Florida Encounter Highlights Incentive Travel Comeback

Incentive Travel Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, West Palm Beach
Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, West Palm Beach

PGA National Resort & Spa, home of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic, welcomed the 32nd Florida Encounter, a sold-out event December 4-6 at which 7,422 appointments were scheduled. The expansive event used half the Palm Beach Gardens resort’s 40,000 sf of indoor meeting space and many of its gorgeous outdoor spaces.

“Incentive [travel] is on a comeback motion for Florida,” says Cheryl Hatcher, director of meetings and events, Visit Florida. “Many of our coastal destinations and oceanfront and golf resorts are reporting a 10-20% increase year over year in the number of incentive meetings and events being booked.”

Imaginative activities included “glow mini-golf” on the Masters Green, in front of a sumptuous buffet on the Masters Terrace and Honda Pavilion; for two hours, 150 guests cheerfully tapped illuminated golf balls around challenges outlined in colorful flexible glow sticks.

Meanwhile, the casually elegant Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa cranked up the heat—even as cool ocean breezes wafted through—with a live band and buffet stations on the pool deck.

Florida Encounter was convenient to some of the area’s most popular attractions and diversions.

Near downtown West Palm Beach, the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden is a hidden gem on the Intracoastal Waterway. Guided tours inform groups of the talent of the late local artist whose unassuming home and studio now provide a lovely canvas for select events. Valet parking, bus drops and an alternate entrance make it easy to slip VIPs into the serene sanctuary for events for up to 150.

Across the Intracoastal in tony Palm Beach, The Breakers hotel is attracting younger, hipper crowds with a small-plates concept in its reimagined restaurant, HMF. Part of the annual $20 million refurb, Flagler Steakhouse reopened in late 2013 after full-scale transformation. Meetings and incentives flourish at the stunning beachfront location with chic beach club, volunteer opportunities, golf, tennis, high-end shopping and 70,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space. There are 540 rooms and 68 suites in this iconic five-diamond hotel, originally constructed by Henry Morrison Flagler and still owned by his descendants.

Head down the road to Flagler Museum for additional impressive event space, including the original train car Flagler himself rode while building the railways of the south. The glass-walled 8,100-sf Flagler Keenan Pavilion that now houses it is perfect for award ceremonies, product launches, receptions and dinners, with views spanning Lake Worth. Stately 75-room Whitehall is a tribute to the Gilded Age, built in 1902 as Flagler’s home. Imagine a string quartet at a sophisticated reception in the 4,800-sf Beaux Arts-style Grand Hall, or outdoors around the Courtyard’s Italian fountain. The West Room, Lake Room and Terrace, all adjoining, are superb for larger groups and magnificent dinners. Small events? Exquisite in the Boardroom Suite’s three restored rooms upstairs. Lunch in the Pavilion’s seasonal Café des Beaux Arts, tours, visiting exhibits, and musical events provide group activity options.

Crossing the Intracoastal back to West Palm Beach and switching gears to the modern and trendy, Clematis Street is hopping after dark, with bars, restaurants and nightclubs in the busy downtown. Check out the fun vibe of the Wine Dive with its funky wineglass chandeliers. Transformed in recent years, Clematis leads to the waterfront park where well-known musicians perform in Centennial Square’s bandshell.

“Florida is the ideal and popular destination for incentive travel,” Hatcher says. “When companies or incentive-travel planners plan and host their events and trips, they choose Florida for our weather, beaches, nightlife, shopping, outdoor activities and adventure sports, unique properties and venues, golf, spas, all things water—boating, yachting, fishing, kayaking, paddle-boarding, airboating through the Everglades—and our cultural diversity in dining and entertainment.”