Florida's East Coast Brings History to Life


Greater Ft. Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center (600,000 sf); Miami Beach Convention Center (1 million sf); Ocean Center Daytona Beach (205,000 sf); Palm Beach County Convention Center (350,000 sf); Prime F. Osborne III Convention Center, Jacksonville (275,000 sf)

• Boca Raton Resort & Club
• The Breakers 
• Greater Miami CVB
• Loews Miami Beach Hotel
• Longboat Key Club & Resort
• Ocean Reef Club
• Palm Beach CVB
• Ponte Vedra Inn and Club
• The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa 

There’s a tendency among meeting planners to always look for the new when planning a meeting or event. New destinations, hotels, event venues, teambuilding ideas, and speakers can all keep annual meetings fresh and exciting to participants who attend year after year. But just because they are looking for the new and interesting, planners shouldn’t overlook the old. 

Florida’s East Coast is chock full of spots rich in history, from Spanish colonial buildings to 19th century railroad barons’ palaces, that add buzz to an event, intrigue participants, and even provide a built-in theme.

Before we get to that, there’s one piece of history being made in Miami this month, with the partial debut of the Miami Airport Convention Center (MACC) after a gut renovation of an old expo center, the Merchandise Mart. “We are repositioning the facility,” says Mark Calibo, director of sales and marketing for the MACC and attached Doubletree Miami Airport Hotel, which finishes a top-to-bottom renovation of its own this month. The facility is targeting “groups of 1,500 room nights and under,” he says, keeping it below the competitive range of the much larger Miami Beach Convention Center. The main floor, consisting of the 30,000-square-foot East Ballroom and 75,000-square-foot trade show floor, opens at the end of the month, while the upper floor, with a pair of ballrooms and 16 breakout rooms, will be completed in March.

But for event venues with an older pedigree, begin in St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European city in the United States. Here are just a few of the storied venues a destination management company or convention and visitors bureau can help planners to use. 

Founded in 1565, St. Augustine’s historic buildings run the gamut, from a Spanish fort—the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument—to late 19th century railroad-builders’ grand hotels. One such is the former Alcazar Hotel, the magnificent Spanish Renaissance building commissioned by railroad magnate Henry Flagler that now houses the Lightner Museum’s Victorian-era furnishings and instruments, including an excellent Tiffany glass collection. It has several venues that can hold from 50 to 400 guests, including a dinner or dance in the deep end of the old indoor pool.

Daytona Beach’s best-known sporting venue is Daytona Speedway, but for groups interested in an outing during baseball season, Jackie Robinson Ballpark & Museum, currently home to the Daytona Cubs, a minor-league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, has a richer history than most, says Sally Gardiner, director of convention sales for the Daytona Beach CVB. On March 17, 1964, it was home to the minor-league farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Montreal Royals, for whom Jackie Robinson played his first integrated, professional baseball game. The Royals had planned to play an exhibition game against the Dodgers, but several other Florida municipalities refused to allow it. After a heated meeting, the city approved the game, and Robinson broke his first color  barrier. 

The park has several picnic areas where groups of 20 to more than 300 can enjoy a 90-minute pregame buffet before heading to reserved seat blocks. 

In Fort Lauderdale, Wichita Villacres, president and CEO of PRA Southeast Florida, suggests a taste of automotive history at the Dauer Museum of Classic Cars, which can take up to 150 for dinner or 200 to 250 for cocktails among the collection of classic American cars, including a 1930 Cadillac V-16 Sport Phaeton convertible. 

The old and new will combine this month at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which debuts in the city’s historic city hall building with a screening room for 75, a gallery for photographic exhibits that can accommodate 120, and a main lobby that can hold an additional 40. 

For full Gilded Age glitz and glamour, Palm Beach has the Henry Flagler Museum, in the palatial home of the magnate who pushed a railroad through Florida right down to Key West. The premier space is its opulent, 4,800 square foot Grand Hall, awash in gilt trim, marble, and a frescoed domed ceiling that would do a French chateau proud. A corporate membership requirement can make it pricey, though.

In the Keys, Flagler provided a less opulent venue in Pigeon Key, the 5.3-acre island that was used as a building site for the Florida East Coast Railroad between 1908 and 1912. A short ferry ride from Marathon Key, it is now owned by a foundation that preserves its turn-of-the-19th-century history and buildings, including a meeting house that can accommodate 70 classroom-style. 

For corporate events, the island offers stunning views, scuba diving, private beaches, and facilities including a tented picnic area, barbecue pits, and a field for volleyball and horseshoes, says Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation. It can handle groups like the 300 members of the Florida Marine Patrol that rented the island for a Fourth of July party with a pig roast and paella, or smaller ones, like the realty corporation that recently brought a group of around 50.