The preferences of meeting, convention and incentive attendees continue to become more sophisticated and merge with those of leisure travelers. In fact, the whole notion of “bleisure” travel—the combination of business and leisure—continues to ascend, while travelers expect to be immersed in the authenticity of destinations and be wowed at events.

We reached out to some of the brightest minds in Florida tourism—CVB executives—to get their take on what will trend in 2019, both in the Sunshine State and beyond.

George Aguel
President & CEO, Visit Orlando

We are seeing more experiential meetings. Attendees want to be entertained, educated and engaged, yet they are increasingly distracted by technology at their fingertips. Experiential meetings and events have become even more critical to overcoming this challenge. In Orlando, options for experiential meetings go beyond the ballroom and are practically endless. Groups can mingle with giant Transformers, dine beside playful dolphins or take a nighttime excursion through mythical Pandora—the World of Avatar, to create lasting memories that keep attendees engaged and off their cell phone, unless it’s for a photo!

Convenience is key. Sometimes it isn’t just about the event, it’s also about the convenience and ease of the experience. Planners want the logistics of getting in and out of a destination and getting around during the event to be convenient, affordable and entertaining. In Orlando, we’ve listened and have created more connectivity between the convention center and nearby hotels, and increased the retail, dining and entertainment options in close proximity.

We have nearly 5,200 hotel rooms across four hotels all connected to the Orange County Convention Center, making Orlando one of the most well-connected cities. And with pedestrian skybridges and five major retail, dining and entertainment districts within minutes of the convention center, attendees now have access to more than 75 restaurants and attractions.

Attendees are increasingly seeking out dining experiences unique to the destination. Orlando’s dining scene has shown incredible growth over the last few years, with dining options that are both diverse and well regarded.

From celebrity chefs like Iron Chef Morimoto and Rick Bayless, to local James Beard-nominated chefs at the helm of Orlando favorites Rusty Spoon, Ravenous Pig and Luma, it’s part of the reason named Orlando one of the top 10 Best Foodie Cities in America. This level of quality and choice gives planners a wide range of venues to choose from to give attendees an authentic taste of Orlando.

Barry Moskowitz
Vice President, Sales & Industry Relations,
Greater Miami CVB

All of the development here in Miami is overwhelming. We’ll have the grand opening of our $650 million reimagined Miami Beach Convention Center, which is a show-stopper and has created a lot of buzz. Companies want to be in this new state-of-the-art, technologically advanced building. The convention center is not only technologically advanced, it’s a beautiful venue and we just got approved for our 800-room connecting headquarters hotel. So they’ll be designing it in 2019, breaking ground in 2020 for an opening in 2023. It’s going to be a game-changer because we’ve never had a connecting hotel, and they’re going to take a parking lot and turn it into a Central Park-like area with greenery, art and sculpture. David Beckham’s Soccer Stadium, Freedom Park, has just been approved, and we’re waiting to hear about approval on a 1,700-room Marriott Marquis Miami World Center.

As far as meeting trends, planners want the CVBs to get creative with more interactive educational sessions with fewer lectures. They want more lounge settings for more interaction and fewer table and chair setups. Planners want to create a sense of place in the destination, with coffee breaks more geared to the culture here, for example.

[Event planners] are also looking for unique off-site venues. They want their groups to experience neighborhoods like Little Havana, where Cubans first settled, and Wynwood Art District, where they can see graffiti art. They don’t want to do an  “any town USA” event. They want to do something unique to the destination.

We’re also seeing the continued trend of farm-to-table. Our number-one industry is tourism and our second is agriculture, which most people don’t realize. So we’re seeing our convention center’s foodservice, Centerplate, focused on sourcing as much as they can from local farms and bringing it to life for our attendees.

As far as transportation, we’re branding our shuttle buses, offering local music on the bus, and some groups are being provided with local Florida products when they get in and out of the bus—like local candies or Key Lime cookies.

Finally, customers want more breaks during the day with healthy foods and yoga instructors for breaks as people continue to be focused on wellness.

Santiago C. Corrada
President & CEO, Visit Tampa Bay

Looking ahead to 2019, Tampa Bay is trending up. We are in the midst of a historic hotel building boom that will add thousands of new hotel rooms to the destination over the course of the next year to two years, with several smaller properties coming online in 2019, and others, including a new 519-room JW Marriott convention hotel with 150,000 square feet of meeting space, set to open in 2020. Our first five-star property, Tampa Edition, will open in 2021 as part of the history-making Water Street Tampa project.

Our waterfront Tampa Convention Center is undergoing a $20 million revitalization to improve attendees’ experience. Our key convention property, the landmark Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, recently began its own $40 million overhaul that reinvents its relationship to the popular Tampa Riverwalk. Several other landmark properties, including the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk, have recently completed their own renovations.

On top of all that, our food scene continues to blossom with exciting new food-hall venues such as Sparkman Wharf and Armature Works. Meanwhile, our meetings business continues to break records as we look forward to hosting the 75th Anniversary gathering of Florida Music Educators, our longest-running meeting event, and the NCAA Women’s Final Four in 2019, the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity national conclave in 2020 and Super Bowl LV in 2021.

Kerri L. Post
Executive Director, Visit Tallahassee/Leon County Tourism

Meeting planners looking to leave their mark are looking at Tallahassee. Our landscape of unique meeting space continues to evolve as we continue to grow. Gone are the days of uninspiring conference rooms and a “fend-for-yourself” attitude toward outside entertainment. Why not meet overlooking the football field the Florida State Seminoles have won championships on, a contemporary rooftop lounge overlooking the Tallahassee skyline or at a state-of-the art craft brewery? This creative approach to attracting meetings led to a rapid rise in the number of meetings and events held in Tallahassee.

Tallahassee has seen tremendous growth in the number of hotel rooms and meeting space over the past few years, with more on the way. Brands like Hyatt House, Hotel Indigo, Loews and AC Hotels are adding their names to the Tallahassee roster within the next year, a 20 percent increase over the current amount of available rooms.

The situation we have in Tallahassee right now is that demand exceeds supply. During peak times, our hotels often reach capacity, making it difficult to hold meetings here. That concern will soon be a thing of the past with the addition of these wonderful new hotels and meeting spaces.

The Visit Tallahassee sales team provides complimentary services, including RFP distribution and site visit coordination to welcome bags and entertainment itineraries. There is also a grant program and transportation assistance for qualifying groups.

Adam Thomas
Director, Experience Florida’s Sports Coast (formerly Visit Pasco)

There is a strong focus on bleisure in 2019 and rightfully so. Consumers are looking for a hybrid experience, one that can elevate their business goals as well as their personal goals. This category of travel has transformed the way companies vet their off-site meetings and conventions space, ultimately searching for the ideal “all work, plus play” destination. Bleisure means Business for Experience Florida’s Sports Coast CVB. As one of the fastest-growing economies in Florida, the Florida Sports Coast destination continues to evolve with new hotels, restaurants, attractions and a new personality that offers active, energetic and youthful experiences that will turn business travelers of today into bleisure travelers of tomorrow.

Small market meeting planning is on the rise as companies create hyper-niche itineraries for these groups and many meetings align with a focus of the destination or venue they are visiting. Our destination is primed for small market meeting planners to schedule their clients’ annual board meeting, corporate event or SMERF group around one of our entertaining festivals, which includes the Kumquat Festival and Chasco Fiesta, to name a few. The CVB can craft a personalized itinerary for any group. We can provide teambuilding activities that include group events at Tampa Bay Sporting Clay for skeet and trap shooting, ziplining through Florida’s longest aerial ropes course at Tree Hoppers or chartering a fishing guide off our 24-mile coast line.

Another scheduling bonus for any planner is aligning their clients’ business getaway with their kids travel tournament schedule as the Florida Sports Coast plays host to a variety of national and international youth tournaments at Advent Center Ice, Saddlebrook Golf and Tennis School or the soon-to-be Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex.

Location, as always, continues to be a key factor for many planners. Minimal transportation and ease of logistics are appreciated by teams looking for a successful experience. Affordably close to Tampa International Airport, navigating to any one of our properties will be as easy as locking in your event.

Kelly Cavers
Senior Vice President of Group Sales,
Discover The Palm Beaches

Meeting planners are collaborating with our team and community partners far in advance of the conference to support the marketing and promotion of each event. This generates tremendous excitement about both the destination and the event, boosting the overall attendance to help support the overall goal of the conference organizer.

They are looking for “hyper-local” when coordinating an event to create compelling meeting content and authentic destination experiences. We support them in creating a meeting that highlights our unique vibe, directly influenced by the city’s rich culture, to help give the attendees an emotional tie to the event and the area. Meeting planners see that we make it easy for them, helping them plan a very experiential event, from the food that attendees eat to the arts and entertainment they experience here in the area. Another way we activate the community is to help bring in a local thoughtleader to speak and inspire at the event, with the result of increased attendee satisfaction.

For meeting and events, we are seeing an increased emphasis on corporate social progress by incorporating elements of giving back. We can help planners organize a rewarding service activity for members of their group to help others in the community, or work to help protect the environment, or by supporting a charitable cause. For example, we have worked with a local boutique, Shoppe 561, which features locally curated products created by marginalized women. A portion of the shop’s proceeds go to support the fight against human trafficking, with the underlying theme of “hope” throughout the entire store. The business owner has coordinated several pop-up shops at our events, and event attendees are thrilled to purchase the items while knowing the funds go toward such a great cause and the local economy.

Al Snow
Tourism Representative Conventions, Meetings & Events
Visit Central Florida

We are seeing planners looking at smaller destinations that can provide more personal service and see their events as a “big deal” rather than just another date/event on a calendar. Our planners enjoy the destination embracing them, bringing out the welcome signs on the storefronts and wanting to be involved in the events by providing room drop items, discounts for attendees and special offers. They want the event to connect and be a part of the community rather than just another group in town for a couple of days.

We are also seeing that planners are looking for something different in Florida. They have meetings that are held on the beach or in the shadow of the big theme parks all the time and want to break out of that “stereotypical” Florida meeting. Places like Safari Wilderness, where they can wow their attendees with an open-air safari vehicle excursion and then host a sunset cocktail reception overlooking the safari animals, easily impress their attendees. It’s not often you can take your executive board members on a teambuilding cattle drive, or bring them together for s’mores around a bonfire, as you can at Westgate River Ranch. With the weather and plenty of activities, Florida will always be a key destination for meetings, but meeting planners are looking beyond “normal old Florida” destinations and activities.

Events that give back is another trend we see more requests for. Working with local charity organizations, such as Kids Pack, where the attendees assist with packing lunches for the less fortunate, is a win-win for the event and the local community. We have a number of community groups that we can partner with conferences and meetings that come to town to provide beneficial charity-focused activities. In the hustle and bustle of conferences and meetings, it is great for the attendees to take a break and work together to benefit those in need in the destination.

Jennifer Jackson-Keating
Director of Destination Sales & Services, Visit Pensacola

It’s all about the experience…still! Seems like “experience” is everywhere these days, but with good reason. Who doesn’t want to combine their meeting with a unique or once-in-a-lifetime experience? Packaging meetings with authentic destination experiences is on point to be trending long into the future.  

The emergence of alternative meeting space, that “place around the corner” that has always been a great meetings spot, but no one wanted to book because it wasn’t attached to the hotel, is now getting its due attention. With the focus on new, authentic experiences comes more acceptance of alternative meeting space. Fun fact: They are usually more affordable than hotel space.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important. The “no straw” movement is gaining ground along with other environmental awareness initiatives. Plastic straws are being replaced by alternatives like paper or bamboo straws or are not offered any longer at all. Combining social responsibility education and practices with meetings is a great way to add a feel good element, which is a part of the overall experience. (Yep, there’s that word again!) TIP: Savvy companies can offer “straw-ternative” options to their meeting attendees in the form of metal, reusable straws that can of course be branded.

Suzanne Scully Hackman
Vice President, Business Development
Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater

After being touted as one of the 52 best places to visit by The New York Times (in 2014), we have seen a lot of interest in the area. As always, budget and experience seem to be the number-one and number-two items that planners are concerned with, and not necessarily in that order. It is interesting that now, more than ever, we see meeting planners using CVBs and seeking their guidance and expertise when booking meetings, especially in unknown destinations.   

St. Petersburg and Clearwater are often labeled as hidden gems when meeting planners come here for site visits. While many have been to surrounding larger cities, a good number have never made it across the bay and into St. Pete and Clearwater. They are often surprised by the numerous conference hotels we have and that a good number are beachfront properties. While we do not have a convention center, we can host meetings from five to 500, and we continue to meet planners that had no idea we had that many hotels with that large of meeting space.

From the revitalized waterfront of downtown St. Petersburg, with its lively arts and culture scene, to the bustling Clearwater Beach, with many new properties (Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach and The Fenway in Dunedin), to the recently renovated (Hyatt Clearwater Beach and Hilton Clearwater Beach), there are so many choices when it comes to hosting a meeting here.

With the Dali Museum, The Clearwater Aquarium and over 42 craft breweries populating our “beer trail,” one can see why it is a destination that planners want to bring their meeting to.

 A third trend we are seeing meeting planners interested in is wellness. SPIN (Senior Planners Industry Network) was just held in St. Pete at the Don CeSar, and their mantra was Body, Being and Business. We are seeing more and more planners institute morning yoga or fitness into their agendas before breakfast or the day’s sessions begin.

Dawn Truemper
Director of Sales & Events
Visit South Walton

I think the leading trend in meetings and conventions is that overall they’re becoming more fun! In South Walton, you see that in several ways, starting with more meeting planners making an effort to get attendees out of the ballroom for a more memorable experience. We’ve seen events taking place outdoors at the Sandestin marina or at the Hub, where covered areas and food trucks are arranged around a large central green space equipped with a large projection screen and lawn seating. And of course meeting planners love taking advantage of our waterfront, whether that means beach bonfires by the Gulf of Mexico or cruising on the calm waters of the Choctawhatchee Bay aboard SunQuest Cruises’ 125-foot dining and entertainment yacht. To get further outside the box while still staying inside, group events can be held at Grayton Beer Company’s taproom and brewery, which is a cool, industrial setting perfectly equipped for both the meeting and the after party.

I fully expect the key buzzword for 2019 to continue to be bleisure, and I think it’s important for meeting planners to consider events taking place immediately before or after meetings that might be attractive to their attendees. In South Walton, fall, winter and spring are the big seasons for specialty events, which often focus on art, wine or music. Pick weekdays for your convention that are bracketed by a great event, and your convention automatically becomes more attractive to attendees.  

One final trend to follow is local food. In South Walton nearly every chef and venue is focused on bringing what’s fresh to the table, and locally that usually means fresh, seasonal seafood. This adds an innate sense of the beach to your event and reminds attendees that they’re experiencing something special. For smaller groups, a great option is to take them on a foodie tour of South Walton, which you can customize to view several of your favorite beach neighborhoods. A Little Taste of the Emerald Coast offers several options to choose from and the opportunity to customize to your liking.

Ed Simon
Senior Vice President, Convention Sales & Services
Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB

We have noticed a growing integration of social media and advanced technology, such as AI and VR, into group programming. Meetings are no longer going to be single educational and networking events, they are now becoming “transformational experiences” that are more interactive, more compelling and more memorable for the attendee. Our convention center offers the environment and the latest state-of-the-art technology needed to accomplish these goals. And our hotel community, whether one of our legacy properties or one of our exciting new additions, are also making this a priority for their groups.

We are also seeing a trend toward wellness, whether in the meeting program or as activities while out of the classroom. Our destination offers a wide and diverse range of wellness activities, including luxury spa treatments, ecotours, fitness programs and more. Whether you want a relaxing float tank experience, a full moon kayak tour or a sunrise yoga session on the beach, Greater Fort Lauderdale is the place to indulge in wellness.

Diverse food and beverage offerings and healthier menus options are another trend we are witnessing. Our convention center, hotels and restaurants are featuring menus for any palate or dietary restriction. Vegan, gluten-free and similar menus are common across our over 4,000 eateries in Greater Fort Lauderdale, and our wide array of local and international cuisine showcases the diverse population of our destination.

Linda McMahon
Director of Group Sales
Daytona Beach Area CVB

The one thing I’m seeing more frequently with every single meeting we bring in is the planners’ desire for attendees to experience the destination. They want to have that element and the meeting focus. As a result, our meetings market is involving more of our restaurants and attractions.

We’re also seeing larger organizations test us. They are planning smaller regional meetings in Daytona Beach in anticipation of bringing one of their larger annual conferences to us.

DT Minich
President & CEO, Experience Kissimmee

We’ve seen a steady increase in meeting bookings in Kissimmee throughout the past year in medical and technology industry meetings, and we expect to see continued growth through 2019. One of the largest shifts we’ve noticed is an increase in healthcare and technology-related meetings. Often seeking more intimate venues and nearby state-of-the-art medical facilities, our destination lends itself well to these rapidly expanding industries. Plus, with the AdventHealth Nicholson Center rated one of the leading surgical and surgical robotics training locations in the country, both industries have easy access to cutting-edge equipment and industry experts while in the destination. To adapt to this shift, our meeting sales team members have been HMCC-certified (Healthcare Meeting Compliance Certificate) to better support these groups.

One of the major trends industry wide is incorporating memorable experiences into meetings itineraries to increase attendance and secure return attendees. As meeting planners continue to seek unique meeting destinations and excursions to enhance the overall experience, Kissimmee stands out as an experiential business and leisure destination with our immersive ecotourism offerings, one-of-a-kind teambuilding activities, such as theme parks, ziplines and airboat rides, and signature shopping and dining locations. We believe in the importance of building meetings around more than just time in the boardroom, and the group and family-friendly options in the destination provide this essential balance between work and leisure.

We’ve also seen growth in the incorporation of corporate social responsibility activities in meeting and event itineraries. These hands-on activations create a powerful sense of shared experience as attendees work together for the good of a cause. It’s an opportunity to infuse positivity into long workdays and make the overall meeting experience more impactful and rewarding. In Kissimmee, we’re honored to work closely with Give Kids The World, a 79-acre, nonprofit resort in Central Florida that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. This organization offers on-site and at-venue activities that inspire hope and bring human connection and compassion center-stage at all types of events, which we’ve seen significantly elevate the overall attendee experience.

Jack Meier
Group Sales Manager
Monroe Country Tourist Development Council (Florida Keys & Key West)

Meetings in America’s Caribbeanwith authentic indigenous experiences, healthy cuisine and relaxed itineraries provide a rich, 125-mile-long island chain backdrop for meeting trends of all types. Planners are seeking specialty menus, customized meeting packages and activities that can make their attendees’ experiences memorable.

The Florida Keys’ eco attractions, offshore fishing and a legacy of fascinating history provide engaging, interactive experiences. If you’re seeking the exotic beauty of an offshore location, the allure of nature-based activities to entice participants or island-style relaxation under the Caribbean sun, the Florida Keys offer the perfect antidote for the “been there, done that” meeting.

Jill Vance
Director of Sales,The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel Visitor & Convention Bureau

One trend we’re seeing is experience and engagement. Unique teambuilding activities, authentic food, involvement with locals and quirky venue spaces for off-sites are attributes that help make our destination stand out.
Well-being, health and meeting mindfulness are popular. Southwest Florida’s relaxed natural surroundings can improve meeting performance and help attendees with focus and clarity.
Cutting-edge, on-site technology is still important, but just as important is offering attendees tech-free zones, giving them time to take a breather to network or relax in a shared space, preferably outdoors or even beachside.

Ellen Thomas
Senior Meeting Sales Manager, Visit Sarasota

2018 brought exciting new meeting and incentive choices and access to Sarasota County. In addition to our destination’s already impressive collection of meeting properties, four new options appeared on the scene: Art Ovation Hotel, Autograph Collection, Embassy Suites by Hilton Sarasota, The Sarasota Modern, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel and Carlisle Inn. The new properties bring rooftop venues, artistic ambience, bayfront views, retro-modern elegance and home-style luxury.

New nonstop flights from Dallas and multiple Midwestern and East Coast cities have made it easier for groups to arrive at the convenient Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. More nonstop cities will be added by spring 2019.  

Sarasota has become a sought-after, water-centric destination for meetings and incentives. Our unique blend of amazing meeting properties and an accessible airport located five miles from our larger properties make it a breeze for groups to get here. Our vibrant, walkable downtown area is renowned for Zagat-rated dining and a thriving arts and entertainment scene, steps from our largest hotels.

Walking and wellness is front and center, and the need for transportation is very minimal in our action-packed, boutique destination.

Within a small radius, groups can experience the Sarasota Bayfront, The Ringling, Marie Selby Gardens and St. Armands Circle and even hold a beach party on our award-winning Gulf of Mexico shores. Should transportation be needed, hotels offer complimentary shuttles and Visit Sarasota County is currently offering valuable meeting incentives, with one choice being a transportation rebate.

William McBroom
Director of Conference Sales
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau

Planners are looking for authentic destinations where attendees can have a “local” experience. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the nation, founded in 1565. Our 450-plus-year history is what makes our destination stand out from others. Visits to historic sites are popular add-ons to for conference attendees. By visiting these historic sites, the participant is immersed in the authentic heritage and culture of St. Augustine. Suggested sites for conference attendees include Castillo de San Marcos, Mission Nombre de Dios, Cathedral Basilica, Colonial Quarter, Fountain of Youth and the pedestrian-only St. George Street.  

They are seeking “fun” destinations where they can incorporate interactive play with their meeting. Interactive experiences here are ghost tours, food and wine tours and historic walking tours. One of the newest interactive activities designed to reinforce teamwork is at Marineland Dolphin Adventure. The professional trainers at Marineland Dolphin Adventure have created a program for teambuilding using techniques and instruction based on the book Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships. This full-day corporate executive retreat is great for teambuilding and uses the park’s dolphins as a metaphor to help teams create a new and invigorating culture of “Catch your people doing things right!”

Corry Locke
Group Sales, Ocala/Marion County Visitors & Convention Bureau

Located in the heart of Central Florida, Ocala/Marion County has quickly become a great meeting location with direct highways and byways allowing for easy access to the destination. Recently renovated and newly built hotels create an opportunity for meeting groups to enjoy accommodations minutes from restaurants, shopping and top-rated events happening throughout the year. In keeping with national trends, many of these new properties are certified “green” to help maintain a healthy working environment, while also ensuring that the buildings use solar energy and LED bulbs, and offer water-saving features within the rooms and as part of the housekeeping checklist.   

Trademarked the “Horse Capital of the World,” the destination invites guests to explore a variety of horse-related options within the area, ranging from farm tours to horse and carriage rides and even horseback riding. These activities are a great way to capitalize on the bleisure trend we see among attendees, where adding days to enjoy a destination while traveling for work helps them unwind in a new environment.

Another trend visitors are seeking is having a variety of food options, including healthier and organically produced snacks and meals at conference breakouts and after hours. Ocala/Marion County is rich in agriculture, and it’s great to see locally sourced fruits and vegetables as well as fresh herbs and ethically raised animals finding their way into area restaurants and on-site at hotel properties.

Debi DeBenedetto
Group Sales Manager, Naples, Marco Island Everglades CVB

Wellness is the new golf. It’s the biggest trend I am seeing. With golf once being the major decision-maker for groups, there has been a shift to create a larger importance toward wellness. Beyond wanting hotels/resorts with a typical gym, groups crave indigenous spa treatments, healthy food and experiences that cater to their mind as well as their bodies. We’re also seeing buffet lines at group meetings with food in jars and separate bowls for quick grab-and-go items to speed up lines.

Jeanne Bothwell
Director of Sales, Visit Jacksonville

We are seeing unique or non-traditional experiences for attendees, whether it’s via technology or unique venues, with engaging content and interactive memorable moments really driving that experience for the attendee. “Festivalization” is a term being more readily used—creating themed content or experiences, as this appeals to all levels of attendees. The goal is to make everything more experiential.

2019 is expected to continue to show buoyancy in convention volume but with a forecasted increase in hotel rates. Relevancy in meetings will be an important factor by incorporating complex content into the agenda. For example, Visit Jacksonville is seeing a demand in RFPs for the medical industry, with crossover in regulatory aspects as well as medical tourism management.