On Sept. 9, 2017, Hurricane Irma first made landfall in the Florida Keys and then tore up the Florida Peninsula, leaving in its wake a few days of destruction, downed trees and flooding.

And then it was over.

While some hotels and venues suffered damage and needed to renovate, most were fortunate to experience only minimal damage, enabling them to reopen quickly. 

According to Ken Lawson, president and CEO of VISIT FLORIDA, his organization implemented an aggressive marketing plan to let visitors and meetings professionals know Florida was back in business, but they also worked closely with the areas of the state most heavily affected. 

“The great news is that every area of our state, from the Keys to Pensacola, is booming again, and the sun is shining bright,” Lawson said.

Debi DeBenedetto, group sales manager, Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB, was equally optimistic: “As of October 1, the Paradise Coast was clear,” she said. 

And while hotels in the midst of renovations were delayed, such as the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa, DeBenedetto said that because of and not in spite of Irma, planners can look forward to new and improved products.

According to Andrew Neubauer, director of sales and marketing at the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa, “the delay has worked out to be a good thing.”  

The scope of the rooms and suites renovation has blossomed into a complete transformation, and there will be 16 suites added to the top floor of the resort. Meanwhile, Lanai suites located on the first floor will have walk-out access to the swimming pool and whirlpool.

Indeed, there’s a renovation and building boom all over the state. Whether it’s hotels, infrastructure or new rides in theme parks, the new state bird seems to be the crane. 

VISIT FLORIDA Stats

According to VISIT FLORIDA, 67 hotels opened from January through November 2017, amounting to 8,975 additional rooms across the state. And, there are a whopping 109 new hotels under construction, providing an additional 14,525 rooms and 151,000 square feet of meeting space. 

Additionally, about 150 hotels are in the final planning stages, meaning they begin construction within the next 12 months. These hotels will bring an additional 21,250 rooms and more than 61,000 square feet of meeting space to Florida’s existing inventory.

Beyond that, according to VISIT FLORIDA, there are 181 hotels, accounting for more than 30,000 rooms in various stages of planning throughout the state.

Many of the downtown areas in Florida are seeing growth, too. Sarasota, for example, will add 1,075 new hotel rooms within a two-year span. Many are located within walking distance of restaurants, Sarasota Bay, and arts and cultural offerings. 

“We have not had this many new hotels open in such a short span of time in more than a decade,” said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota. “With expanded sporting events, cultural offerings and meetings, there is a demand for more hotel rooms. And I am optimistic that our expanded sales efforts during the past several years will keep these hotels full year-round.”

Tampa as well is seeing solid growth as far as hotel inventory, according to Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO, Visit Tampa Bay.

“As a destination, Tampa Bay has grown tremendously over the past three years as existing hotels were sold and owners invested millions in renovations and upgrades,” Corrada said. “That situation is now changing—and quickly. We’ve seen new brands arrive this month with the opening of the AC by Marriott, The Godfrey Hotel & Cabanas and The Current, a new Autograph Collection by Marriott under construction.

"And we’ll see our first five-star property, a JW Marriott, break ground later this year in our convention district with completion set in time for Super Bowl LV (in 2021)," he added.

State infrastructure improvements can be seen on major highways, like I-4 in Orlando that runs right through the tourist corridor, and an expanded Orlando International Airport in the midst of a new $1.8 billion south airport terminal. 

There’s also been a transformation at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC). The 62,182-square-foot Valencia Ballroom has been converted into a beautiful space that can be divided into three sections of 20,000 square feet each.

Down I-Drive, more than $1 billion in high-profile development is planned through 2020 for the International Drive resort area. (I-Drive has also recently opened a Topgolf and an Andretti Indoor Karting & Games).

In Miami, the countdown is on for the fall 2018 opening of the $620 million expanded and renovated LEED Silver-certified Miami Beach Convention Center, expected to significantly increase the destination’s offerings for meetings and conventions. Their first “guest” will be the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) Sept. 22-26, 2018, bringing in 4,000 delegates.

In Greater Fort Lauderdale, new plans for the Broward County Convention Center Expansion and Headquarters Hotel Projects were recently approved. In addition, the County will begin negotiations for an Omni Hotels and Resorts 800-room headquarters hotel. 

Once completed, the convention center expansion and headquarters hotel projects are expected to add $100 million per year to the local economy by increasing tourism and creating jobs in Broward County while also improving the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Center District, which includes surrounding hotels, restaurants and entertainment options.

Combined with multibillion-dollar expansions of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Port Everglades seaport, Greater Fort Lauderdale continues to grow as a major player in the meetings and travel industry. 

“This is significant news for the future growth of the destination,” said Stacy Ritter, president and CEO, Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB. “The new facilities, especially an on-site hotel, puts us in a lead position with the meetings industry. Our success in hosting many annual events and conventions will be amplified with new infrastructure and resources that meet the needs of the meeting, event and association planner and attendee of the future, and will bring over $100 million of new annual economic activity to our community.” 

All Aboard Florida’s Brightline trains launched introductory service between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale Jan. 13, 2018, and the company expects to extend the service to Miami in the coming months.

Phase 2 of Brightline’s high-speed passenger train will start work on its extension into Orlando’s airport where it will have a station in the terminal.

Some $2 billion is earmarked for the Orlando segment and should be completed by early 2021. 

On the Books

Business is up, too, in the Orlando market where advance hotel bookings for the first quarter of 2018 were up 2.6 percent ahead of this time last year, according to the latest report from TravelClick.

Orlando’s hotel inventory is up as well, with more than 5,000 rooms in the pipeline. 

The new 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando Resort and the $140 million transformation of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort have given an added boost to Orlando’s meeting hotel offerings.  

As far as the theme parks, Universal’s Volcano Bay water theme park opened and is now ready to host unique events for groups of up to 300 after hours. SeaWorld Orlando introduced a spectacular light show extravaganza, Electric Ocean (open from May through September), which groups can experience in a private viewing space. 

Disney Springs continues to expand with more than 150 restaurants, shops and immersive experiences like Planet Hollywood. Escape to Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is the largest expansion in its history and opens up guests to the mythical world of Pandora–The World of Avatar.

In addition, Disney announced plans to expand Coronado Springs Resort over the next two years with a new 15-story tower that will add 500 rooms to the convention hotel. In addition, Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club Resorts will add 28,000 square feet of meeting and event space to its convention center. 

With all the activity surrounding the state, there may be no better time to come to Florida. 

“When it comes to booking meetings and events, there simply is no better place than Florida," Lawson said. "We have world-class facilities, hospitality professionals and services that are simply unrivaled, and all set against the most beautiful beaches and scenery in the world. Oh, and the food and drink are phenomenal as well.

"But don’t take my word for it—come experience it all for yourself," he added.

Click here to view more of the 2018 Meetings Today Florida supplement.