All over southwest Florida along the Gulf Coast, historic venues and other enticing spots abound to host groups.
From the European-inspired Ringling Museum of Art with its views of Sarasota Bay to the 1908 Heitman House in Fort Myers on the Caloosahatchee River, to the NGALA Wildlife Preserve in Naples, a variety of sites offer memorable settings for once-in-a-life time events.
The name Ringling rightly conjures up visions of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the circus started by John Ringling and his four brothers. What most people don’t know is the circus and other entrepreneurial endeavors made John one of the richest men in the U.S. at one time with an estimated fortune of $200 million.
In the early 1900s, John and his wife Mable purchased land in Sarasota and decided to build a house in what became their winter haven. Mable wanted the house in a Venetian Gothic style of a palazzo in Venice, Italy. With views of the Sarasota Bay, the $1.5 million, 36,000-square-foot mansion was built.
Today, the opulent Ca’ d’Zan, or “House of John,” serves as a backdrop for intimate events on the Terrace for up to 250. For larger groups, The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art Courtyard with its Renaissance-style architecture and gardens—including a replica of Michelangelo’s David— can accommodate up to 800.
“We offer impressive outdoor venues for corporate gatherings in the Museum of Art Courtyard or Ca’ d’Zan Terrace,” said Christina Fraser, assistant director of events. “Tibbals Learning Center is perfect for a smaller crowd desiring a circus theme.”
Another venue, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, is a 15-acre bayfront property located near hotels and downtown Sarasota overlooking the Sarasota Bay. The Gardens offer a variety of rental options, including indoor and outdoor space for groups large and small.
Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, Fort Myers
The Christy Payne Mansion on property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and offers a variety of room types and sizes for any function or occasion.
The Great Room by the Bay features 60 feet of glass windows showcasing a beautiful bay view. Rentable outdoor spaces include the Great Lawn, Banyan Grove, Children’s Rainforest Garden and Schimmel Pavilion.
“More and more of our meeting planners are looking to add an experiential component to their events,” said Jill Vance, director of sales for the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Visitor and Convention Bureau. “A common trend is to hold an off-site event at a venue rich in history and culture.”
One venue in particular fits the bill, according to Al Mueller, CEO at Creative Events & Rental in Fort Myers.
“We’ve done events at the 1908 Heitman House right on the Caloosahatchee River,” he said. “Guests are brought back to a different era when they walk through the doors.”
The grounds and wraparound porch provide a great venue for upscale events. Events include dinner and seating for up to 250 and 300 for a cocktail reception.
The Mound House museum on the Estero Bay provides a picturesque setting for special events. Mound House was named for the mounds of shells built up as protection from high tides and hurricanes by the Calusa Indians 2,000 years ago. The first structure on the mound was built in 1898 and expanded in 1906.
From 1914 to 1916 it was called the “Bayview” post office, and during WWII the property served as a military R&R facility. Today, visitors can go inside the mound or walk around the 400-foot winding pathway where guides talk about the native landscape.
In the downtown Fort Myers River District, the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center can host private events in the 10,000-square-foot, two-story Grand Atrium or groups can use the conservatory for a cocktail reception or the Capital Gallery for up to 150 guests.
“The Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center can handle up to 500 guests for events depending on the setup and configuration of the room,” said Jim Griffith, president/executive director. “We also have smaller breakout rooms and additional galleries available. We are currently building our rooftop sculpture garden, which will accommodate 200 guests with food and beverage capabilities.”
Also in Fort Myers, The Alliance for the Arts’ Margaret Morrow Frizzell Amphitheater & Grounds seats up to 1,500 people, while its Art Exhibition Galleries space works well for stand-up receptions for up to 200.
Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda
“The Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach area features a wide variety of enticing activities from which meeting planners can choose,” said Sean Doherty, interim director of tourism, Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau. “From active outdoor pursuits to venues such as Muscle Car City, Fishermen’s Village and Peace River Botanical Gardens, all offer unique off-site spaces capable of hosting memorable receptions, teambuilding activities or other functions.”
Bill Klossner, president of the 27-acre Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens said that groups of up to 100 have done “wine and wander” tours surrounded by colorful flowers, greenery and outdoor sculptures from all over the world.
“We have works from modern artists from China, Turkey, Indonesia and a few pieces from Carole Feuerman, famous for her hyperrealism,” he said. “We also just hosted a retreat for 20 board members of a nonprofit in our community center.”
“Arts and cultural venues in Naples and Marco Island are easily accessible from area resorts and hotels, and offer interesting settings that may feature local history, beautiful artwork or unique venues,” said Debi DeBenedetto, group sales and marketing manager for the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB.
“One of our most memorable venues is NGALA, an African-themed venue with authentic dancers and interaction with animals including giraffe and rhinoceros,” she explained. “We also have The Revs Institute, one of the most historically significant automobile collections in the world housed in a beautiful museum setting.”
Muscle Car City, Punta Gorda | Credit: PureFlorida.com
Revs has some of the most rare and most important cars ever built and the Institute offers a variety of compelling special meeting places and the opportunity for docent-guided tours.
All special event requests (seated and plated dinners) are handled through Global Works Destination Management on a limited basis for up to 225 people.
The Baker Museum (formerly the Naples Museum of Art) offers culturally significant events and exhibits as well as interesting meeting venues. The Baker Museum and other aspects of the campus are undergoing expansion and enhancements this year that will greatly enhance both indoor and open-air event spaces. Current options include a performance hall with extensive foyer art gallery space.
The Naples Art Association’s headquarters in downtown Naples is another great spot for events. Located one block south of historic 5th Avenue South, the building overlooks Cambier Park in downtown Naples.
“We can seat 120 for formal dining in the Watson, 160 guests for theater seating and 250-plus for a reception,” said Mary Visgilio, events coordinator for Naples Art Association.
“We have five studios upstairs which are great for small groups to do teambuilding activities with art," she added. "We have one group coming in from Miami to paint bowls as a teambuilding evening. We will have an instructor here to guide them—very fun! We like to think we take our guest events from ordinary to artistic.”
The Marco Island Historical Society features the 2,600-square-foot Rose History Auditorium that sets the stage for a wide range of events and gatherings. The outdoor grounds offer a garden setting with historically accurate murals on the outdoor walls of the neighboring Marco Island Historical Museum.
Southwest Florida CVB Information
Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Charlotte Harbor VCB
Naples, Marco Island, Everglades CVB