Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Sarasota, Florida, have grown in popularity for meetings, events and incentives because of their temperate weather and host of unique and varied venues. Dive into the history and culture of these sunny destinations during your next group gathering in the area with our favorite tours and venue recommendations.
We have railroad tycoon Henry Plant to thank for the popularity of Tampa, the third largest city in Florida. He turned a little-known fishing village into a winter retreat for his pals in a sort of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous way.
Plant is responsible for connecting Tampa to the nation’s railroad system in the late 1800s, creating a population boom and a tourist economy that continues to thrive. Those who could afford to escape the cold in the north and stay at Plant’s sumptuous Tampa Bay Hotel got near door-to-door service—barely a toe needed to touch the ground before arriving at the hotel’s doors, thanks to the railroad cars stopping right in front of the property.
Photo: James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, which opened in 2018 and can host corporate events. Credit: James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art
Today, this circa-1891 building, known for its remarkable domes and cupolas, houses the Henry B. Plant Museum and Plant Hall at the University of Tampa. The museum, which includes the Grand Hall and Reading and Writing Room, features artifacts and Victorian furniture that would have kept Plant’s guests quite comfortable as they sipped Earl Grey on the sprawling porch that envelopes the hotel.
The museum traces the history of the hotel and Plant's contribution to the development of Tampa and Florida. Groups can explore the building’s history by participating in docent-led group tours of the museum that with notice can be scheduled any day but Monday, from January-November.
Nearby, the historic neighborhood of Hyde Park—also established by Plant—is a walkable stretch of original Victorian homes and bungalows, many overlooking Tampa Bay. Nearby, there’s Hyde Park Village, which recently expanded to include more shops and restaurants for upscale dining in restaurants like Meat Market, a Modern Steakhouse and Timpano. Hyde House, which opened last summer, has event spaces for up to 25 or the Black Box Auditorium for 120.
Tampa history and culture also unfolds in the historic Ybor City neighborhood, named for Spanish cigar manufacturer, Vincente Marinez-Ybor, who brought his enterprise to Tampa in 1886. Many of his workers, mostly immigrants, lived in houses built by Ybor. During the late 19th century, the cigar industry employed thousands of workers, propelling Tampa’s growth.
Today, groups can take The Ybor City Museum tour, which includes a look at one of the cigar maker’s homes and the history of Ferlita Bakery, opened in 1896 and the main source of fresh-baked bread for years until its closure in 1973.
“Tampa Bay is a trove of one-of-a-kind experiences,” said Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, of the area’s rich venues and experiences. “Culturally, we’re as multilayered as our home-grown Cuban sandwiches, with festivals and celebrations drawn from every corner of the globe.”
Cuban sandwiches themselves are, in fact, a famous menu item at group-friendly Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. The restaurant was established in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez and originally opened as a 60-seat cafe that was often frequented by cigar workers. Now, it can accommodate up to 400 people in 15 distinct dining rooms. Along with Cuban sandwiches, the still-family-owned eatery also serves numerous fish, beef and chicken dishes all inspired by original Cuban recipes. Dine there for dinner and your group will also enjoy the nightly Flamenco show.
St. Petersburg—locally referred to as “St. Pete”—also has railroad roots, as it was founded in 1888 by John C. Williams, who purchased the land, and Peter Demens (born Pyotr A. Dementyev), who brought the railroad industry to the area. Demens named the city after his hometown, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
St. Pete has seen a building boom in the past few years, and the biggest development of note is the new St. Pete Pier. The original pier’s rich history dates back to 1889, when it was built as a railroad trestle devoted to bringing goods into the city from Tampa Bay.
The new and improved St. Pete Pier is easy to reach and connected to the downtown business core of bustling Beach Drive and Bayshore Boulevard. It also houses the Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center, a marine center devoted to protecting Tampa Bay and its marine life. Its aquarium houses many species found in Tampa Bay’s local waters, touch tanks, interactive displays, video presentations and tours.
Photo: Florida Botanical Gardens in Clearwater. Credit: Florida Botanical Gardens
The 3,000-square-foot center will also be a destination for corporate and private events. A fleet of gasoline- and electric-powered passenger trams will serve the 3,065-foot expanse and will also be available for special event bookings.
The St. Pete Pier has numerous dining and shopping options, too, like Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, offering fresh seafood and signature cocktails; Teak, a Florida-themed restaurant that includes Pier Teaki, a rooftop bar with stunning views of Tampa Bay; and casual The Driftwood Cafe.
[Related: Why Clearwater Marine Aquarium Is a Valuable Event and CSR Partner]
Another key development that will enhance the group experience in St. Pete is the Museum of American Arts and Crafts Movement, which is slated to open this spring. The museum will house a collection of Rudy Ciccarello’s more than 2,000 objects from the early 20th century, including furniture, ceramics, tiles, glass and lighting. In addition to gallery receptions, meeting professionals can take advantage of a 100-seat auditorium, as well as a gallery suited to breakouts or cocktail parties. The museum will also have an event and banquet hall that can accommodate more than 200 people.
Another arts attraction is the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, which opened in 2018 and has successfully hosted many corporate events. The 888,000-square-foot museum features 30,000 square feet of gallery space housing an extensive collection of Western and wildlife art from the private collection of Tom and Mary James, who invested nearly $50 million to create the museum. The venue offers 6,000 square feet of event space for large groups and breakouts and can accommodate groups ranging from 20-750 guests. In addition, there is a 129-seat auditorium as well as a museum shop and cafe.
The nearby 4,000-square-foot former fire and train station, the Station House, which opened in 1911, is a vintage space that provides rooms for corporate meetings and events with full-service catering. The 2,000-square-foot ballroom seats up to 120 and can accommodate 200 for cocktails. There’s also an indoor/outdoor rooftop bar for up to 200. The Japanese-inspired Ichicoro Ane, one of the hippest restaurants in the city, also resides in the Station House.
“Our destination is truly so diverse with unique offerings to fit any need,” said Suzanne Hackman, vice president of business development for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. “Whether it’s CSR projects available at a local working marine hospital, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, getting close to nature on a clear kayak tour through mangrove tunnels and open waters, or trying your hand at glassblowing, there’s no shortage of one-of-a-kind experiences in St. Pete/Clearwater.”
In fact the aforementioned Clearwater Marine Aquarium, just north of St. Pete, unveiled plans for a $79 million expansion in 2020. The world-renowned marine life rescue center houses dolphins Winter and Hope from the Dolphin Tale movies. The increased capacity will include the state-of-the-art theater and event space.
After a day of sightseeing, a trip to Sea Dog Brewing Co. is the perfect watering hole for groups. An outpost of New England's brewery by the same name, it not only offers more than a dozen specialty drafts from Maine, but also a private event space for up to 125.
Photo: Hope and Winter, the two famous dolphins from the Dolphin Tale movies, which call Clearwater Marine Aquarium home. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Rounding out the unique experiences in Clearwater, at the Florida Botanical Gardens in Clearwater, visitors can stroll the Patio Garden and view its waterfall, an array of flowers and a shaded gazebo. The Herb Garden demonstrates medicinal, culinary and ceremonial plants and the Tropical Fruit Garden displays mango, papaya and various citrus fruit. Several other gardens—including the Butterfly Garden—are free to explore and make for an easy after-meetings activity.
In Sarasota, the 15-acre Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, once a private home owned by William and Marie Selby (of Texaco fame), now bursts with gardens that include the Rainforest Garden, Bamboo Garden and Banyan Grove. In the Epiphyte Garden, a variety of air plants can be seen, from the local Spanish Moss to more exotic plants from around the world. The gardens are open for private events on the Christy Payne Mansion Lawn showcasing orchids and a nearby butterfly garden, or Michael’s on the Bay, a 4,800-square-foot venue with 80 feet of windows offering spectacular sunset views on Sarasota Bay for up to 350.
The first museum dedicated to contemporary art, The Ringling College of Art + Design (named for oilman John Ringling) opened in December at the Sarasota Art Museum. Housed in a 1926 former high school, the museum has 15,000 square feet of dedicated exhibition gallery space, a cafe, retail shop, auditorium for educational events, performance and film, and a sculpture courtyard.
French Chef Finds His Place in Clearwater
Hot spot Ocean Hai in the 250-room Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach is run by Executive Chef Claude Rodier, a graduate of L’Etincelle Culinary School in Nimes, France. When discussing food trends at the resort, he said that many new food ideas have come to him from a surprising place: guests’ dietary restrictions.
“Trends in food often emerge from dietary restrictions,” he said. “We try to create menus for groups that can be shifted to incorporate gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, Keto and Paleo options, without sacrificing flavor.”
Chef Rodier works with the catering and sales team to help personalize events for groups that can incorporate dishes to accommodate these restrictions, which have in turn become flavorful guest favorites. Additionally, Rodier said the resort’s proximity to the ocean helps the restaurant leverage the destination’s fresh seafood for impressive dishes.
“Our location in Clearwater gives us prime access to fresh, locally sourced seafood,” he said. “Our robust seafood offerings come to life in our new menu, and one of my favorite offerings is called ‘Clearwater Shore.’ It allows guests to indulge in a variety of seafood prepared any almost every possible way.” Other dishes on the menu include Gulf grouper, salmon, scallops and halibut.
Hear from more Florida chefs and hot food trends in the meetings and events market.
Latest & Greatest News, Openings and Renovations in Central-West Florida
Steve Hayes took over as president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater in 2019. Previously, he led Visit Pensacola since 2013. Prior to that, he spent 25 years working for Visit Tampa Bay in various management and leadership roles, including executive vice president.
The Karol Hotel in Clearwater opened in January. It will be Marriott’s first Tribute Portfolio Hotel to open in the destination. Located in Feather Sound between Clearwater, St. Pete and Tampa, The Karol Hotel will feature 123 guest rooms and suites, a signature lobby bar and restaurant, a rooftop bar overlooking Tampa Bay, a combined 7,340 square feet of event space and a resort-style pool and fitness center.
The 132-room Tru by Hilton, St. Pete opened last April in the up-and-coming Grand Central District with 33,000 square feet of meeting, conference and banquet space. Other features include the onsite Tangerine restaurant and a Salvador Dali-inspired cocktail bar.
FUSION Resort, Treasure Island opened in November 2019. The 42-room resort offers two- and three-bedroom suites with views of the Intracoastal Waterway. The hotel offers complimentary paddle boats, kayaks and bikes, and a rooftop bar, SIPS, and cafe, VIBES Kitchen.
A 161-room Marriott Moxy Hotel is coming to St. Pete’s Edge District. Amenities will include a rooftop pool and bar, plus an outdoor wellness and meditation space.
A 200-room Marriott Autograph Collection hotel is also being planned in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. The 50-story mixed-use tower also calls for 325 condominiums, dining and retail space. At publication time, details on other offerings—including meeting and event space—as well as a projected opening date have not yet been announced.
TradeWinds Island Resorts is upgrading its two properties, the 211-room RumFish Beach Resort and 585-room sister property TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, at a cost of $13 million. Both TradeWinds venues are being refreshed with new bedding, draperies, upholstery, sofa beds, carpeting and reappointed bathrooms. Half of the rooms at the Island Grand have already been refreshed; the rest will be completed by late 2020.
Major multi-phase renovations are continuing at Florida’s four-star Don CeSar Hotel at St. Pete Beach. In February, the 277-room National Historic Landmark completed a major modernization of its meeting and event facilities, which includes 22,000 square feet of indoor function space; 16,000 square feet of outdoor space; two ballrooms spanning 5,671 and 4,002 square feet, respectively; and 13 meeting rooms. The first improvement phase saw the renovation of public areas in both the main resort and its sister property, the 70-room Beach House Suites by the Don CeSar.
Hotel Cabana Clearwater Beach is sporting a new look following a total refresh and renovation. Accented by 29 Key West-inspired guest rooms and suites, property perks include a heated pool, landscaped courtyard, sun deck and easy access to nearby restaurant and beaches.
The 89-room Sarasota Modern boutique hotel opened in 2019 in the Rosemary District with more than 5,000 square feet of meeting space onsite, including a new outdoor space. The luxury boutique property features minimalist design, artistic flair and three pools.
The 180-room Embassy Suites by Hilton in downtown Sarasota opened in late 2018. It boasts an 8th-floor full restaurant and bar with waterfront views. The hotel features five meeting rooms (20,000 square feet total) with the largest at 2,816 square feet.
Carlisle Inn and Conference Center, with 100 rooms, is a newer hotel located in the Pinecraft community, the heart of Sarasota’s Amish settlement. It offers 4,800 square feet of flexible meeting space.
Renovations will soon be complete at the 226-room The Resort at Longboat Key Club, a popular meeting resort located on the coast of Sarasota County.
Central West Florida CVB Contact Information
Visit Sarasota County | 941.955.0991
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater | 727.464.7200
Visit Tampa Bay | 813.223.1111
Read next: Florida’s Rooftop Bars Serve Up Top-Shelf Event Receptions