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3 Major Meetings Trends in Florida, According to Hospitality Industry Experts

Opal Sands Resort exterior

As we look at meetings and events in 2024 in Florida, we wonder: What are planners asking for? According to these hospitality pros, it’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, history and culture and more curated experiences.

History and Cultural Experiences on the Rise

Vizcaya Museum + Gardens
Vizcaya Museum + Gardens, Miami. Photo by Robin Hill. 

Business has doubled since the pandemic for Melissa Mabe, president of Melrose Enterprises in Tampa. A destination management and tour business veteran with an events business pedigree dating back to 1990, the last decade brought Mabe’s talent to Tampa, where she sees a clear trend: Today’s meeting professionals want to create dynamic experiences to provide groups with a true taste of the area.  

Melissa Mabe
Melissa Mabe

And Mabe delivers.

“Planners are asking for more of the culture of Tampa,” she said, adding that attendees want to learn more about the history of the city. “They’re less interested in gambling and beach lūʻau; we’re not getting calls for that. Instead, they want to visit historic Ybor City and watch cigars hand-rolled in storefronts, or taste an authentic Cuban sandwich, or even gaze in astonishment at the flamenco dancers at historic Columbia Restaurant, in business for more than 100 years.”  

In fact, according to the 2024 Meetings Today Trends Survey, 41% of planner respondents reported the use of historic buildings and landmarks when planning offsite events.  

Mabe also brings flavor to group adventures by guiding attendees to the historic La Segunda Bakery in Ybor for a Cuban coffee and pastry, or a local distillery to discover how sugar cane-based liquor is made paired with tastings.  

Stuart Gardner
Stuart J, Gardner

Based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida Meeting Services President Stuart J. Gardner has produced meetings since 1982 and insists Florida-bound groups are not just looking for fun in the sun.

“People are looking for history and culture, so we might bring them to Bonnet House Museum & Gardens,” he offered as an example. “This 35-acre estate dates to the 1920s and makes for a memorable event spot. Another favorite is The Historic Stranahan House Museum on New River in Fort Lauderdale. It’s the oldest surviving structure in Broward County and formerly served as a trading post, town hall and home to the Stranahans and opened as a historic house museum in 1984.”

Gardner also added that while coastal Miami is known for its sizzling nightlife and stunning beaches, he finds event hot spots include the Phillip & Patricia Frost Museum of Science and the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, once owned by James Deering who employed a third of the population in the area.

Gardner also offers guided tours of Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, an urban oasis tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway for groups to gawk at gopher tortoises and feed massive Tarpon from Robbie’s of Islamorada boat rental.  

For international groups, Gardner often steers them to Kennedy Space Center to learn about the history of NASA, before tucking in for a luxurious dinner set beneath the Saturn V, all while chatting with an astronaut!

“They especially love this,” Gardner added.

[Related: The Latest Meeting News in Florida]

Surge in Corporate Social Responsibility  

Jessica James, director of sales for destination management company PRA, Pompano Beach, says in the past few years, interest in CSR has skyrocketed, in part, due to the pandemic.

“I think being away from people put more emphasis on people,” she said. “Hurricane Ian, for example, impacted the Fort Myers,

Jessica James
Jessica James

 Marco Island and Naples areas. We had a group of 120 scheduled in November 2022 (after the hurricane) and while the company considered canceling, they ultimately determined their best course was to pour money into an economy that needed it most. This also teed up with its corporate culture and was clearly the right thing to do.  

“For other groups, we’ve added a bag stuffing activity for attendees to fill with toiletries to give out to those in need,” James continued. “Companies are asking for activities such as building bikes for kids in need and dune restoration, where we remove invasive plants and replant the dunes to restore the beach. We did a beach cleanup right in front of The Diplomat hotel in Hollywood and we didn’t have to put anyone on a bus to do it!”  

“I’ve been doing inbound meetings for Fortune 500 companies for years and we are experiencing an incredible surge in CSR,” Gardner added. “Our corporate clients want something that will make an impact on the community. A group from Denmark came to Fort Lauderdale a week before Thanksgiving and we organized a teambuilding event where we took food to needy South Florida families. There were very few dry eyes—from our group and the recipients—during this event.”

Gardner has also worked with former President Jimmy Carter’s beloved Habitat for Humanity and hosted a pharmaceutical group in Fort Lauderdale that worked with Paralyzed Veterans of America to build 42 wheelchairs.  

Mabe of Melrose Enterprises is delighted with groups specifically asking for CSR-friendly teambuilding activities.  

“Attendees want to be able to say they did something that made a difference. Every year, we do a Gasparilla Festival in Tampa and our last after-festival cleanup yielded 21 tons of garbage! It’s part of our Keep Tampa Beautiful campaign,” Mabe explained.  

Kelly Defebo
Kelly Defebo

“In Sarasota, we see more impactful CSR group experiences,” said Kelly Defebo, VP of marketing and communications for Visit Sarasota County. She said that groups at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota and The Resort at Longboat Key Club acted to protect loggerhead sea turtles’ new nests and hatchlings, an activity unique to a beach destination. “We’ve also done beach cleanups and worked with hunger relief organizations. It’s good for the soul and good for the planet,” Defebo added.  

Meeting groups are giving back, insisted Katie Mitura, Visit Jacksonville’s chief marketing officer, adding that groups have several opportunities with local nonprofits in her community. Some of these include Rethreaded, an organization that provides job training to women who have been trafficked; Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, which finds fur-ever homes for rescued and endangered big cats; and Beaches Go Green helps deliver awareness and education around waste production and how it affects the planet. The organization also hosts cleanup efforts to collect trash from coastal areas.  

Based in Fernandina Beach, ETHOS Event Collective is a meeting and event company with a clear goal of leaving a lasting impact in the communities they serve, said Raquel Santo, the company’s content marketing manager.  

“CSR is a priority. ETHOS Event Collective holds a strong conviction that CSR is one of the most important trends of this year and will have a lasting presence in 2024,” Santo said. “The heart of every event lies in its capacity to contribute positively and make a meaningful impact on the community. It's about creating moments that not only connect our clients with their audience, but also leave a positive footprint in the communities we serve. Together, we're shaping a brighter future, one event at a time."

[Related: Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater Deliver Delightful Group Cultural Experiences]

Curated Experiences

Opal Sands Resort aerial shot in Clearwater
Opal Sands Resort, Clearwater

Industry veterans say the once popular “Beach Olympics” are a thing of the past, primarily because attendees want more personalization in their meeting experience.

“We do offer group activities, like taking a cruise on a catamaran, but we let attendees self-select, whether it’s kayaking or shopping. That gives the trip a bespoke feeling,” James said. “It even comes down to gifting. We want to support the community by having local gifts or items that give back to a local charity. We give them a taste of Miami with a mojito making kit, or empanadas from a local baker, so it feels like they walked away with a piece of Miami.  

“We’ve given out watercolor postcards from a local art gallery, and Marco Island Candle Company’s candles and soaps. I’m the last person who wants a logoed water bottle,” James joked.  

“Meeting planners are looking for different activities in different locations, which creates more understanding and interaction with a destination,” said Linda Haserot, VP, sales and marketing for Ocean Properties, the marketing company for the Opal Collection group of hotels and resorts.

The Opal Sands Resort site offers a section of experiences such as the Clearwater Marina for a sunset sail and Pier 60 for fishing, restaurants and shopping. At Reef House in Key Largo, one group activity is a trip to a nearby facility for groups to help restore coral reefs, and, on The Capitana, Key West’s resort site, scuba diving, shopping and cultural activities like visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home await groups.  

Raquel Santo
Raquel Santo

"ETHOS Event Collective diverges from the path of cookie-cutter solutions in event planning, acknowledging the uniqueness of each client with their specific needs and aspirations,” Santo said. “This philosophy is rooted in the belief that each event should be as individual as the client it serves. By crafting customized experiences aligned with our client's visions, each event is one-of-a-kind. In 2024, the emphasis on creating memorable experiences that tell our clients' stories will be a central focus for all event professionals."

Robert A. Cohen of Alliance Benefits, based in Maryland, agrees.  

“I’ve seen an increase in the value of experiences over material things,” he said. “Our incentive programs offer unique and memorable experiences tailored to individual interests and needs, such as travel, wellness retreats and adventure activities. Some like to just relax and take it easy while others prefer golf or tennis or pickleball, cultural and food or an adrenaline rush in the form of sky diving or ATVs.” 

Catch up on all the latest news in the Sunshine State and read the 2024 edition of Meetings Today Florida

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About the author
Jennifer Juergens | Contributing Content Developer, Florida and Caribbean