Florida's West Coast: A Successful Meetings Destination

Stunning white-sand beaches, hundreds of golf courses, and urban centers like Tampa and St. Petersburg on the west coast of Florida are reliable magnets for groups seeking a quintessential Sunshine State meeting. Enhancing the region's appeal are luxury hotel properties under construction in downtown St. Petersburg and Sarasota, three new museums in Tampa, a new 87,000-sf multiuse facility in Naples for large group events, and a new airport set to debut in two years in the panhandle.

Home Team Recommends

Many great meeting hotel and resort venues exist in these areas, says Adrienne Sasson, travel specialist at Philadelphia-based Rubinsohn Travel. Her short list includes the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg; the Don CeSar Beach Resort: A Loews Hotel in St. Pete Beach; the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples; and the Marriott Bay Point Resort and Spa in Panama City. Dan Meister of FL-based Meister Meeting Services, says, "We have booked and held successful programs at Don CeSar Beach and Tradewinds Beach Resorts in St. Pete Beach.We used the Columbia Restaurant and enjoyed their flamenco show in Ybor City in Tampa, as well as a paddleboat cruise down the intracoastal waterway." In addition to these, Karn B.Clark of Tampa's BayArea Destination Management Co. Inc., recommends the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota as well as the Tampa Marriott Waterside and the Westin Harbour Island, both in Tampa.

According to Denver-based performer Melissa Axel, "Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa is wonderful, and the Marco Island Marriott has been a favorite for many years." Brian Figge, managing partner for Exclusive Level Meetings & Incentives, agrees about the Marco Island Marriott: "Unbelievable resort—great service, activities, food, and an easy commute from the Fort Myers airport. My client was very satisfied, and I would say they even exceeded my expectations." And Lisa Barry, executive assistant at Twin Cities-based Eagle's Flight, suggests the Hyatt Coconut Plantation in Bonita Springs: "[It's a] beautiful location [with] a wonderfully attentive staff."

The Big News

In the past 24 months, more than 20 high-end resort and condominium projects have debuted on Panama City Beach, with others on the way. Moreover, the 1.1-million-sf Pier Park, a sprawling, open-air shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, is rapidly taking shape, with an entertainment park, 10-screen movie theater, Target, Old Navy, and Dillard's recently opened and other shops and restaurants to follow.

The key to future success for meetings groups is access; one of the region's biggest liabilities has been its limited air transportation. In Dec, the Panama City-Bay County International Airport and Industrial District Airport Authority announced that documents were finalized to complete a $312 million financial package to build the airport in western Bay County. Slated to open late 2009, the new airport will be built on 1,300 acres of a 4,000-acre site donated by the St. Joe Company. Highlighted will be a 100,000-sf terminal.

To help spread the word on Panama City Beach's transformation, former Georgia tourism official Daniel J. Rowe was recently appointed CEO of Panama City Beach CVB and president of the Bay County Tourist Development Council.

Elsewhere, the recently opened 253-room Sandpearl Resort is the first new beachfront resort in the Clearwater area in 25 years. It features 25,000 sf of indoor and outdoor space, including a 5,000-sf ballroom, a luxury spa, two restaurants and a club, as well as a 6,700-sf event lawn.

"Going Wild" on the Gulf Coast

Joan Rattner Heilman reports: "For the ecologically minded, there are great escapes into the wild on the string of barrier islands on Florida's Southwest Gulf Coast—fantastic shelling, amazing bird watching, alligator and manatee viewing, and kayaking among the mangroves. At the heart of the area's tourism appeal lie 28 miles of pristine, shell-strewn, and uncrowded beaches; world-class fishing; 830 miles of navigable waterways for canoeing, kayaking, and boating; and unparalleled opportunities to view wildlife and birds. There are seven South Florida Birding Trails in Charlotte County, and a choice of river cruises up the Peace and Myakka rivers.

"I've just returned from a visit to 'wild' Florida, stopping first at Palm Island Resort, a complex of villas built along the beach on its own private island. Near Port Charlotte and about an hour and a half from Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, the long narrow island is strung between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway. To get there, you must cross the Waterway on a tiny six-car ferry that takes only a few minutes to reach the other side, where vehicles are banned and you must now get around on foot, bike, or golf cart.

"Meeting space here is casual and informal, a waterfront clubhouse with a variety of layouts can accommodate up to 150 people who lodge in their own villas, eat on site or in a choice of restaurants, and have a long list of adventures available for their off time.

"For larger meetings and conventions, the brand-new Charlotte Harbor Event & Conference Center is scheduled to open in January in nearby Punta Gorda, a picturesque riverside town that has become the arts and cultural center of the area. Amenities will include a 20,000-sf multipurpose hall that can be configured into three smaller halls; a seating capacity of 1,500 to 2,000; and food service for 700 guests.

"Be sure to plan a group visit to Charlotte County's Babcock Wildlife Management Area, part of the Babcock Crescent B Ranch that began raising cattle here a century ago. Swamp buggies take you bumping through a cypress swamp and upland meadows to see alligators, Florida Cracker cattle, wild hogs, fox-faced squirrels, wood storks, and cougars.

"Now head south into Lee County and the islands of Sanibel and Captiva, long known for the best shelling in the country. Here we lodged at the Sanibel Harbour Resort, an upscale 85-acre waterfront complex located at the confluence of the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico at the beginning of the causeway to the islands. It offers everything from a private dinner yacht to five pools, a world-class spa, and 45,000 sf of flexible indoor meeting space plus another 34,000 sf of outdoor function space that can accommodate 965 guests. There are four ballrooms that can be broken into smaller sections, 24 breakout rooms, plus services and technology to match.

"Got time for adventure? Everyone's got to spend at least a few hours crouched over the islands' white sand collecting shells. The best historic sites in these parts are Thomas Edison's and Henry Ford's winter estates where the two friends lived next door to one another for many years. A 90-minute guided tour takes you through their living quarters, Edison's research laboratory, gardens, museums, and Ford's car collection. Schedule a full-day narrated cruise to Cabbage Key, a small island located at Channel Marker 60 on the Intracoastal Waterway, to have lunch at an historic inn where the walls are papered with thousands of autographed dollar bills. And finally, among the best adventures of all, don't miss the narrated tram tour of the J.N. 'Ding' Darling National Wilderness Refuge, a 6,000-acre preserve that has been named the top bird-watching destination in North America and occupies 70 percent of Sanibel Island."

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Facilities Update

TAMPA

>> Opened in Aug, the 323-room InterContinental Tampa in the Westshore business & shopping district has 21,000 sf of flexible meeting space, Wi-Fi throughout the entire hotel, state-of-the-art fitness center, and full-service concierge program as well as rooftop pool with spectacular views of the bay and city and dining at Shula's Steak House.

ST. PETERSBURG

>> Expected to debut in 2009, the $100 million, 28-story Grand Bohemian Hotel & Residences will feature 260 guest rooms, 16,000 sf of meeting space, a spa, an art gallery, and a fine-dining restaurant.

>> The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB has changed its name to Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater (VSPC).

SARASOTA

>> Expected to break ground by the end of the year, with a planned opening in 2010, is the 18-story, 225-room Waldorf=Astoria Sarasota, which will be a centerpiece for The Proscenium, a mixed-use project that will include a 430,000-sf retail, restaurant, and entertainment section. The new hotel will have a 38,000-sf ballroom, meeting, and exhibition space, 67 Waldorf=Astoria residences, and an 800-seat performing arts center.

>> The 218-unit Longboat Key Club & Resort recently completed a $6.5 million makeover that included new guest room amenities such as 42-inch plasma TVs, Egyptian cotton sheets, and Bose sound systems.

LEE ISLAND COAST

>> Fort Myers The 227-room Crowne Plaza Hotel at Bell Tower Shops, with 12,000 sf of meeting space situated adjacent to the Bell Tower shopping complex, recently completed a $6 million renovation.

>> The 124-unit DiamondHead Beach Resort on Fort Myers Beach has introduced its "Beach Butler Service" to assist groups in planning and executing a variety of beach activities, such as eco-tour cruises, shelling charters, dolphin sightseeing tours, and sailboat rentals.

NAPLES

>> The Big Cypress Market Place, an 87,000-sf, multi-use facility with a 13,000-sf indoor, air-conditioned EXPO Event Center, high-end flea market, winery, food arena, outdoor tiki bar, and entertainment stage debuted in Jan.

>> A multimillion-dollar renovation at the 318-room Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, completed in Jan, included the enhancement of its guest rooms, suites, and guest room corridors under the direction of Chicago-based designers DeLaRosa Studio. The latest improvements at the resort follow a six-year, $40 million enhancement and expansion, which were completed in 2006.

>> Opened in Feb, the Naples Bay Resort is a luxury property that is part of a mixed-use development located downtown near the 5th Avenue shopping district. Naples Bay has 85 hotel rooms and 108 two- and three-bedroom cottages, 3,150 sf of meeting space, a Euro-style spa, fitness center, and yacht club.

>> The 200-unit GreenLinks Golf Resort & Conference Center, a luxury condo-hotel complex overlooking a golf course, debuted a new conference center in Jan, with 3,200 sf of meeting and event space.

>> The 297-room Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort will open a 10,000-sf, full-service spa with 10 treatment rooms and a fitness center in Dec.

>> The 727-room Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa recently put the finishing touches on a massive $187 million renovation that included a new infinity-edge pool, resort shopping, renovated guest rooms, new dining options, and a new golf clubhouse.

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Golf Instruction Mecca

Florida's west coast is the Ivy League of golf instruction, with several golf schools throughout the region featuring some of the world's most highly regarded teachers, like David Leadbetter, Rick Smith, Dr. Jim Suttie, and Tom Patri.

Groups meeting in the region can utilize golf academies for networking, teambuilding, attitude enhancement, clinics, and special events. The clinic setting can bring a wide variety of people together who might not necessarily socialize in the golf course setting.

Naples is home to several impressive golf academies. David Leadbetter, considered by many as "the father of modern golf instruction" has an academy at the La Playa Beach and Golf Resort. In addition to corporate outings and clinics, Leadbetter's academy has three-day, two-day, and one-day mini-schools as well as private instruction. Based at the Tiburon Golf Club at Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples is Rick Smith, who has worked with PGA Tour players Phil Mickelson and Lee Janzen. For those who want to learn swing techniques based on the philosophy of Nick Faldo, the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa is the site of the Nick Faldo Golf Institute. At the Club at Twin Eagles, Dr. Jim Suttie, the PGA of America's National Teacher of the Year in 2000, offers learning programs based on his biomechanical principles. The 2006 South Florida PGA Teacher of the Year and regular on The Golf Channel's Academy Live, Tom Patri, has a school at the Lely Resort.

Elsewhere, the Resort at Longboat Key Club near Sarasota features full- and half-day instructional programs; Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club in Palm Harbor offers the Innisbrook Golf Institute, which has a 15-acre teaching facility and teaching staff headed by PGA Tour Pro Jay Overton and Lew Smither III; and Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa is home to the world headquarters of the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy.

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Essential Tool Box

Convention Centers: Tampa Convention Center, 200,000 sf of dedicated space; 36 meeting rooms, largest accommodates 16,000 theater-style. Sarasota/Bradenton Int'l Convention Center, 120,000 sf of dedicated meeting space. Harborview Convention Center, Clearwater, 30,000 sf of dedicated space; 19 meeting rooms, largest accommodates 2,500 theater-style. Harborside Event Center, Fort Myers, 30,000 sf of dedicated space; 13 meeting rooms, largest accommodates 3,000.

For complete listings, visit Facility Quick Search at www.mimegasite.com.

Daily Business Costs*:

Tampa:
Hotel - $147.34
F&B - $88.44
Car Rental - $69.95

Sarasota:
Hotel - $130.64
F&B - $82.41
Car Rental - $78.77

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Readers Recommend

Our subscribers gave Pinnacle Awards to the following:

>> Don CeSar Beach Resort, A Loews Hotel
>> Grand Hyatt, Tampa Bay
>> Hilton Sandestin Golf Resort & Convention Center
>> Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa
>> Marco Island Ocean Resort
>> Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club
>> Sheraton Sand Key Resort

For more listings, visit Facility Quick Search at www.mimegasite.com.

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Essential Tool Box

For More Information:

>> Tampa Bay CVB

>> Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater

>> Lee County VCB

>> Naples, Marco Island, and the Everglades CVB

>> Panama City Beach CVB

>> Pensacola Bay Area CVB

>> Sarasota CVB

>> Bradenton Area CVB

For complete listings, visit Facility Quick Search at www.mimegasite.com.

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Museums Everywhere

Some of Florida's most impressive museums are located in cultural havens like Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota. Ranging from the Tampa Museum of Art, known for its permanent collection of Greek and Roman antiquities to the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida's west coast offers a variety of museum experiences ideal for special events, spouse programs, day trips, and after-meeting entertainment.

In downtown Tampa, three new museums are opening in 2009. The Tampa Bay History Center is currently under construction on parkland fronting Garrison Channel. The Tampa Museum of Art is building a new 66,000-sf facility in Curtis Hixon Park. Overlooking the Hillsborough River will be the 50,000-sf Glazer Children's Museum.

The Salvador Dali Museum is the permanent home of the world's most comprehensive collection of the renowned Spanish surrealist's work, celebrated for its 96 oil paintings. More than 100 watercolors and drawings, 1,300 graphics, photographs, sculptures and objects d'art, in addition to an extensive archival library are also featured. The 2,800-sf facility can accommodate 350 for a standing reception, 250 for a meeting, and 150 for a seated dinner.

In Sarasota, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, recognized as the official State Art Museum of Florida, offers 21 galleries of European paintings as well as Cypriot antiquities, Asian Art, American paintings, and contemporary art. The museum also houses an art conservation laboratory, a 65,000-volume art library, and archives. Located on a 66-acre estate overlooking Sarasota Bay, the complex also includes the spectacular Ca d'Zan Mansion, Circus Museum, and Asolo Theater. For special events, the Art Museum and Loggia can accommodate a dinner/dance for 1,000 people amid 19th- and 20th-century replicas of ancient Greek and Roman and Baroque sculptures; and Mable's Rose Garden can handle a reception for 50.

Originally published June 01, 2008

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