Lowry Park Zoo
With five separate venues throughout the zoo with capacities ranging from 150 to 750, Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo offers a wide variety of activities attendees can participate in, including such family-friendly animal encounters as giraffe feeding, wallaby walks, and going nose-to-horn with rhinos.
Ybor City Tampa
The historic Latin Quarter was once a major center of cigar production, and the art of cigar rolling is still practiced today. By day you can stroll around the many art galleries or shop for a stogie. By night, the neighborhood - a National Historic Landmark District - turns into a center of dining and nightife, especially dancing.
The resort's Executive Challenge Course is led by Nick Hall, Ph.D., a medical scientist and speaker with over 20 years' experience, who will design group events including ropes courses and the Build-A-Boat & Hope-It-Floats Regatta, among others.
Hurricane Irma may have made a last-minute turn west and run up the length of Florida's Gulf Coast, but with the exception of the Keys and the Naples/Marco Island area (see below), which the eye of the storm passed right over, the damage to infrastructure was surprisingly mild. That is not to say that the power grid wasn't disrupted or that residents didn't suffer serious losses from flooding and storm damage. But at press time, just a week after Irma, the hotels and resorts are repaired and have reopened, or are close to it.
Even as close as Fort Myers, less than an hour north of Naples, the hotels and resorts "did not sustain any long-term damage," says Pamela Johnson, CDME, deputy director of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, the local DMO. "We are ready and open for business."
In Tampa, Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, noted that the city had avoided a direct hit and was in good enough shape for the Tampa Convention Center to go ahead with the 7,400-attendee IBEX marine manufacturers conference on Sept. 19-21."
And at the corner of the Panhandle, "South Walton was very fortunate to be spared any impacts from Hurricane Irma," says David Demarest, director of communications for the Walton County Tourism Development Council.
The fact is, Florida's West Coast has been on a roll lately, with destinations up and down the Gulf Coast setting tourism records and hotels and resorts opening like wildfire. Tampa Bay is a major hub, with Tampa, St. Petersburg/Clearwater, and Sarasota all seeing a huge number of new properties opened recently or in the pipeline - 27 over the next few years, according to the Tampa Bay Times, which said a total 4,000 new rooms are coming to the region.
Just in its part of the region, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater says 1,000 new rooms came online in 2016, and another 1,000 have opened or will open in 2017. And that's on top of (or perhaps because of) TripAdvisor's 2017 Travelers' Choice awards declaring St. Pete Beach No. 3 in its list of "Top 25 Beaches - United States." Neighboring Clearwater Beach came in at No. 4, and Dr. Beach (aka Dr. Stephen Leatherman) named Caladesi Island State Park, between Clearwater and Dunedin, his No. 7 beach for 2017.
But it is the quality of some of the new properties that is a game changer for the area. While it has had excellent meeting infrastructure for years, the highest end largely wasn't there, according to Mike May, president of Spear One, a meeting and event planning firm. "For many years, Clearwater won best beach awards for its powdery white sands, but incentive-quality hotels were lacking," May says. "Recent revitalization projects have produced many excellent group hotels including the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach; Sandpearl Resort; the Opal Sands Resort, Clearwater Beach, which opened 2016; and the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach, which opened 2017."
Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach's pool
The 343-room Wyndham Grand, located on the waterfront next to Pier 60 park, has 22,000 square feet of meeting space and fantastic Gulf views. So does the 230-room Opal Sands, which is located right at the water's edge and offers 17,000 square feet of waterfront meeting space. A sister property, the Treasure Island Beach Resort, also opened in 2016, with 77 one- and two-bedroom suites. The 175-room Hyatt Place, Downtown St. Pete, opens late 2017.
Marriott's dual-branded Residence Inn Tampa Clearwater Beach and SpringHill Suites Tampa Clearwater Beach opened in August with a combined 255 suites. The 217-room Sugar Sands Resort, St. Pete Beach opens next year. The area's incentive infrastructure will take another leap in 2019 with the addition of a five-star property - the $120 million, 166-room JW Marriott, Clearwater Beach. Next April, the 83-room Fenway Hotel, Autograph Collection, will open near Clearwater with 11,126 square feet of event space in an historic hotel building with Jazz Age ties.
Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota:
Dr. Beach's 2017 Best Beach in America
Just below Tampa Bay, Sarasota is also seeing a building boom, with 1,112 new hotel rooms coming over a two-year period, the majority of them in the downtown area. And Sarasota's sandy waterfront got its due, with Siesta Beach being named the Best Beach in America this year by Dr. Beach, as well as in TripAdvisor's 2017 Travelers' Choice Awards.
New properties include the 255-room Westin Sarasota, with 26,000 square feet of meeting space and the 187-room Zota on Longboat Key, which has 5,000 square feet of meeting space. Marriott's Autograph Collection has two properties set to open by the end of the year. First up is the 37-room Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club, Autograph Collection, scheduled to open this month on Anna Maria Island. It will have 2,000 square feet of event space and a 50-slip marina. In December, the Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection will open in Sarasota with 162 rooms, 10,000 square feet of meeting and event space, and a rooftop pool bar with 360-degree views.
Starwood has The Sarasota Modern: A Tribute Portfolio Hotel, with 89 rooms set to open downtown next year, joining the 139-room Aloft Sarasota (which opened in early 2016 with 550 square feet of meeting space). And the Carlisle Inn is bringing nearly 100 rooms and 4,000 square feet of meeting space to the heart of Sarasota's Amish settlement later this year. Handcrafted beds are among traditional and modern comforts.
Tampa's development news starts with the Tampa International Airport, which is scheduled to finish Phase 1 of its $2.6 billion expansion next year. The project includes a much larger Main Terminal, 1.4-mile people mover, traffic enhancements, and other additions that will more than double its passenger capacity.
The 540-room Saddlebrook's recent renovation includes work on parts of its exterior, landscaping, and 95,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as a substantial upgrade of its fiber-optic Internet infrastructure, offering much more bandwidth. Other features include a five-acre teambuilding facility.
A four-star, 500-room convention hotel connected to both the Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina and the Tampa Convention Center and Amalie Arena, will have 126,000 square feet of meeting and event space. It will feature a 30,000-square-foot ballroom.
AC by Marriott at MetWest International, in the heart of Tampa's Westshore business district is slated to open in January, with 175 rooms and 96,000 square feet of space. The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa recently wrapped up a $100 million casino addition.
Fort Myers and Sanibel
Sunset on the beach at Fort Myers
The Fort Myers and Sanibel area is also seeing a boom, with a number of new properties in the pipeline. Most notable is the 237-room Luminary Hotel & Co., under construction next to Fort Myers' Harborside Events Center. The hotel is set to be finished late next year or in early 2019, in time for the reopening of the convention center, which is closed for a major renovation.
Work is set to wrap soon on the 263-room Westin Cape Coral at Marina Village's new, 30,000-square-foot conference center, adding to its existing 15,000 square feet of space.
Panama City Beach (See image at top of page) was named No. 5 in TripAdvisor's 2017 Travelers' Choice awards for the "Top 25 Beaches - United States," and Pensacola Beach came in at No. 7. In Panama City Beach, a 182-room, Gulf-front Hampton Inn & Suites opened earlier this year with nearly 1,550 square feet of meeting space. The same developer, Innisfree Hotels, also has a 200-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott under construction. The recently opened, 156-room Holiday Inn Express on Front Beach Road has a 1,335-square-foot meeting room. The 200-room, 120-villa Sheraton Bay Point Resort just wrapped a $30 million renovation. It has 60,000 square feet of meeting space and Jack Nicklaus-designed championship golf course. In South Walton, the 84-room Hyatt Place Sandestin at Grand Boulevard is scheduled to open in late 2018 with 1,600 square feet of event space.
Naples and Marco Island
Along with the Keys, the Naples area suffered the hardest hurricane hit on the Gulf Coast. That said, several recent openings and upgrades are notable.
The 183-room, $31 million Hyatt House Naples/5th Avenue opened last year with 3,100 square feet of meeting space and a 25-slip marina. A new 118-room property on Gordon Drive has been proposed on Third Street South, and the Inn on Fifth added 32 Club Suites, bringing the total number of rooms to 119.
On Marco Island, the 810-room JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort debuted earlier this year following a $320 million renovation and rebranding project. It has more than 140,000 square feet of indoor meeting facilities (and 245,000 square feet when including outdoor space), a 94-room, adults-only tower, a Spa by JW, rooftop pool, and 12,000-square-foot entertainment center. The Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa had closed for renovations even before Hurricane Irma, and plans to reopen by year's end.