Meet in the middle with a side of racetracks, swamp rides or space travel
On a map, the area of central Florida defined by Orlando, Daytona Beach and Kissimmee is a pretty narrow triangle. But it offers planners the broadest range of meeting options outside its high-tech convention centers: an oceanfront playground, the world’s most-popular collection of theme parks and simple, back-to-nature Florida. You can put your delegates in hotels streamlined to host conventions or lodgings with décor that plays upon fantasies and dreams. As for the all-important R&R outside the professional development sessions and exhibit halls, planners will need a checklist—there’s hot-air ballooning, ziplining, getting up-close-if-not-quite-personal with alligators, surfing and golfing where the top pros compete. Airlift is among the nation’s best, with no winter storms to close the runways.
Central Florida at a Glance
In each of these three cities, one meeting venue easily wears the Big Dog’s collar. In Daytona Beach, it’s the Ocean Center with 205,500 sq. ft. of meeting and exhibition space. In Kissimmee, the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center offers a whopping 400,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. And in Orlando, the Orange County Convention Center includes a voluminous 2.1 million sq. ft. of exhibition space, 74 meeting rooms and an additional 235 breakout rooms.
For less traditional venues, your attendees might appreciate a private slice of the world’s top tourist destination, Walt Disney World Resort. Each of its four theme parks can be rented for functions after they have closed to the public. For instance, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, delegates can hobnob with the park’s celebrity lookalikes or have a party in the Streets of America backlot area.
Each of the three destinations has a full palette of lodging hues. Among the leaders are the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, just steps from the Ocean Center complex; Kissimmee’s sprawling Gaylord Palms, with 1,406 guest rooms; and in Orlando, the recently enlarged, Four-Star, Four-Diamond Peabody Orlando, with 1,641 guest rooms adjacent to the convention center and accessible via a raised walkway.
Once comprised of a few mom and pop motels surrounded by cow pastures, Orlando certainly has changed. Today, it can claim to be the No. 1 tourist destination in the world. For meeting planners, this presents a problem. The quandry is how to keep your delegates focused on their professional agenda when the location presents break time options for championship golf, world-class fishing and the greatest collection of amusement parks on the continent. Part of the solution comes from the local pros.
“Very few places have grown up as a hospitality destination. But that’s how Orlando came to life. Our community goal is to be sure that every visitor says, ‘Everyone there treated us very well,’” says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services for the Visit Orlando.
Orlando is following through. In 2010, it became the first U.S. destination to top 50 million visitors (at 51,455,000) and notched a 1.4% increase from the previous year in overnight convention/group visitation, to 3.24 million.
“We find Orlando a phenomenal destination for our attendees; it affords our guests the opportunity to extend their stay and take in the nearby numerous attractions, events and activities,” says Phylicia Korchevsky, operations and marketing assistant for Premiere Show Group. Its three-day meeting in June drew 50,343 attendees.
Major meeting venues
The Orange County Convention Center is the place for staging major events, with more than 300 small meeting rooms. But many nearby hotels—there are 11 Three- or Four-Star lodgings within one mile of the center—offer their own meeting space. For instance, the Hilton Orlando has 175,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 1,417 guest rooms; the Rosen Centre Hotel, more than 100,000 sq. ft. of space and 1,334 rooms; the Rosen Plaza Hotel, 60,000 sq. ft. of space and 800 rooms; and the Peabody Orlando, 300,000 sq. ft. of space and 1,641 rooms. About eight miles from the convention center is the Orlando World Center Marriott, with 450,000 sq. ft. of space, including a 105,000-square-foot ballroom and 2,000 rooms.
Orlando’s inventory of accommodations, nearly 116,000, is topped only by Las Vegas’ room count. The swankiest new option is the only entirely new Waldorf Astoria outside of Manhattan. With a convenient location on 482 acres near the Walt Disney World Resort campus, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando has 28,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 498 guest rooms.
Kennedy Space Center, Titusville
Unique venues and activities
Outside the big halls, the activity options can overwhelm a meeting planner. “So many of our groups take their people to the Kennedy Space Center,” says Runzie. “You can’t experience it anywhere else, and it’s worth the 45-minute drive. And many of the theme parks offer behind-the-scenes tours. People in the technical professions are absolutely wowed to see what it takes to operate a Disney park, while SeaWorld is offering animal- and ecology-based tours.”
But when her own family comes to town: “Epcot [at Walt Disney World] is a must stop,” she says. “You can have a great meal and try different foods at one of the countries around the World Showcase Lagoon. And you have to stay for the nighttime fireworks show.”
New to the scene, having just opened in July of this year, is a Dave & Buster’s outpost, a popular entertainment venue with group space.
Calling itself the World’s Most Famous Beach, this city’s 23-mile-long swath of Atlantic shore has been associated not just with sunbathing and swimming but also with cars—both those that raced on the hard-packed sand and those that just mosey along it. Decades of actual competitions on the beachfront were the impetus for the creation of what may be the city’s most famous landmark, the Daytona International Speedway.
But for meeting planners such as Jeff Blewett, Daytona Beach offers not just those icons but also “accessibility, good pricing and the Ocean Center convention complex.” Director of Meetings and Events for the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association, Blewett says that his organization’s four-day events draw more than 6,500 delegates from throughout the Southeast plus exhibitors from other nations, “and we outgrew our previous site, in Jacksonville.” He needs only one word to sum up the association’s meeting last January: “Fantastic!”
Daytona Beach offers the advantages of a smaller metro area; it is less than a third the size of Orlando. That means much of what a busy delegate wants is easy to reach. In addition to the sand, surf and a boardwalk lined with shops, restaurants and amusement rides, the region has 19 golf courses—two of them belonging to the Ladies Professional Golf Association, headquartered in Daytona Beach. The Daytona Beach area has about 12,000 hotel rooms.
The city’s busiest periods are during the Speedway’s major “speed weeks,” from mid-February through mid-March, then the spring-breakers start to crowd in, and summertime brings the family vacation crush. The CVB has a handy calendar on its website aimed at planners.
Major meeting venues
The Ocean Center complex also has a 42,000-square-foot arena that can seat 9,600, 36 breakout rooms totaling 32,000 sq. ft. and a ballroom that can seat 850 for meals. “It’s used for everything from business association meetings to the National Cheerleaders Association’s championship competitions,” says Tara Hamburger, a sales manager at Daytona Beach Area CVB. “There’s probably no slow period.”
The complex is “just 400 steps from the ocean,” Hamburger adds. And it’s located next to the Ocean Walk Shoppes, the city’s waterfront restaurant, shopping and entertainment complex.
It’s also a reasonable stroll from about 1,000 hotel rooms, including 744 in the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort and 200 one-, two- and three-bedroom units at the Wyndham Ocean Walk Resort. The Hilton has 60,000 sq. ft. of space in 28 meeting rooms, while the Wyndham has 6,000 sq. ft. in six rooms.
On Daytona’s news front, several hotels have recently undergone multimillion-dollar refurbishment projects, including the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort ($20 million), The Plaza Resort and Spa ($70 million) and The Shores Resort and Spa ($31 million).
Among the largest of the other 28 area hotels with meeting space: The 320-room Plaza Resort & Spa with 15 meeting rooms totaling 32,000 sq. ft. The Shores Resort & Spa offers 212 rooms, plus 20,000 sq. ft. of space. And the meeting rooms of the Daytona Beach Resort and Conference Center total 17,000 sq. ft.; there are also 322 rooms.
Make no mistake: The city lives on tourism and meeting business. This summer’s advertising campaign, directed to drive-market traffic in the Southeast, has the motto, “Wow, What a Beach.” “We always lead with the beach,” Lori Campbell Baker, the CVB’s director of communications, told the local newspaper.
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate
Unique venues and activities
Jeff Blewett, the Fire Chiefs’ meeting planner, notes that several of his exhibitors stage events at the 7,691-square-foot Daytona 500 Club, on the infield of the Speedway. The club accommodates 1,000 and among options for the guests is a fast ride around NASCAR’s most-famous oval.
A special spot for those on-stage presentations is the Daytona Beach Bandshell on one end of the oceanfront boardwalk. With acoustics just right for its summertime schedule of concerts, this amphitheater seats 5,000. While the Speedway and the coast are iconic, the Daytona Beach area has a couple of other landmarks, including one that CVB exec Hamburger takes her own visitors to: the landmark Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station. A visit here is a great way for meeting delegates to stretch their legs—they can climb 203 steps to the top of a 175-foot-tall lighthouse to get an unmatched panorama of the area.
Kissimmee—pronounced kiss-SIMM-ee—is an attractive collection of Florida’s opposites: Some of the largest business meetings can be accommodated in the 400,000 sq. ft. of high-tech meeting space of Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center. But delegates also have the opportunity to loosen up in the serenity of a pre-dawn hot air-balloon ride, tackle team building during a two-hour ziplining adventure above swamps or get their cowboy on by watching the largest professional rodeo competition east of the Mississippi.
Now a town of 60,000, Kissimmee grew from pasture and orange groves to become a suburb of Orlando’s theme park world, about six miles from Walt Disney World, and twice that to Sea World and Universal Orlando. Why choose this smaller city when mighty Orlando is so close? “We concentrate on offering four advantages,” says Debby Rivera, CMP, director of sales and services for the Kissimmee CVB. “Access. There are two international airports and Florida’s east-west Interstate. Service. We can refer meeting planners to vendors, transportation, photographers, videographers and more. Appeal. Our location offers natural Florida; we have a great climate and pricing. Value. In this challenging economy and being a smaller city, lots of our properties are getting creative with their packages and prices.”
Major Meeting Venues
In addition to the county-owned Osceola Heritage Park, which has 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in addition to the 10,500-seat Silver Spurs Arena, the prime venues are Gaylord Palms (mentioned above) and the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate—both big and about to get bigger—and the Ramada Orlando Celebration Resort & Convention Center. The Osceola County Commission this spring committed $80 million toward a three-year expansion that would add 594 guest rooms and a whopping 350,000 sq. ft. of conference space. Gaylord also is building meeting-planner offices in the convention center.
ChampionsGate has a two-phase expansion. By 2013, it plans to open 55,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in addition to the 70,000 now at the Omni. Phase I will increase the guest room count from 720 to 870. Phase II is larger: another 110,000 sq. ft. of space, 500 more hotel rooms and development of a conference center. The county has pledged $40-million. The Ramada Orlando Celebration Resort, meanwhile, offers 953 hotel rooms and 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
The Osceola Performing Arts Center provides a dramatic setting for events and includes a 1,974-seat theater and 22,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space.
Special attractions abound, including the 62-year-old Gatorland. Located at the Orlando-Kissimmee line, it has a new, 1,200-foot-long zipline above crocs and gators. Boggy Creek Airboat Rides and Spirit of the Swamp take riders skimming through nearby marshes, stopping to offer close-up views of alligators, waterfowl and more. And Orlando Balloon Rides offers the chance to see the sunrise over the meadows, followed by a champagne toast and breakfast—just the way to start your meeting day.
- Orlando International Airport (MCO) is 13 miles from the convention center.
- Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) is about 40 miles from the center. Interstate 4 bisects Orlando; rush hour traffic can be frustrating.
- Daytona is served by Daytona Beach International Airport (DAB), while Orlando Sanford International Airport is an hour away and Orlando International Airport, less than 90 minutes. Interstate 95, which runs north and south, and Interstate 4, which goes west, intersect in Daytona Beach.
- Kissimmee is a 20-minute drive from Orlando International Airport, an hour from Orlando Sanford International Airport and 90 minutes from Tampa International Airport (TPA). It’s adjacent to Interstate 4.