When the Society of Incentive and Travel Excellence (SITE) held its global conference in Orlando a few years ago, George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, welcomed the group. He talked about all that was happening in Orlando, including new properties and attractions at the theme parks.

Also welcoming SITE was Harris Rosen, president and CEO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, and owner of eight Orlando properties that cater to meetings and conventions. He talked about the company’s philanthropic efforts around the city, which included building daycare centers in economically challenged areas.

Attendees of SITE were impressed that Aguel and Rosen found time to speak to their group—something that wouldn’t have happened without the participation of the CVB to secure the speakers.

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“For these two high-level executives to come and provide such a fine welcome, in light of their busy schedules, showed a real commitment to our industry,” said Louise Hall Reider, founder and president, Louise Hall Reider & Company, based in Seattle.

“We love to personally welcome groups to the city,” Aguel said. “It’s just one of the things we do here at Visit Orlando. We’ve also had our local officials on hand to greet groups, or if a group is looking for a specific speaker on a particular topic, we can do that, too.”

CVBs and DMOs exist to provide these services and help bring leisure and meeting groups to their destinations.

By all accounts, it seems Florida-bound meeting professionals don’t need much coaxing: According to CVENT, Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville consistently make the list of top meeting cities in the country each year.

Surprisingly, while most services offered by CVBs and DMOs are free, some planners still go directly to hotels and other suppliers when they set up events. The following Florida CVB and DMO professionals explain why meeting planners should rethink that approach.

Visit Orlando

George Aguel“We are the largest CVB of our kind in the country, so we have resources and the staff to be customer driven,” Aguel said of Visit Orlando.

“We have the benefit of a large marketing support team and incredible backing within our community to enhance the meeting experience,” he continued, noting that with one in three jobs tied to the hospitality industry, the entire community has a vested interest in the meetings business.

(Photo: George Aguel, President & CEO, Visit Orlando)

For Visit Orlando, working with meeting planners means site inspections as well as recommendations on the right lodgings for the group size and budget, venues, restaurants and entertainment. And with a destination as massive as Orlando, leveraging the CVB to narrow down the choices relieves a big burden.

“We have so many hotels and more than 100,000 hotel rooms with so many levels of product and price points,” Aguel noted. “We know the location of the hotels, and we have people at the CVB who will find out exactly what the planner is trying to achieve and will make appropriate recommendations.

“We want the planner to look good. Our services staff are ambassadors with amazing tenure and loyalty to Visit Orlando. They provide objectivity, and because of this, our meeting professionals know they can rely on us. That’s why our repeat level, especially for complex groups, is enormously high.”

Input from planners influenced expansion plans to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, currently in process.
Photo: Input from planners influenced expansion plans to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, currently in process; Credit: Visit Orlando

Visit Orlando also has a social media team that creates videos and blogs about restaurants and venues and can get the word out about a meeting group via its large reach on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

At the same time, meeting professionals can in turn help CVBs, as many have client advisory boards that include planners, as Visit Orlando’s does.

“Planners on our client advisory board suggested we build a concert hall in the convention center as part of its expansion so they wouldn’t have to travel downtown to the Amway Center, and we did it. It was all because we listened to planners who hold their meetings here. We value their opinions,” Aguel said.

Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB

The Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB’s meeting sales staff and destination specialists provide help with site selection, planning, promoting and executing programs, said President & CEO Stacy Ritter. They also offer incentives to groups, when needed.

Additionally, the planners can score some deals when they come to the CVBs first, especially when it comes to experiencing new spaces in the destination.

Stacy Ritter“We’ve given away $10 million in free meeting space to groups committing to be among the first to experience our newly expanded Broward County Convention Center between December 2021 and December 2024,” she said.

“To be considered, event leads must come through the GFLCVB sales team or via www.sunny.org. Payouts to qualifying bookings of up to $350,000 per event will be awarded until the entire $10 million payout is reached.”

(Photo: Stacy Ritter, President & CEO, Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB)

Fort Lauderdale’s CVB sales and services team will also organize strategically planned site inspections so meeting professionals can make the best choices based on the group’s goals and needs for the event.

“The local knowledge provided by our team is invaluable in matching the group’s needs to locations that will provide the best event from a logistics standpoint as well as create a memorable experience for all attendees. Whether it’s a location on the beach, in an arts district or at a local favorite off-the-beaten-path spot, our team will provide all the intelligence to help navigate our many diverse locations.

“We also provide housing bureau reservation services, promotional items and services like attendance-boosting emails, collateral, a complimentary concierge service for programs booked at the convention center, and custom excursions and spouse tours designed specifically for each group,” she said.

Some of the unique ways the CVB has helped customize Fort Lauderdale events:

  • Closing highway A1A (that runs along the Atlantic Ocean) for a parade of antique cars.
  • Illuminating one of the city’s tallest buildings with a group’s official colors.
  • Extending a “key to the city” to a group of international sports federation leaders from over 70 nations.

St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches

William McBroom, director of conference sales for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches, said that the VCB is an objective source provider for venues, dining, lodging, tours and activities within the destination.

They’ll arrange, coordinate and conduct personalized site inspections, assist with guest services by putting planners in touch with local experts such as, entertainment, DMCs and AV providers, and provide local media assistance, destination brochures, area maps and other materials.

St. Augustine Distillery is one of the many offsite venues the VCB can connect meeting planners with in the St. Augustine area.
Photo: St. Augustine Distillery is one of the many offsite venues the VCB can connect meeting planners with in the St. Augustine area.

Upon request, the organization can provide a welcome letter from its President, Richard Goldman, who has also been known to welcome groups in person.

William McBroom“Those are the basics, but because of our relationships with the University of Florida and Flagler College, we can also help find speakers on area history and archaeology, for example,” McBroom said, highlighting the academic strength of the destination.

“With seven convention properties, we are [also] known to offer very personalized site inspections,” he continued. “We’re not some big machine; we can help arrange meetings with different venues and attractions. We know all the players personally.”

(Photo: William McBroom, Director of Conference Sales, St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches)

This intimate knowledge of the destination and its players can lend itself to some really special meetings.

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“We had a group that wanted a spouse program, so we arranged meetings with different venues and local attractions, including the owner of Schooner Freedom, the St. Augustine Distillery and the Casa de Vino 57, a great wine tasting spot with a secret garden, and Urban Asado, a manufacturer of grills that hosts exclusive dinners with noted chefs,” McBroom said. “A group wouldn’t know about it, so we’re there to let planners know what they can do that isn’t in any brochure.” 

Discover the Palm Beaches

Kelly Cavers, senior vice president of group sales and destination services for Discover the Palm Beaches, notes that many groups that work with her team use their conferences as revenue generators, and the CVB can help in big ways.

Kelly Cavers“We help meeting professionals hit their bottom line and help reduce overall costs,” she said. “Branding opportunities are the latest way planners can get the word out about their event. We now have electric cars where companies can put their logo or sell sponsorships to their exhibitors to increase revenue, for example. At a medical conference, we had a medical device start-up that got exposure this way.”

Additional examples of creative branding include putting company logos on the 32 screens at Palm Beach International Airport, where they’ve also brought in staff to the hospitality lounge at the airport for information and pre-registration for attendees immediately upon landing in the destination.

(Photo: Kelly Cavers, Senior VP of Group Sales and Destination Services, Discover the Palm Beaches)

The CVB can also help with charitable events for groups.

Discover the Palm Beaches CVB can provide electric cars where companies can put their logos or sell sponsorships to their exhibitors.
Photo: Discover the Palm Beaches CVB can provide electric cars where companies can put their logos or sell sponsorships to their exhibitors; Credit: Courtesy Discover the Palm Beaches

“Recently we had a financial group that wanted help with setting up a CSR program and we put them in touch with Place of Hope, which supports homeless families. We’ve also done beach cleanups and brought in speakers from Gumbo Limbo Nature Center to talk about how we can clean up our oceans,” Cavers explained.

Visit Tampa Bay

Susan WilliamsVisit Tampa Bay has unveiled a host of incentives for meeting planners who book a meeting or convention in Tampa. These experiences can be used during the meeting as an event for the board, or as a thank you to the staff once the convention has wrapped.

(Photo: Susan William, Vice President of Visitor Experiences for Visit Tampa Bay)

Some examples of these offerings include:

  • A team dinner at the Florida Aquarium with a panoramic view of the largest tank.
  • Safari at Busch Gardens’ Serengeti Plains with dinner and a look at the animals after dark.
  • A streetcar tour of historic Ybor City with dinner at Florida’s oldest restaurant, Columbia.
  • Dinner on the Yacht StarShip enjoying the Tampa Bay sunset.
  • Dinner and tour of the kitchen at the world-famous Bern’s Steak House and Dessert Room, where guests sit in giant wine barrels while sampling creations like Bananas Foster.
  • Tickets to a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game in a luxury suite. 

Visit Tampa Bay will also help groups put together CSR projects. The CVB helped one group, The Potter’s House Church, put together a service project with Feeding Tampa Bay.

“We helped them find a location to pack more than 100,000 meals for needy families in the area,” said Susan Williams, vice president of visitor experiences. “More than half of the groups coming to Tampa do community service projects and might not have the local knowledge about these organizations. But we do, so we step in to help them.”

Q&A with Dana Young, President & CEO, VISIT FLORIDA

Dana YoungYou're coming up on a year with VISIT FLORIDA how has it been so far?

My first year as president and CEO at VISIT FLORIDA has been rewarding and served as a great learning experience. As a sixth-generation Floridian, I thought I had a firm understanding of the Sunshine State’s diverse offerings for visitors and residents alike. Now, after working in tourism, I have an even greater appreciation for the state. There is so much to do in Florida. I am really proud to be able to share our diversity with the world.

(Photo: Dana Young, President & CEO)

What would you like meeting planners to know about you and what you've brought to the new role?

Meeting planners should know that we are completely focused on living up to and exceeding Florida’s already incredibly high expectations as a destination for meetings and events. We know that the Sunshine State is far and away the best place for meetings of any size, and VISIT FLORIDA is dedicated to sharing that message.

Why should meeting professionals who haven't been to Florida consider it for meetings?

Florida’s wide array of accommodations combined with the countless leisure activities make Florida the ideal destination to host tradeshows, conventions or other business meetings. But we understand that meeting planners aren’t just looking for a meeting space, they are looking to attract attendees to a destination that can provide an experience outside the ballroom or convention center. Florida offers the world-renowned beaches, golf courses, exciting nightlife, inspiring museums and award-winning restaurants that create the desire to travel to a meeting, tradeshow or convention.

What is your favorite weekend getaway in the state and/or favorite activities?

Florida is full of great weekend getaways. One of my favorites is tarpon fishing in Southwest Florida with my husband and two daughters.

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What areas will you concentrate on as far as meetings and conventions are concerned?

We look forward to highlighting experiences available to our visitors that are only available in Florida and are often very close to our major metropolitan areas. Unique activities such as swimming with manatees, taking an airboat ride through the Everglades, camping on the beach and watching a rocket launch make Florida the perfect choice for business or leisure travel.

What are you looking forward to in 2020?

I am looking forward to another exciting year in Florida tourism. I truly believe that Florida is the best destination in the world and VISIT FLORIDA will continue to innovate in the way that we tell our story and represent our great state. Together with Florida’s tourism industry, we will provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences for our visitors and economic benefit for our communities.

The meetings and events landscape is constantly changing in Florida. Read more about the latest updates in the 2020 edition of Meetings Today Florida.