our culture is what separates Miami apart from the rest of the state.”
Gardner concurs, suggesting Miami’s cultural wellspring is behind the city’s success. “Miami’s sizzle comes from the area’s ethnicity and it’s just snowballed in popularity.” Before 9/11, he says Fortune 500 companies traveled to South America, the Med and Asia until the ensuing fear of traveling abroad clamped down the borders. Miami’s exotic appeal took up the slack and international hotel investment boomed.
The results are pretty. The new beach hotels are interspersed among the seductive 1920/30s Art Deco hotels like The Raleigh and Delano, and the 1950s glam spots like Fontainebleau and Eden Roc—think Elvis, the Rat Pack, Goldfinger, et al—which just wrapped up $1 billion and $200 million renovations respectively. The modern development began with the 790-room Loews Miami Beach in 1999 as a convention hotel across from the Miami Beach Convention Center. Since then, there have been more than 60 new or revamped hotels, many for the Hugo Boss and Prada crowds, from Conrad to Mandarin Oriental. The W South Beach and Hotel Cipriani are scheduled to open this year with big league meeting space, while a host of newer boutiques like Mondrian South Beach and The Setai cater to small, elegant corporate pow-wows. Mondrian, for example, offers two “meeting studios” with bayfront terraces totalling 5,600 sf.
“We now have such a wide array of luxury hotel product,” says Tassler. “You know, ten years ago we weren’t running with that pack of bulls.”
All this glamor, though, must cost mucho dinero?
“I’m not going to lie to you, darling,” answers Valerie Bihet, the bubbly French owner of The VIBE Agency. “Miami can be expensive but New York can be 20-30 percent more expensive. And for some of my clients, like L’Oreal, Cartier, Mont Blanc, Merck—they want only Miami.”
One of Bihet’s favorite group events was motoring 150 members of a financial group out to Stiltsville in the middle of Biscayne Bay. She brought generators, champagne, canapes and dancing girls out to the funky, historic collection of vacant homes. The afternoon soiree was so successful, all 150 showed up the next day for a house party initially reserved for only 30 on Star Island.
“There is a magical vibe about Miami you can give to your groups,” says Bihet. “And when everything comes together it’s wonderful, like a souffle!”
Bihet says planners can find a luxury hotel in season for $250-$300 nightly. The beauty of Miami Beach however is many of the hotels are within close proximity. If your group is booking a more moderate hotel, attendees can splurge for dinner at The Shore Club’s Nobu or mojitos at Gansevoort South’s rooftop lounge, plunge. And then there’s the shopping. On Lincoln Road, Miami Beach’s social epicenter, ladies and men can save thousands on pre-owned Louis Vuitton, Versace and Hermes at Consign of the Times. (The new stuff is a few miles north in blingy Bal Harbour.)
“Lincoln Road is really the entertainment focus of South Beach for corporate groups because it’s so much fun and easily accessible,” says Glen Parnell, regional director for HelmsBriscoe, who organizes large meetings at Loews Miami Beach Hotel. He brought 600 people in from Yum! Brands last January. “It’s a big part of the draw. You have all this authentic Spanish and European cuisine everywhere you walk. It’s one of the reasons people think of Miami as an international destination.”
Boho Boat People
Fort Lauderdale’s city poobahs have fallen over themselves for years touting the fact that the spring breakers are gone; i.e. Where the Boys Aren’t. That’s true, but what hasn’t changed is equally important—a Venetian-style relationship with water. The city is ribboned with myriad canals where homeowners moor 40-foot Bertrams like cars in a parking lot. The giant marina where pulp-fiction hero Travis McGee chased down naughty yachties is still there. And the beach is Florida’s best big city strand of sand. So Fort Lauderdale has very much retained its laid-back, Pina Colada Song, metropolis mojo.
“Our water culture is very attractive to planners because they can arrange everything from a yacht charter for 500 people to catamaran regattas by the port,” says Christine Tascione, director of sales for Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB. “All that water is very soothing and it affords groups a sense of casual elegance. You can walk into the Ritz-Carlton and enjoy the finest luxuries but you can do it in a t-shirt and shorts. We don’t have a lot of dress codes on the beach.”
But the spring breaker story. That’s what, like two decades old, already?
“Actually almost 25,” laughs Tascione. “But it’s very important to us and it still has legs because the evolution of the beach district isn’t finished yet.”
She mentions W Hotel Fort Lauderdale opening this spring, and Trump International Hotel later this summer. And with the hotels comes what she calls “a grown-up palate of fine-dining.” Las Olas Boulevard is perfect for dine-arounds with so many hip restaurants in one area along the winding canals. And getting around is a breeze. Florida’s coolest public transportation is a fleet of water taxis ferrying attendees from Las Olas to the area hotels and Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center. Need a water limo? Groups can rent dedicated ferry service for hotel/restaurant transfers.
“Water with dockage is much more accessible in Fort Lauderdale than our neighbors to the south, and the city is so compact so the water taxis are a super fun way to get around,” says Lynn Griffith, president of Welcome Florida DMC. “Another benefit is every client who calls these days wants to go green, so we do a lot of walking and bicycle tours along the canals and beach.”
Griffith’s most requested group activity is deep sea fishing, aboard large trawlers or the flashy sport fishing boats. The big Hemingway-esque charters run about $900 for 6 persons. “Cheaper than golf,” she says.
Speaking of golf, The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa is home to the highest rated golf course in south Florida. The 850-room resort is one of the most comprehensive convention hotels in the state with over 200,000 sf of space, complemented by the exclusive 60-room Diplomat Golf Resort across the intracoastal waterway. Meanwhile, the resident Grand Floridian yacht seats 400 banquet-style.
Keep an eye also on The Westin Beach Resort, Fort Lauderdale, scheduled to open this spring. Following a $70 million investment, the 433-room property will be one of only a few Lauderdale resorts with direct pedestrian access to the sand. Almost all of the rooms will have water views, and the 5,500-sf Sunrise Terrace is set to become an early reservation venue for private events by the beach. Total meeting space is 32,000 sf.
Additionally, groups at The Westin have full access and charging reciprocity at the 500-room, beachfront Sheraton Yankee Clipper Hotel, about 1.5 miles away to the south.
“The resort has a private beach so there’s no permitting hassles for planners who want to create a special event,” says Ty Brassie, director of sales/marketing. “With two properties, we can easily meet and feed groups over 500 people.”
The Spirited South
Henry Flagler left Standard Oil in 1885 and bet his millions on Jacksonville, opening Florida to tourism via his grand railway to Miami. Three centuries before that, the Spanish planted the first European flag on US soil in nearby St. Augustine. Just offshore on Amelia Island, plantation estates draped in Spanish moss evoke a genteel Southern era when gracious manners were paramount. Together, the three cities make up Florida’s most relaxed and comfortable beachfront cosmopolitan community.
“We’re very much a part of the South, it’s a yes ma’am/no sir kind of deal around here,” says Kevin Shea, the rather folksy director of sales for Visit Jacksonville CVB. “We’re a large metropolitan area but with a very close-knit feel.” Part of the reason he says is Jacksonville has the largest urban park system in the country, located where St. John’s River meets the Atlantic. So you’re always surrounded by nature.
“We’re just happy people,” adds Anne Urban, president of Destination Planning DMC. “The number one comment I get from planners is that we’re the friendliest city they’ve ever visited. We’re Southern hospitality with a Florida flair.”
Urban says her most requested group excursion is the Lady in Distress Tour to St. Augustine. Leaving the metro area, the bus picks up a disoriented women in period costume who says she lost her way to a Flagler gala opening. On the ride down, she regales her fellow passengers with stories about the area. Then a tour of America’s oldest city follows before attendees are left to amble about the leafy streets. “It’s successful because it’s fun, participatory and incorporates so much local info,” says Urban.
Tying in with the Flagler theme, the 138-room Casa Monica Hotel originally opened in 1888. Today, the Moorish arches, parapets and other Medieval motifs ensconce a modern 4-diamond boutique hotel with 4-poster beds, a sensuous Alladin-themed decor, and 12,000 sf of meeting space. The 95 Cordova Restaurant and Cobalt Lounge are NE Florida’s hippest buyout.
Groups to Jacksonville come in two types: those who venture to St. Augustine, the beaches and Amelia, and those who stay close to downtown’s waterfront attractions. Let’s face it. Nothing takes the edge off a sales meeting like some Tarantula Tequila Margaritas at Miss Ellie’s Bordello upstairs at Mavericks Rock ’n Honky Tonk at The Jacksonville Landing.
Jackie Opel, a planner with VMS Meetings, organized a 1,400-person group at the 966-room Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront downtown. “It’s one of those cities that’s up and coming so they really go out of their way to make you feel welcome,” she says. The client picked Jacksonville because “it offers all the amenities of a big city but it’s small compared to somewhere like Chicago. It makes everything so easy.” The downtown location was chosen because the schedule of sales meetings was intense, and The Landing was within walking distance for a dine-around.
Meanwhile, only a half hour away, Amelia Island epitomizes Florida’s bucolic past.
“A lot of planner’s are surprised when they come to Amelia Island because they have these iconic images of Florida as just golf and beaches,” says John Aguilera, president of Active Escape DMC. “I mean, Fernandina Beach is this small Victorian seaport town with antique shops and shrimp boats bobbing in the water.” One of his favorite venues for themed events is Ribault Club, built in 1928.
“They do a Roaring 20’s Speakeasy night with a line of antique cars out front,” he says. “We’ll be driving through this thick wilderness and the group thinks we’re lost, and then we pull up to this big opulent plantation and their faces just light up.” So out past the mangrove lagoons and palm forests, group members are mingling with boozy molls in flapper dresses and gangsters wearing fedoras with flowers in their lapels, while tropical seabreezes float in off the Bahamas?
“Isn’t it great?” says Aguilera, like a man who knows what it means to be home. “Just another Florida night….”