VISIT FLORIDA 2013 Part #3: Central Florida

Universal Orlando Transformers
Universal Orlando Transformers

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 Central Florida. See the other sections:Part #1 The South; Part #3 North Florid

Vero Beach Sports Village
Vero Beach Sports Village

Selling Florida as a business destination is like announcing free drinks and eats. Everyone wants to participate. The most difficult question facing planners isn’t whether to book Florida; it’s which area of Florida will best fulfill the needs of their conference agenda and attendees. No passport is needed for even the most exotic locations, from the palm tree-lined beaches of the Florida Keys to the subtropical wetlands of the Everglades to the emerald waters of the Sunshine State’s northern reaches.

So why should meeting and incentive planners choose to bring their groups to 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.”


Numbers don’t lie. Meeting planners bring niche groups to Orlando’s Medical City for education or to resorts for a more relaxing conference environment, but the #1 reason Orlando routinely ranks high as a meeting destination is its reputation for providing creative experiences in the area’s theme parks.

“The ROI for a planner is that they can deploy their money to enhance onsite experiences because they don’t have to spend marketing money to ‘sell’ the destination,” says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales/services for Visit Orlando. “People want to come here and plan extensive pre- and post-stays around their meetings.”

Some specialized groups are drawn by the innovative medical simulation and robotics training only found in Medical City or at the Simulation and Training Association, but Runzler says, “Planners ultimately want their attendees to have an emotional connectivity with memorable experiences not found elsewhere or on their own.”

Favored group events include behind-the-scenes tours of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the newly refurbished Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, and an interactive conservation experience at SeaWorld Orlando.

As important to getting an initial booking from a planner is providing reasons to return, which Runzler says occurs because, “Orlando is always reinventing itself.”

For example, Embassy Suites Orlando-Lake Buena Vista South just opened a 300-suite hotel with 40,000 sf of meeting space. Loews Hotels is building their first value-priced hotel at Universal Orlando with 1,800 rooms, set to open in 2014. Also at Universal, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is expanding, and Transformers 3-D will showcase 35-foot battling robots when it opens later this year. Lastly, SeaWorld Orlando’s new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin features a mobile simulator in each car.


Within the last year, an overwhelming amount of studies by meeting industry groups have proven a growing demand from attendees for family-inclusive meetings and incentive travel programs. That can be both during the event or pre/post when many hotels extend group booking rates.

It goes without saying that kids love Florida something fierce.

Orlando’s theme parks are a big draw, but also inquire about partial buyouts of the parks for evening gala events. You might be surprised how many groups do this, with free access to the rides and select restaurants included. A word of advice, based on experience, do not take your glass of wine on Spiderman.

After theme parks, the next best thing that kids love is water, especially on hot days in either the resort pool or calm sea. Come to think of it, adults like that a lot too. Business and leisure (some call it “bleisure”) is inherently easy to mix in the Sunshine State.


Tampa Museum of Art
Tampa Museum of Art


It’s just a few short steps from Tampa Convention Center to upscale hotels, museums, restaurants and two picturesque bays along Tampa’s famed Riverwalk. That’s a significant selling point for planners seeking a walkable, waterfront location for their conference.

“We’re a resort-like setting in a professional downtown urban environment,” says Alex Kaptzan, vice president of convention sales for Tampa Bay & Co. He says that proximity proved an advantage when Tropical Storm Isaac interrupted the Republican National Convention last year. “We had 50,000 delegates and media suddenly looking for something to do. It was an opportunity to showcase our destination to them and to planners who may not have considered us before.”

Offsite venues along the Tampa Riverwalk include the new Tampa Museum of Art, The Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Bay History Center. Connected to the Convention District by streetcar, Ybor City is the former “Cigar Capital of the World” and birthplace of the Cuban sandwich. Ybor is one of three national historic landmark districts in Florida, which showcases Tampa’s rich history and vibrant culture.

Seven years of renovations and a name change later, the Floridan Palace Hotel reopened last year. Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, the 213-room boutique hotel built in 1927 has been restored to opulence, using many of the original design elements. The Epicurean, a 137-room boutique hotel, opens in Tampa’s Hyde Park historic district, in November 2013. It will cater to incentive groups and foodies with a large culinary classroom, high-end bistro, wine shop, rooftop lounge and spa. The Epicurean will be the first new-build to join the Marriott International Autograph Collection. Additionally, the City of Tampa received a $14 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to extend the Riverwalk, which will soon be underway.


Siesta Key
Siesta Key


International circus acts spend their winters in Sarasota, and that’s when the region is in high demand for groups too. The county is known for its fine art museums, 35 miles of coastline that’s been compared to the Caribbean, and fab culinary scene. But with such great weather year-round, look beyond winter.

“Booking a meeting during our off season, from June to September, generates the biggest returns,” says Kelly M. Defebo, CMP/TMP, meeting & group sales manager for Visit Sarasota County. “But our shoulder season, from October through December, also adds extra value.”

Visit Sarasota’s staff supplements the value with site visits, vendor recommendations, save-the-date cards, and welcome bags for attendees. And through 2013, the DMO is offering cash-back and room night incentives for meetings generating a minimum 300 consecutive room nights.

In 2011, Siesta Key Beach was named the #1 beach in the country in 2011. Last year, the county was recognized as one of the leading small arts destinations in America.

“We have amenities that rival major metropolitan destinations,” says Defebo. “We also have the highest number of Zagat-rated restaurants than anywhere else in Florida.”

Two of the latest earning raves from groups are Duval’s New World Cafe on Main Street and Owen’s Fish Camp. Duval’s is famous for its eclectic contemporary seafood while Owen’s serves Southern-influenced dishes in a quaint cottage built in 1923. The 146-room Ramada Venice opens in January with 10,000 sf of meeting space. In May, Hilton Longboat Key closes for a 14-month renovation. When completed, it will have 182 rooms and 3,000 sf of meeting space steps from the Gulf.


The Richard Petty Driving Experience, deep sea fishing, golfing and sky diving were just some of the hands-on activities provided to sports event planners during a recent fam hosted by Daytona Beach Area CVB.

“When planners come to our area, they will be treated as the only game in town, with experiences and priority attention their groups won’t get elsewhere,” says Jeffrey Hentz, president/CEO.

Tailoring fams to niche markets, thereby creating more valuable educational insight for planners, is one of the key marketing elements of the new Destination Management Services (DMS) department launched in January 2013. Hentz says, “Instead of hiring a DMC, we now offer one-stop shopping for planners, from the point of initial discussion through contract and service delivery all at a lower cost.”
The DMS department will be showcased in October when they coordinate Rejuvenate Marketplace, a religious tradeshow expected to draw 500 meeting planners and 1,000 suppliers.

The $5 million renovation of the historic Daytona Beach Pier in the core of the convention district gives smaller meetings a new offsite venue. Groups can buyout Joe’s Crabshack for 600 pax in a new multimillion dollar, 2-story restaurant overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Tandem parachute rides and a zipline inside Tuscawilla Park are new teambuilding favorites. The Zoom Air zipline is an obstacle course with customizable levels of complexity.

Hyatt Place Daytona Beach will complete a thorough renovation in May. Hentz says he’s anticipating two projects to begin next year; both are expected to be high-volume hotel-condo properties near the 205,000-sf Ocean Center.


In the eastern coastal cities of Indian River County, the focus relies on providing relaxed dining, plentiful water activities and a quiet setting for mostly Florida-based associations, incentive groups or executive boards.

“About 90% of our groups live within a 3-hour drive,” says Allison McNeal, director of tourism for the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. “We have 4-star hotels that provide luxury meetings at lower rates than one would find in a larger city, and our ecotourism is tremendous.”

The 26 miles of unspoiled beaches, 156-mile Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean provide a wealth of outdoor offsite venues and activities. There’s polo, deep sea fishing, paddle boarding, kayaking and sailing. Naturalists favor the guided tours on Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most environmentally diverse estuaries in America. Another popular venue is Captain Hiram’s in Sebastian Inlet, which offers ecotours on the lagoon, watersports for teambuilding, a restaurant and conference event space for 150. Sports fans often gather at the 67-acre Vero Beach Sports Village, once the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Village has over 14,000 sf of meeting space and 89 hotel-style villas.

For 2013, the region will be targeting groups more. McNeal says, “We’re working closely with our 4-star hoteliers, like Costa D’Este owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, the all-inclusive Club Med Sandpiper Bay and Vero Beach Hotel & Spa to create packages specifically to attract corporate and incentive planners.”


Florida has 1,260 miles of coastline so few groups come here without hopping on a boat. Sportfishing tournaments boost attendance like nothing else. Cocktail receptions aboard a gleaming yacht at sunset with champagne and canapes are also a sure thing. And most beachfront hotels have a plethora of watersports equipment on-property, such as jet skis, sailboats, kayaks, parasailing and standup paddle boarding.

The Florida Keys are like the Greek Islands of America with literally hundred of uninhabited islands for beachcombing and beach picnics. In addition, the scuba diving and snorkeling here are among the best in the country.

On both the southern Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast, many DMCs can arrange afternoon cruises to neighboring cities for shopping and dining to experience other parts of the Sunshine State.

In the north, Lowcountry boils, shrimping festivals and other traditional Southern-style events are a great networking events based on the interactive experience. And, even if you’re meeting in Tallahassee or Orlando, the coast is only one hour away. No matter where you’re booking, we highly recommend some pre/post beach time.

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