Things are bright in Florida, and not just because of the sun. The gloom of the Great Recession is starting to lift, and the gears of the state’s convention business are shifting out of neutral, which is more or less where they’ve been stuck for the past few years.
“We feel that the meetings and conventions industry is on the upswing,” says Cheryl Hatcher, the new director of sales at Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation.
Hatcher points to recent Metropoll numbers that indicate what planners are looking for from a destination: easy access, convenient air service and value. “Florida fits all those categories, and that’s what gives us the advantage.
“I can see only positive things coming,” she adds. “We’re only hearing positive comments from our large convention hotels and CVBs.”
One of those CVBs, Orlando, concurs.
“Attendance seems to be up across the board, with good news all around, be it corporate or association,” says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit Orlando. “At the end of 2011, we ended 15 percent above average numbers, and all the shows and conferences have ended with positive numbers.”
But Runzler says while the economy in general may be starting to loosen, it all starts with people’s individual purse strings.
“Some of this is pent-up demand. People have had to be conservative over the past few years. They’ve underspent, and we saw programs being cut or sending fewer people,” she says. “But businesses are seeing that people need to meet and interact, they need the training, and they need to get back on the trade show floor to see what’s going on in their industry.”
The corporate market isn’t the only segment on the rebound, however. In the Florida Keys, where incentives comprise the bulk of group business and the main competition isn’t the rest of Florida but the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii, improved timing has been an indicator of progress.
“The booking window on incentives is getting longer,” notes Jack Meier, destination sales manager for the Florida Keys & Key West. “What we were seeing before were last-minute decisions, so we’re enjoying that change.”
Also enjoying a change in the visitor climate is the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel in Southwest Florida.
“We’ve definitely seen a rebound in our leisure business,” says Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County VCB. “And to some degree, we’re starting to see improvement in meetings.”
Orlando also reports an uptick in leisure business, evidenced, says Runzler, by the recent success of MegaCon, which filled the Orange County Convention Center with fans of science fiction and fantasy, comic books, anime and gaming.
“To me, a show like that is a great indicator of what’s happening because it’s completely voluntary,” Runzler says. “It’s what people do when they have some extra cash to spend.”
Another indicator of an improved economy is the new hotels and hotel renovation projects under way in the Sunshine State, what Runzler calls the “infrastructure opening up.”
In Orlando, new hotels include the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek, offering 400 guest rooms and suites as well as a generous range of amenities, including an on-site spa, zero-entry pool and complimentary shuttle to the Disney parks. The property also offers a 24-hour business center and more than 25,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space, including the 8,000-square-foot Ponce de Leon Ballroom.
Joining the lineup of convention properties in the Orlando area this September is what’s being touted as the region’s largest Embassy Suites convention hotel, the 300-room Embassy Suites Orlando Lake Buena Vista South, featuring 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space along with a business center and wireless Internet service throughout the property.
On a more whimsical note, a new Disney property will start opening in phases May 31: Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, featuring 1,120 family suites themed after such popular Disney films as The Lion King, Cars, Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid.
In Southeast Florida, ground is due to break this June on the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, set along the Broadwalk at Johnson Street and offering 35,000 square feet of meeting space among other more “Jimmy Buffett-approved” amenities, including a boat dock and pools at beach level as well as on the rooftop. In conjunction with the resort’s 2014 opening, a revamp of the Broadwalk’s famed Bandshell amphitheater and a new lawn for events and concerts are also planned.
To the south in Miami, while approvals for a mega gaming resort on Biscayne Bay—the $3.8 billion Resorts World Miami—are still pending, the city has welcomed a number of new properties in recent months, including the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, offering 243 rooms and 11,200 square feet of meeting space on the beach across from Bal Harbour Shops.
Other hotel openings are lined up like synchronized swimmers ready to dive: the SLS Hotel South Beach, due sometime this spring; the James Royal Palm, set to open on South Beach in late 2012; and the Edition, a Marriott/Ian Schrager venture, slated for a 2013 debut. They join such recent arrivals as the Hyatt Miami at The Blue, nestled among the golf courses of Doral near the airport and offering villa accommodations, a full-service spa and more than 3,500 square feet of function space.
North of Miami, Palm Beach County is planning to welcome its first new property since early 2010s Seagate Hotel: the 134-room Hyatt Place in downtown Delray Beach. Meanwhile in Florida’s northeast corner, the new Aloft Jacksonville Tapestry Park made its debut with 137 guest rooms and 3,600 square feet of meeting space.
In addition to new properties in Florida, “new and improved” would describe the renovation projects that scores of other hotels have undertaken recently, from the Peabody Orlando’s massive $450 million expansion that added a 32-story tower and brought the property’s meeting space to 300,000 square feet, to the $500,000 renovation completed at downtown St. Petersburg’s Hampton Inn & Suites, home to 91 guest rooms and more than 1,200 square feet of newly renovated meeting space.
Heading southward to downtown Naples, The Inn on Fifth has started construction on a $15 million expansion that will add a new three-story, 40,000-square-foot building directly across the street, housing 32 club-level suites, an 800-square-foot ballroom and 12,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level. It’s the largest redevelopment effort on Fifth Avenue South—and the first new hotel rooms in Naples—since 2008.
Across the state, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood just completed a renovation of all its rooms and suites, “reimagining” interiors with fresh flooring and carpeting as well as new furniture and bedding, new ambient lighting, high-def electronics and state-of-the-art digital interactivity.
To the south in Miami, the 334-room Gansevoort has become the Perry South Beach and is due for major renovations and another rebranding by late 2013.
Not to be outdone, Central Florida’s Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate plans to expand by 46,000 square feet of meeting space by March 2013, bringing the golf and convention property’s total to 128,000 square feet of event space.
Also in Central Florida, the Radisson Resort Orlando-Celebration is scheduled to undergo a $10 million renovation to guest rooms, public areas and meeting rooms, with completion slated for this fall, while the Doubletree Resort Orlando-International Drive became the Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld and recently unveiled a $35 million makeover to become a Balinese-inspired oasis complete with Indonesian design accents.
Set on Florida’s northeast corner, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation broke ground last November on an $85 million redevelopment project that will add 20,000 square feet of space to its conference center—for a total of 70,000 square feet—as well as an additional 155 guest rooms, including 27 suites, a new Beach Club and restaurants, and a new welcome center and walkways to enhance the resort’s traffic flow and connectivity.
Also on Amelia Island, the Ritz-Carlton has put the wraps on a five-year, $65 million investment that redesigned all 445 guest rooms and added a spa, sports bar and additional ballroom space.
In nearby St. Augustine, the Renaissance World Golf Resort just completed some major enhancements, including the addition of 15,000 square feet of new outdoor function space—for a total of 101,000 square feet—along with a new UPS Store business center, offering packing, shipping, printing and other services.
Northwest Florida also has its share of hotel news, including recent enhancements at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, which completed a $6.5 million renovation and now offers an expanded 17,000-square-foot beachfront deck area along with two new outdoor seasonal dining options: Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill and Picnix Poolside Market.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay area is preparing in a big way for the upcoming Republican National Convention, taking place at the newly renovated Tampa Bay Times Forum this August, while area hotels, including the Tampa Airport Marriott and the historic Hotel Floridan, continue to upgrade.
In neighboring St. Petersburg/Clearwater, where hotels also will be hosting RNC attendees, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club and the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, among the state’s most historic properties, have renovated their lobbies and bars, while the TradeWinds Sandpiper Suites on St. Pete Beach will be transformed into Guy Harvey Outpost-A TradeWinds Beach Resort by 2013.
The Southwest Florida Scoop
South of Tampa Bay, the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel checks in with a host of hotel renovations, including cosmetic upgrades at DiamondHead Beach Resort, a SunStream property on Fort Myers Beach, and a $5 million renovation at Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa, which is refurbishing its lobby, restaurants and meeting space, with room upgrades also planned.
But there’s much more to come in this laid-back enclave on the Gulf, including a major renovation for the region’s primary convention venue, the 42,000-square-foot Harborside Event Center. The first phase, redirecting a portion of the Caloosahatchee River to create a water feature beside the center, is already under way.
The second and third phases of the renovation aim to make the Event Center one of the state’s premier convention venues, with plans calling for the addition of an on-site hotel within the next few years.
“There’s a lot of interest,” says Rose Rundle, Harborside’s director, referring to potential hoteliers. “I’ve been here 10 years and I haven’t seen this much interest.”
Long-range plans for Harborside include more meeting and exhibit space, and the possible purchase of an adjacent lot for a second convention hall, which will make it more of a convention center, according to Rundle.
Sweetening the Pot
While Florida’s hotel and convention landscape continues to develop, some CVBs, including the Beaches of Fort Myers, are keeping the end user of all this new product in mind as they plan their marketing strategies. Indeed, group spending is definitely top-of-mind awareness for many cities that depend on meetings and conventions to fill local coffers.
“To some degree, we’re starting to see more group business, but there are constrained expenditures,” says the Lee County VCB’s Pigott. “They might be booking, and my meeting hotels are telling me that things are improving, but frugality is king right now.”
To that end, the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel is offering an Islands Incentive program that allows meeting planners to get a 5 percent credit—up to a maximum $5,000—of the total actualized room revenue to be used toward any meeting or conference taking place in the area through Dec. 15, 2012.
Scores of hotels are rolling out programs of their own, including Fort Lauderdale’s Hyatt Regency Bonaventure Conference Center and Spa, offering a triple reward that includes a 3 percent rebate off the master bill, complimentary Internet access and triple Hyatt Gold Passport bonus points.
In Central Florida, Orlando’s Villas of Grand Cypress is offering a “Meetings Made Easy” program that saves up to 55 percent per person for groups of 15-100 that book between June 1-Dec. 21, 2012. Meanwhile any planner who submits an RFP to the Kissimmee CVB before March 31, 2013, can receive up to $1,000 to be credited to the master account.
On Florida’s central east coast, the luxury Shores Resort & Spa just renewed its AAA Four Diamond status through 2013 while also extending its Stash Hotel Rewards program to groups, which can earn double points in the new loyalty program that is offered at independent hotels throughout North America.