VISIT FLORIDA 2013 Part #2: The North

Kayaking in South Walton
Kayaking in South Walton

In our Jan/Feb 2013 issue, we spoke with 15 Florida DMOs about what’s new for meetings and incentives in the Sunshine State. The following covers North Florida. See the other sections: Part #1 The South; Part #3 Central Florida.

“Booking Florida is an attendance booster,” says Cheryl Hatcher, director of sales for VISIT FLORIDA. “Attendees ask to come here for our diverse collection of tried and true iconic experiences, whether it’s dolphin watching, outdoor sports like golf, or visiting theme parks.”

In other states, the destination marketing organizations are overseen by a governmental tourism office. Hatcher says the public-private structure of VISIT FLORIDA gives it leverage to market more effectively to groups, when coupled with the individual destination DMOs.
“Incentive travel is on the upswing, but planners are still looking for more ROI and ROE,” she says. “Florida’s accessibility and affordability fulfills that sweet spot for the corporate or incentive planner.”

Another major factor in attracting groups, Florida’s entire hospitality engine offers a unified delivery of one-of-a-kind experiences. Hatcher says, “That cohesive message and VISIT FLORIDA’s website at Florida Meetings gives us a high-level presence worldwide.”


In the 1998 movie “The Truman Show,” the world discovered the town of Seaside on Florida’s northern Gulf shores, filled with charming beach homes and white picket fences. Like Seaside, each of South Walton’s other 15 beach neighborhoods has a distinct personality, architecture, resorts and activities. There’s Dune Allen, one of the few places in the world to contain coastal dune lakes, which are popular for paddle boarding. In Rosemary, there are quiet walks along secret pathways winding between charming carriage houses.

For large groups, Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort and the Hilton Sandestin Beach, Golf Resort & Spa are preferred venues for groups requiring golf courses, spas and comprehensive conference facilities.

“Our 26 miles of sugar white sand, turquoise water and diverse neighborhoods provide planners the opportunity to customize their meetings based on their groups’ interests,” says Carley McMillian, sales coordinator for Visit South Walton. “Attendees feel like they’re visiting multiple locations, while staying within one eclectic destination.”

McMillian says research shows nearly half of group business occurs during the fall and winter season, when rates are higher in other destinations. But from November through February, “South Walton has mild temperatures, outdoor activities from watersports to hiking and biking in four state parks and a state forest, and enticing rates to stretch a group’s budget.”

Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort recently opened LeCiel, a contemporary boutique hotel located on the banks of the Choctawhatchee Bay. Guests have full access to the resorts’ amenities, including the 28-acre Village of Baytowne Wharf. In January, The Hilton Sandestin transformed 32,000 sf of indoor meeting space into an event venue with multiple function spaces for 2,000 people.


The vibrant green waters lapping onto the pearly white sands of Destin, Ft. Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island give this stretch of north Florida paradise its official nickname: Emerald Coast. The 100 miles of shoreline stretching along the Gulf and the laid-back Southern hospitality appeal year-round, with value season running Labor Day through early April.

“Our 24 miles of white sand beaches, bright emerald green water and a wealth of water activities make us different from any other destination,” says Sherry Rushing, CTIS, travel industry sales director for the Emerald Coast CVB.

Deep sea fishing and dolphin cruises are popular. The Southern Star Dolphin Cruise is a 2-hour narrated tour aboard an 80-foot, double decker, glass bottom boat for 149 pax. The new 100-foot recreated pirate ship, The Buccaneer, comes with costumed crew and customized teambuilding activities for 150 passengers.

For the first time, groups can now swim with a stingray at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, directly across the street from the waterfront 35,000-sf Emerald Coast Convention Center. The new Living Sea event space is 1,900 sf with a full wall of 8-foot high aquarium windows.

The Holiday Inn Resort Okaloosa Island broke ground on 17 acres of beachside property. Phase one features 152 rooms and 2,500 sf of meeting space. The resort is part of a $25 million investment built on Air Force federal property through an enhanced lease program. Giant blue and green wave patterns will splash across the exterior, similar to the Convention Center. “It will give a cohesive feel to our beach properties and Convention Center,” says Rushing.


One of the country’s largest cities in land mass, stretching along Florida’s northeastern coast from St. Augustine to Amelia Island, Jacksonville covers over 840 square miles. Meaning, the destination offers almost every imaginable amenity and activity one associates with Florida, like championship golf courses, top rated museums, water activities and a wide range of beachfront accommodations and meeting venues.

“What surprises planners though are the affordable prices and that the downtown core is set along the St. Johns River, which provides a dramatic backdrop to any event,” says Dennis Tracy, CDME, senior vice president for destination sales/marketing for Visit Jacksonville.

Water plays a key role in Jacksonville’s popularity for conferences. Just 20 minutes from downtown, the Atlantic Ocean provides a pathway for cruises to the Bahamas. Pre/post cruise stays in Jacksonville are common. Groups can hire deep sea fishing charters from the port, kayak along the river for an eco-adventure, or cruise more languidly in a pontoon boat along the intracoastal waterway. A dine and dance cruise on one paddle wheel riverboats along the St. Johns has become almost de rigueur for many groups. The Lady St. Johns holds 250; the Annabelle Lee, 150.

“Fish camp restaurants with their local character are really popular, and watching the shrimp boats come in is just plain fun,” says Tracy.

The longest running professional dinner theater in America completed a recent makeover, making it a hot spot for groups. Well-known TV and film celebrities like Loretta Swit and George Wendt star in productions at the 375-seat Alhambra Theatre. Chef DeJuan Roy’s fine dining dishes at the playhouse earn top billing too. His menu taps into each production’s theme, such as crispy duck confit served during The Phantom of the Opera.


Historic St. Augustine
Historic St. Augustine


St. Augustine’s roots stretch back to 1565, inspiring attendees’ imagination among the preserved Spanish, Colonial and Mediterranean architectural. That extends to the luxurious lodging at the 4-Diamond Casa Monica in the main square surrounded by some of Florida’s most important history museums.

When 42-miles of stellar beaches and championship golf courses stretching from St. Augustine to Ponte Vedra are factored in, opportunities to host groups both large and small exponentially increase. Other resort properties include Hammock Beach in Palm Coast; Renaissance World Golf Resort, Convention Center & Beach Club; Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Spa, The Lodge & Club at Ponte Vedra and 5-Diamond Ponte Vedra Inn & Club.

“We’re known as one of Florida’s premier golf regions,” says Glenn Graham, director of conference sales for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB. “The Renaissance World Golf Village Resort’s Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, where THE PLAYERS Championship takes place in May is on every golfer’s bucket list.”

This year, through special programs and celebrations, St. Augustine will celebrate Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida 500 years ago. In 2015, St. Augustine marks its 450th year as the first settled city in the country.

“Corporate and incentive planners are always looking for a way to build a meeting around a theme,” says Graham. “We’re giving them three years of milestones with special events at historic venues that set the stage for some really unique experiences.”

A new Picasso exhibit is running from January to May in the newly renovated Visitor Information Center in St. Augustine’s Historic District. In the spring, a village recreating life as it was in the 16-18th centuries will open in the same area. Groups will be able to host private events within the complex.

“We have an inspiring location unlike anywhere else,” says Graham. “When attendees feel appreciated by our amenities and attention, their job performance improves. I think that’s the greatest value we have for meetings held here.”


With over 6,000 sleeping rooms and 400,000 sf of meeting space in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee caters well to mid-size groups. The city is boosting that business this year with two funding programs designed to pamper even small groups. The Special Events Grants Program is an annual award based on the number of hotel rooms a conference expects to book October through the next September. Meanwhile, the Transportation Assistance Grant program reimburses transportation costs to offsite venues once planners prove they’ve booked Leon County lodging.

Tallahassee is a walkable city focused around the two universities: Florida State University and Florida A&M, and also Tallahassee Community College. Football season rules in this city, so plan accordingly.

“If groups want the best value and less crowding, come anytime except during fall football weekends or Spring Break,” explains Janet Roach, meetings/conventions director for Visit Tallahassee.

Tallahassee’s distinct business districts each attract niche markets. Downtown is often used for progressive upscale dinners to the many restaurants. Young professionals enjoy Midtown’s active nightlife scene. By autumn, the new FSU-created College Town facility will open up new restaurants, shopping and nightlife geared toward younger groups.

As one of three cities first settled in Florida 500 years ago—Pensacola and St. Augustine being the other two—this year kicks off a year of celebrations. The Mission San Luis’ 4,000-sf Mission Room and its 3,000-sf outdoor courtyard will be popular for receptions for groups up to 250 max. Built on sacred ground, it’s the only recreated Mission in the Southeastern states.

Chef Joe Rego, this year’s winner of the Food Network TV show “Chopped” has opened Tallahassee’s newest, trendiest seafood restaurant, Front Porch. The 2-story seafood restaurant has 1,300 sf of space spread through three private event areas. Expect the dishes to have a Southern flair influenced by his Portuguese background. Also new, the Four Points by Sheraton Tallahassee is the brand’s only LEED-certified hotel in the nation. The 12-story downtown property has 164 guestrooms and 7,100 sf of meeting space, including a 2,500-sf ballroom.

For more information and the other Florida sections, check out our VISIT FLORIDA home page at prevue