Top-End Incentives Face Tough Choices in Florida

(Originally published October 10, 2005)

The good news for planners considering Florida as a destination for incentives in the coming year is that the number of choices has increased since last year. The bad news is, so have the prices.

While a lot of high-end hotel rooms have entered the market, they have not offset increasing demand for top-drawer hotels in the Sunshine State.

"Demand seems to be up big time in the past few months," said Teresa Harrington, president of Ancomp, a meetings and incentives management company based in Boca Raton. "We have had more inquiries about incentive events in the past two months or so than we have had at any time since before Sept. 11."

Driving the surge, said Harrington, has been big corporate activity.

"Any time that happens, you are going to see a lot of demand in Florida, especially South Florida," she said.

Scott Brush, an independent hotel industry analyst based in Miami, said hotel prices have increased 5 to 7 percent over last year, and possibly more for South Florida and beachfront hotels on either the Atlantic or Gulf Coast.

"There has been a lot of building, and reopening of hotels shut down by the 2004 hurricanes, but certainly not enough to offset demand," Brush said. "Besides, there's basically never been a point at which it was not a seller's market for South Florida and beachfront hotel rooms in the midst of the high season."

Florida will likely stay in demand for incentives even as prices increase. First, Florida prices are essentially not rising any more than elsewhere; secondly, there's the matter of Florida's allure.

"The whole concept of going to Florida is pretty much considered a reward in itself, and that alone is motivating to incentive groups," said planner Judy Benaroche Johnson, president and CEO of Rx Worldwide Meetings.

Lots of new hotel construction in Florida has been more or less constant, as have upgrades of existing hotels that don't want to lose customers to the new facilities.

For example, a whole series of beachfront hotel construction is under way in Fort Lauderdale that will make that strip more like the high-rise-laden shores of Miami Beach (see story on page 46).

Meanwhile, Hurricane Charley in 2004 provided the impetus for a whole round of new construction in the long-popular incentive destination of Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico.Waterfront resorts like the Sanibel Harbor Resort and South Seas Resort on Captiva Island have done massive rebuilding projects that basically turned them into new facilities.

In addition, the scope of venues seeking to jump into the group function arena has broadened. Everything from private mansions to mangrove swamps are now opening up for group events.

"There's really a lot more demand these days by groups that want to see the so-called real Florida, the places that lie outside the confines of a hotel or a theme park," said Harrington. "And entities that really didn't do a lot of group activities before are now opening their doors."

Among Harrington's favorite places for incentive group events include Mar-a- Lago, the Palm Beach mansion that Marjorie Merriweather Post built in 1937 for $8 million. At 55,695 square feet, the Addison Mizner-designed structure is Palm Beach County's largest private home. Donald Trump bought it in 1995, and allows it to be rented out as a private club when he is not there.

Harrington said it is not unusual for the rich and famous in Palm Beach to offer up their estates for private events, giving groups an option for elegant functions. Another ultra-upscale setting Harrington likes for incentive groups is the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, where groups can watch polo matches and other events and have swanky catered picnics. And Miami's Villa Vizcaya and Gardens, built in the 1920s by industrialist James Deering as his private home, is an exclusive and popular corporate venue.

Meanwhile, the Everglades has a good number of venues for group tours and picnics. Several privately owned Everglades outposts have pavilions for dining after swamp buggy or airboat tours of North America's largest wetlands area.

Everglades activities are also among the most popular outdoor group events across the peninsula from Palm Beach County to the incentive destination of Naples. Among the popular vendors for group tours of the western Everglades are

Chokoloskee Charters & Everglades Kayak Fishing, which uses big power boats to ferry kayaking groups to remote wetlands adventure spots.

Also popular is Everglades/Floridays Charters,which takes groups on Everglades adventures in a small cruising boat.