By Jennifer N. Dienst, Contributing Editor
In its 32nd year, Florida Encounter is still a sell-out event — a testament to its tried-and-true formula. This past December, more than 200 meeting planners and suppliers, along with industry media, including me, gathered at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens to learn what’ s new and noteworthy in the world of Florida meetings.
Hosted by Visit Florida, Florida Encounter is part conference, part appointment-based trade show, a three-day blur of supplier meetings, education sessions, tours, and site visits. It also serves as a showcase for the host destination, and this year's host, Palm Beach County, had quite a bit to flaunt with the groundbreaking of its new convention center hotel.
I arrived at Palm Beach International Airport (PBI) on a balmy Wednesday afternoon. PBI is one of the highest-ranked airport facilities in the country, a designation that did not surprise me after I walked through its impeccably maintained terminal, which even has its very own putting green.
Palm Beach holds the official title of the first resort destination in the United States, starting from when railroad magnate Henry Flagler built a string of hotels in the area around the turn of the century. One of them, The Palm Beach Inn, would eventually be renamed The Breakers and attract the elite of elite society, including American presidents and Rockefellers, who would “summer” at the resort for months on end.
On the second day of my trip, we visited the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, a 55-room mansion (and National Historic Landmark) overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. A masterpiece of the Beaux Arts style of architecture that became popular during the Gilded Age, the estate was one of Flagler's homes and is the definition of ornate. Planners can use some of its indoor and outdoor spaces for private events, but due to its nonprofit status, their organization first must pay a fee to become a member.
After driving past the glittering storefronts of Worth Avenue, known as the Rodeo Drive of Florida, we arrived at the decidedly less ostentatious, but no less stimulating, Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. Within a jungle of wild native brush, we discovered the artist’s massive, monolithic sculptures, studio, and home. Peeking out through the rare palms that fill the two-acre gardens, which are available for events, we could see and hear the lap of waves from the neighboring Intracoastal Waterway. What could be more inspirational for a brainstorming session or board meeting?
Back at PGA National Resort & Spa, we experienced another mainstay of the destination: the well-oiled resort machine. The AAA Four-Diamond property put its best foot forward for Florida Encounter's opening evening event, filling the 6,000-square-foot Honda Pavilion with a cornucopia of themed food stations, an oxygen bar, and glow-in-the-dark putt-putt golf setups. Besides offering a 2,200-acre property with five championship golf courses, 39,000 square feet of indoor meeting space, a 33,000-square-foot health and tennis center, a40,000-square-foot spa, and 397 guest rooms, the expansive resort has a long list of amenities, like its own food truck and multiple electric-car charging stations.
It's a trend that encapsulates the destination's other resorts as well — including Breakers, where we spent our second evening drinking champagne cocktails in the gilded, grand HMF bar and restaurant, and the tucked-away yet luxurious Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa, where we ended the trip feasting on ceviche and mojitos around the pool.
On the last morning of our trip, we toured the Palm Beach County Convention Center, and stopped to watch the groundbreaking of the Hilton West Palm Beach, a project that has been in the works for more than 15 years. The 400-room hotel will open in the third quarter of 2015 and be the only convention-center-connected hotel in South Florida. While the total amount of meeting space is still being finalized, officials announced that the property will have two ballrooms, eight conference rooms, and multiple event lawns.
The new convention center hotel isn't the only piece of good news. A passenger-rail service connecting the destination to Miami and Orlando is in the works, and more than a thousand new rooms are in development throughout Palm Beach County. Henry Flagler would certainly be proud.