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Meetings on the Rise in the Sunshine State

By Christine Loomis

FLORIDA, November 18, 2021 (

Dana Young, president & CEO of Visit Florida, says domestic visitation to the state is up 6% from 2019 levels. And, in spite of continued restrictions on international travel at the time, estimates are that 1.1 million international travelers visited Florida in Q2 of 2021 — an 854% increase over 2020. “Florida tourism’s skyrocketing growth in Q2 2021 is an incredible achievement for our state’s economic recovery and underscores the effectiveness of Visit Florida’s marketing,” Young says.

While those numbers aren’t specific to meetings and conventions, we had no trouble finding groups to verify that in-person meetings are back in the “Sunshine State” — at times in new ways.

Building on a PCMA meeting format from January 2021, ASAE held a virtual annual convention, but added pop-up, face-to-face meetings in 10 destinations to give attendees the option of in-person networking and learning. One of those pop ups took place in late summer at the Palm Beach County Convention Center (PBCCC), hosted by Discover The Palm Beaches (DTPB). “We partnered with ASAE to give members the ability to reconnect at an in-person event, and to show planners how they could successfully hold meetings in these unprecedented times,” says Jorge Pesquera, president & CEO of Discover The Palm Beaches. “We provided over 70 association professionals with education and inspiration from our local leaders, and challenged them to think differently when it comes to planning their own meetings. Finally, we took the opportunity to highlight The Palm Beaches, and attendees were able to see and hear firsthand the distinct features and offerings that set our destination apart. This includes our meetings-ready area hotels, culinary scene, attractions and more.”

Dan Melesurgo, alliance partner growth & strategy leader with ASAE, agrees that, overall, the concept was successful. “Since the 2021 meeting was going virtual, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity for members to engage F2F in various markets around the country. We also thought this would be a great way to engage our alliance partners by offering them the opportunity to host a pop-up event.” He does wish that they’d been able to engage more people via the pop-ups. Not surprisingly, some locations were more successful than others. “Washington, D.C. and Chicago were the best attended,” Melesurgo says, adding that both have large association communities, which drove attendance.

Certainly pop-up attendees were happy to be back in a creative, F2F environment. One aspect of that may be related to the fact that partners, including DTPB, offered additional destination activities that, Melesurgo says, “provided a robust networking and learning opportunity for attendees.”

Is this a blueprint for future meetings? Pesquera thinks it could be. “The ASAE pop-up event was a fabulous blueprint for The Palm Beaches and other organizations on how to execute a hybrid event successfully and collaborate with partners to provide a safe, experiential and memorable meeting,” Pesquera says. “ASAE members received inspiring and educational content while getting to enjoy Florida’s finest travel experience and our signature hospitality. We were able to bring our community partners together, like our local artists, coffee roasters and even fresh coconut vendors, to emphasize how collaboration and partner activation customizes events and benefits everyone.”

Pesquera thinks hybrid meetings are here for the foreseeable future. “We believe the hybrid meeting format is viable for months and even years to come,” he says. “It provides in-person attendees with a safe event experience and a feel for the destination, while still allowing organizations to reach a more expansive audience, and the opportunity to upgrade content with talent and speakers from anywhere in the world.”

Whether ASAE will retain this exact concept going forward remains uncertain. “We haven’t finished the evaluation process,” Melesurgo says, “but I do think our goal will be to drive F2F attendance in the future.”

ETHOS Event Collective recently hosted a Backyard BBQ event, complete with live music, at the The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island near Jacksonville on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Photo Courtesy ETHOS Event Collective / the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Changes Taking Place

In-person meetings are back in Miami, too. In early fall, an association group of 750 financial and insurance professionals met for an incentive program at Loews Miami Beach Hotel. Joe Fijol, DMCP, and principal, ETHOS Event Collective, says COVID-19 has created many changes in the meeting planning process — including where groups meet. “We’ve needed to rethink meetings from start to finish,” Fijol says. “[Such as] adjusting our planning and operating procedures for things like transportation, seating, off-site experiences, hotel check-ins, registration and dine-arounds. Today, we must carefully manage expectations, as details often change from planning to execution. In terms of destinations, COVID has changed how planners make selections. In fact, the meeting [at Loews Miami Beach Hotel] was moved from an international destination as they could no longer travel out of the country.”

Travel is still a powerful incentive. “The client polled attendees to gauge interest and concerns, and found most wanted to travel,” Fijol says. This meeting was fully in-person, and Fijol adds that he’s seeing interest in virtual meetings declining dramatically compared to even six months ago. “Most companies are looking for our assistance to meet responsibly in-person,” he says. He adds that the group chose Miami for its weather, cultural offerings and outdoor activities. “Miami,” he says, “is a top destination for meeting and event planners because it always offers something new and cutting edge. It has A-list appeal, an array of unique cultural experiences and an energy that creates excitement the minute attendees land.”

Also key was Miami’s flexibility, given that the client had trouble finding availability for a group of its size on short notice. “Miami and The Loews Miami Beach were able to make accommodations,” Fijol says. He also has high praise for the [Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau]. “The [GMCVB] offers a great way for planners to get a high-level view of any destination and determine the best fit for their group. For this program, they provided real-time information about local COVID-19 cases and changes to restrictions,” Fijol says. “As this meeting was moved to Miami from another destination, up-to-date information was critical for the three months leading up to the event. Additionally, Miami’s weather and large number of open-air venues, restaurants and experiences make it easier for groups to socially distance. Moreover, Miami has the appeal of an international destination with its unique range of cultural experiences.”

Fijol calls Miami “a market that’s constantly changing” and says the CVB is “a great partner and resource for information, as well as a leader in promoting Miami both domestically and abroad to drive group business.”

The Loews was also a valuable partner in the meeting’s success. “The Loews Miami Beach was able to provide the space and amenities needed on very short notice,” Fijol says. “It’s in the heart of South Beach, attendees were in safe walking distance to most experiences and had premier access to the beach.” Additional standouts at the property for this group, Fijol says, include “ample outdoor space, beach services and the overall range of amenities that offered activities for smaller groups. For other groups, the unique opportunity to do an event on the beach is a popular reason for selecting this property. This group had never been to Miami,” he adds. “Following their experience, they expressed an interested in returning. Our team has been doing events in Miami for over a decade, and has worked with the Loews Miami Beach to plan and execute meetings and events for five years. It’s a special destination and hotel.”

For those planning a meeting in these challenging times, Fijol advises: “Allow for more time in the planning process to build in contingencies that support operations when changes occur. There are so many new questions that need to be asked to ensure program success and attendee safety,” he says. “Lean on local experts to help identify potential issues and leverage past experience. In some ways, it’s a whole new world, so local experience navigating these recent challenges is important to mitigate risk. For Miami, consider a meeting or event in the summer or early fall, as price and availability are better than in winter and spring months.”

Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort offers more than 300,000 sf of meeting space.

'Almost Heaven'

Orlando is one of the country’s premier meeting destinations, and the choice for the late spring 2021 Christian Music Broadcasters Momentum conference more than 700 attendees. The event was based at the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Like other planners, Michelle Younkman, executive director, Christian Music Broadcasters, has made adjustments during COVID. “In addition to our annual Momentum event, we offer smaller events throughout the year. We’ve moved four of those to virtual,” she says. “We’re planning three more in-person meetings in 2021. Attendance is significantly impacted by COVID, but we’re not offering a virtual component with these upcoming events because we’ve found that our attendees have Zoom fatigue. In-person events are necessary for mentoring and hands-on opportunities. Our attendees are ready to get back to being around their industry peers. Bringing our community together is essential to creating the inspiration, direction and purpose that our industry is craving right now.”

Orlando is a good fit. “Everyone wants to go to Orlando. Throw in the theme parks and it’s almost heaven,” Younkman says. “When we did a cost analysis, overall, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort was the best fit financially for our attendees as well. Most of our attendees come from the nonprofit world, so to attend an event at such a luxurious resort is a huge benefit to them. A significant number of attendees bring their families so they can enjoy the resort post conference. The convenience of the theme parks is a big win.”

But Loews offers something even more significant. “Everyone involved on the conference side — from sales to the conference m